August 23, 2016

7 surprisingly easy wins through behavioral design

behavioral design
What Works: Gender Equality By Design

You may have heard that enrolling employees in retirement plans by default and requiring them to opt out greatly improves savings rates. It’s the combination of our most up-to-date understanding of human behavior with sympathetic system design that makes this practice so effective.

What Works: Gender Equality By Design, a new book from behavioral economist Iris Bohnet, extends this kind of behavioral design way, way beyond the 401(k). We were jazzed to host a fireside chat here in San Francisco between Bohnet and our CEO Laura Mather, and we learned a lot. Here are seven simple insights that can make you and your team more effective today.

1. Behavioral design is a game everyone can play

You don’t need to be a Harvard professor to benefit from decades of research into behavioral design. Bohnet is the opposite of a gatekeeper—she invites everyone into the party.

“My invitation to you is to become a behavioral designer—because it works, because it often is rather easy and inexpensive, and because it will start to level the playing field and give everyone greater opportunity to thrive.”

2. It’s a game everyone can win

But the news gets even better.

“Some games are zero-sum, and your gain will indeed be my loss. But not every game ends with a winner and a loser. Many games are positive sum, and here behavioral design is less like playing chess and more like dancing.”

Bohnet identifies numerous cases where the adoption of behavioral design leads to better outcomes for all parties. For example, evaluating job candidates collectively rather than one at a time doesn’t just eliminate bias against women (although it does do that): it benefits whole organizations by helping evaluators identify the candidates who are likely to do the best job.

“Comparative evaluation focused evaluators’ attention on individual performance instead of group stereotypes. When candidates were evaluated comparatively, not only did the gender gap vanish completely, but basically all evaluators now chose the top performer. This makes comparative evaluation not just more fair, but also profit maximizing. The right thing turned out to be the smart thing, too.”

Similarly, rewriting job descriptions to encourage more people to apply is a relatively simple measure, but it leads to far more optimal solutions for both candidates and organizations.

“By de-biasing job advertisements, we are helping the market do its job. It should bring those who offer services together with those who demand them. And it should do so efficiently, aiming for the best possible matches.”

3. It improves decision-making

“People think they know what they are doing—based on a mixture of intuition, best practice, tradition, and industry norms. But only evidence can tell.”

Strategies like comparative evaluation and using inclusive language in job descriptions, simple as they are to implement, lead to measurably better outcomes. Once these structures and others like them are in place, the quantifiable payoffs should continue over time.

“Generally, research suggests that groups will reach better decisions if they adopt more structured processes.”

4. It can accelerate change

What makes the human factor one of the hardest problems in computer (or any other) science is the stubborn intractability of humans, who are from one point of view just chimpanzees with ennui. Rather than confronting human irrationality head-on, behavioral design offers a possible workaround: effect change by modifying the social environment rather than getting individuals to change their minds.

“Maybe the pathway to behavioral change is not a change in individual beliefs but instead a change in the socially shared definitions of appropriate behavior.”

5. It refocuses us on what matters

One unfortunate consequence of human irrationality is to get stuck on irrelevant criteria like “culture fit” at the expense of factors more likely to affect performance.

“General mental ability has long been shown to be the most valid predictor of work performance when evaluating job candidates without previous experience in the job. But, even among candidates with previous experience, when high levels of skill are required, it ranks among the top predictors.”

Good behavioral design can foreground the important decision-making criteria and help our irrational brains come to more useful conclusions.

6. It’s almost effortless to adopt

Behavioral design is lightweight by definition. There’s always some upfront investment involved in any behavior change, but the payoff should far outweigh the pain. Bohnet offers the example of structured interviewing.

“Investing in structured interviews pays. What’s more, it is easy and cheap. Here is advice I urge everyone to embrace: plan ahead, use a checklist to structure interviews and stick to it, and evaluate candidates in real time. If candidates are to be interviewed by several colleagues, do not compare notes until the very end.”

None of this is rocket science. What it does is free rocket scientists to get back to their interesting problems in rocket science.

7. It reduces cognitive load

This is probably my favorite conclusion in the book. Bohnet acknowledges that we are all busy, that we all have the best of intentions but also a ton of stuff on our plates. Psychology has shown that we can only make a limited number of decisions a day. We need to budget that decision-making capacity for what’s important. Compassionate behavioral design takes all of this into account.

“In The Checklist Manifesto, Atul Gawande reminds us that adherence to protocol is not rigidity, but rather frees up mental capacity to deal with the hard issues.”

Building structured systems that nudge irrational humans in the direction of evidence-based decision-making frees them to make great decisions about what matters. That’s what we’ve tried to do here at Unitive, and we hope you’ll join us.