I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jeff Kreisler, bestselling co-author of Dollars and Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter. Listed as one of the top business books by Business Insider, Huffington Post, Audible and The Washington Post, who called it “a brilliant and accessible look at behavioral economics”.
Jeff is also a financial columnist (TheStreet.com), recovering attorney (Princeton, Virginia Law), award-winning comedian and on-air pundit for MSNBC, CNN Headline News, FoxNews and Sirius/XM.
Here’s what he had to say.
Tell us about how you got started with all of this.
My background is in law. I’m a lawyer and I studied economics at Princeton with some of the best – Ben Bernanke, Alan Blinder, and some other white guy – and I understood how things were supposed to work in traditional economics, but it never really clicked for me because I didn’t incorporate the human element.
I went forth in my career, I was a comedian doing a lot of political stuff and I ended up writing a financial humor column for Jim Cramer’s TheStreet.com and then I got my first book called Get Rich Cheating which was a satire of sorts; A ‘how-to’ book which looked at steroids, election fraud, investment fraud, Hollywood, and all these other scams… and yes, it’s still relevant today.
Professor Dan Ariely, writer of Predictably Irrational and one of the leading thinkers in behavioral economics, got a copy of the book and invited me to speak in his class at Duke University Graduate Business School. When I would speak there, he would not introduce me as a comedian or satirist, but as someone with ‘unique wealth building ideas’. I would tell these aspiring business titans that the best way to get rich is to cheat. The cost-benefit analysis, right? If nobody gets caught you can make millions. I went on this whole thing and inevitably someone would say, ‘are you kidding?’ but eventually, about a third of the class would agree with me. That’s not so much an indictment of Duke, but it’s a statement on how money really does mess with our heads.
The first time I spoke in Dan’s class, and we’ve since obviously worked together on a lot of things, was sort of my ‘lightbulb’ moment when I was made aware of the insightful power of behavioral economics. What behavioral economics is, is basically combining psychology or social psychology with traditional economics, it’s really bringing that ‘human element’ in.
Dan and I started working on a few projects together and eventually, he suggested, ‘Hey, do you want to work on a book?’. That book, Dollars and Sense, came out last November. As publication approached, I wanted to figure out a way to harness that momentum that I was getting because throughout my career. I’ve worked for politicians and TV show and I’ve appeared on TV and all these great things that I’m very proud of, but there’s sort of these momentary ‘POPS’ and I wanted to figure out how to maintain the momentum. And, more than that, I became a real convert to the church of behavioral science.
My career has been about making complex and difficult topics accessible – whether that’s politics, family relations, business, money – and I’ve had some decent success doing so. I’m excited about what happens next in behavioral science.
What can behavioral science teach us about how we work in the online environment?
I think the biggest thing that behavioral science discusses that’s relevant to the online environment is the negative power of distractions. There are tons of studies about how our mind is getting re-wired and how we’re unable to focus. Since the advent of television and the advent of noise we’ve been subject to distractions, but with online and mobile and being constantly logged in with notifications, you can’t really focus or get to a deeper level of thought or get to ‘slow brain time’, as it’s called, given all of these distractions.
The real challenge here is that one of the things that many behavioral scientists have said in different words and I’ve put in my own is, we’re going to choose the easy way. As much as we like to think that humans are capable of achieving anything, if you put two options in front of us and one of them is easy – unless it’s 100 percent clear that one option is right and one option is wrong – we’ll choose the easy option because we will do anything to avoid thinking or challenging ourselves. The internet and mobile make that default choice so easy. You can just lose yourself for hours on social media or email and that article you’re supposed to write – speaking from personal experience – sits on your list of things to do.
Daniel Kahneman, who is one of the founders of behavioral science, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow, said: “when faced with a difficult decision we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution”. I think that quote is pretty key to the online world. We don’t often notice how much we’re being distracted from our goal or notice the biases that are leading us astray, sometimes until it’s too late or sometimes not at all. That’s one of the real challenges of the online world. That being said, the online world offers us a tremendous opportunity – we have access to all the information in the world but it’s a matter of us setting up systems and structures and environments so that we have a way to be in control of it without having it be in control of us.
There are a lot of studies on habits. Nir Eyal is a thought leader in this area and has recently talked about the available tools that would help people better navigate the world of distraction online, from setting alarms to logging yourself out of Facebook. I think the online world presents tremendous challenges, but also opportunities to better structure our lives while taking advantage of the vast information and resources available.
What role does behavioral science play in terms of branding a business?
I think the biggest thing that behavioral science can offer a business seeking to brand itself it the ability to better understand why people behave the way they do. What forces are at play in our decision making? Because, ultimately, when you’re a brand you want to speak to your customers and you want to trigger a reaction or an emotion.
Behavioral science is all about determining the unconscious triggers that push us to make certain decisions. What are the biases, what are the little things that nudge us into certain decisions or behaviors or certain ways of structuring and moving our lives forward? And the more that, behavioral science can explain why people do things. The more a brand can try to tap into those reasonings and biases to establish themselves as a force for good, the better.
Brands need to recognize that you can’t change human nature, but by understanding human nature you can create systems, and messaging, and branding, and nudges to help people achieve their goals rather than have it go on automatic without their conscious input. Ultimately, human nature is not something that can be changed, but it is something that can be better directed.
Obviously, as you’re well aware, there’s an importance inconsistency with branding and behavioral science shows the many different reactions people have to inconsistency which ranges from shutting down in denial to a really strong reaction. So, to the extent a brand has established itself if something is inconsistent with that brand it is going to cause a ‘short-circuit’ in customers. So that’s a big lesson brands need to understand. If you start to do something that’s totally off-brand it’s going to cause a disconnect and it’s going to really destroy that relationship you have with your customers because they’re not going to be able to cognitively process that inconsistency.
How about as it relates to discovering and serving our ‘right people’?
The principles of behavioral science are that not everyone responds to the same biases and nudges the same way. It presents sort of a general sense of how people respond to certain things. An example of that is the way people respond to fear with the ‘fight or flight’ instinct. Some people are geared towards responding with the flight instinct and others respond with the fight instinct.
My work tries to address is that application gap because one of the most important things you have to do when applying behavioral science principles is to test them to determine how your particular client base – your customers, your employees, your coworkers, peers, or whoever that population is that you want to serve; How do they react to a nudge or an input based upon who they are, where they are, the moment it’s delivered, etc?
So in terms of finding the ‘right people’ for a brand, knowing the general principles of behavioral science is going to help you refine that testing and refine that search to know who responds to a certain thing. For instance, who are the people that are really good at budgeting but maybe they fall prey to a listing price? Who are the people who are swayed by flowery language and online reviews, but they refuse to buy something with a brand name?
Everyone reacts differently to different inputs. It’s important to understand what the different biases are so you can sort people into their categories and find out which is the best for you.
In what ways can we apply the tenets of behavioral economics to what we sell?
I think the biggest thing is human nature. You can’t change human nature, but you can work with human nature.
If you use behavioral science to understand who your clients and customers are, you can bring your products to them instead of asking them to come to your product. Tweet this
That’s the most important thing. Humans want to make the easy decision, so you can’t ask them to come running to you, you’ve got to bring it to them.
And how about applying it to our marketing efforts?
It’s not just that humans want to make the easy choice, ultimately you have to help guide them to where they want to go. So if you understand human motivation and reasoning, you can design a product or system or messaging to help people go to where they subconsciously want to go.
Someone approached me with the idea that using behavioral science in the marketplace was somehow manipulative to unwitting consumers. Where do you stand on that assertion?
This is a very large issue for me. It’s something that I’m personally making that I address in every conversation I have on applied behavioral science. You can look at my background and my book, Get Rich Cheating, which was a satire but nevertheless addresses ethics and morality. It is vitally important that ethics are baked into the design of nudges. It cannot be understated – the future of this field depends upon credibility, and honesty, and transparency.
Whether you’re driven by ethics or just a self-interested business motivation, it’s in your best interest as well as the world’s best interest to behave ethically. If you design a nudge or market a product that’s based upon unethical behavior it will fall apart because ultimately, you’re not giving people what they want you’re giving people something they don’t want. That is not going to be sustainable. It’s going to break. And, just like I talked about how inconsistency of brand is something that will break a relationship with a client, so too will the breaking of a nudge or a guiding that’s founded on something that’s unethical. It’s been proven time and time again.
There are three principles that Richard Thaler, another leading thinker in behavioral science, put forward based upon his book Nudge, about the ethics and the design of nudges. This isn’t just true for being a good person and being a good company but it’s good for being a sustainable, long-term, economically viable company.
The principles are:
1. All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.
2. It should be as easy as possible to opt-out of the nudge.
3. There should be a good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged.
I cannot stress those principles enough. If you nudge someone to go buy more cigarettes, you do not deserve to be in polite company. It is simply unethical and it is disrespectful of the human condition. That said, there’s a whole field of habits I’m very wary about the terminology of habits because the people that have most quickly adopted the field of behavioral science are people that are trying to market and sell things, because they say, ‘oh you know, everybody falls for celebrities’ or ‘everybody falls for this’. It’s a very big challenge because there are times when we, the customers, want to be given the option and the ease of getting things that we want or getting the products that we want.
Again, that third principle: Do you believe that you’re encouraging people to get something that will improve their welfare? And that is something that I think every designer has to ask because that relationship will break and that ‘nudge’ towards what somebody doesn’t want is not going to be sustainable.
I’m trying to frame it in a business self-interested way although, to me, the societal interest is an overwhelming aspect and I would circle-back to what I said about what I hope I can do, which is establish credibility and industry standards. Because there are a lot of people in business that read one behavioral science book and they start to tout themselves as ‘behavioral designers’. They don’t offer credibility. If anyone offers a business an off-the-shelf solution to a behavioral problem, then run away, because that’s not how it works.
The best way to determine if someone is credible or legitimate in this field is that they won’t claim to know everything. Or they’ll say, ‘here’s what I believe will work, but we’ve got to test it’. The fact that there are so many people popping up claiming to be behavioral experts is a real challenge, and it’s why there’s been such a great response to my work because those that are really invested in the field want to maintain and elevate credibility – scientific credibility married with legitimate business experiences. And that is entirely possible from 99% of what nudges and behavioral science can do, and it is our job to police the other 1%.
In which facets of business do you see behavioral science making the most headway in the future?
Right now where it has been most quickly and easily adopted are in the fields of user experience and user design. The healthcare and financial fields have also seen behavioral principles adopted more easily because they more directly impact that behavior. A lot of the experiments have been in that field, but where I actually think the most growth will be, and where I think this is going to really take off is in the workplace; Helping employee engagement, employee incentives and rewards, and structuring the management/employee relationships. Basically making it so people who spend a vast majority of their life connected to their work actually feel a connection that is rewarding to them and rewarding to the business.
Once businesses recognize that making changes based upon behavioral principles benefits everyone, it’s going to take off, because some of these principles will make your company more profitable and at the same time, without a tradeoff, you can improve the lives of your employees. And whether you do or don’t believe there is an importance in that, you should.
Behavioral science offers the ability, even in the most competitive and cut-throat environments, to make your employees lives better and to make them more invested in what your company is doing and what your brand is putting forward and ultimately to make them live better lives.
I’m a Brand Therapist® providing psychology-based branding, copywriting, and consulting to individuals and micro-businesses in the creative arena. My signature services will help you discover and articulate your most authentic self so you can tell better stories, make more meaningful connections, and do more profound work.