How To Hack Social Behaviour

How To Hack Social Behaviour

We go about our days with generally rational behaviour, but there are always those moments that seem a bit irrational (or at least go against what we think we want). How can we identify those points and how can we fix them?

Dan Ariely, author of the great book Predictably Irrational and student of human behaviour, shares how he approaches hacking social behaviour:

I think social scientists often work in an analogous way, though (of course) with nobler intentions. Let’s say that we social scientists want to look at a certain human behaviour, such as overeating at the cafeteria: we would start by examining the different steps that people take as they go through the cafeteria – looking at where the customers stand, what they see, who they see, what tempts them, how they decide what to take, where and how they pay, and so on. Next, we would try to identify possible points in the process that seem to encourage or enable overeating, and then try to come up with different ways to influence peoples’ decisions at these weak points.

For example, the weak point might be the location of the hamburger stand you pass on your walk when heading out for lunch, making it difficult to resist temptation when trying to lose weight. The idea is to provide a specific goal, look closely at the moments when certain behaviours try to mess with that goal, and then imagine what a solution would look like.

This is something you can do with your own behaviour. When you have a moment of irrationality in your life, pay attention to what’s around you. What’s causing temptation? What’s making you do what you don’t really want to be doing? When you record the problems specifically, you can start thinking about the ways you can minimise or remove them. This may seem simple, but that’s kind of the point. As Dan points out, “hacking” is about finding an absolute solution, but a simple one with available tools. Sometimes all you need is an easy fix, like taking a different route to lunch that doesn’t pass by that hamburger stand.

Social Hacking [Dan Ariely]


  • What the hell does rationality have to do with ‘temptation’?

    You’re tempted to do something contrary to perhaps your broader, or long term desires; because you have an immediate desire you have an urge to fulfil. Either you act on the temptation because you choose the immediate desire over the broad one, or you deny the temptation because you choose the broad desire over the immediate one. Both sequences of thought are entirely rational in isolation.

    Rationality is unrelated to execution of will.

  • I suppose it’s kind of irrational if someone says ‘I’d do anything to lose weight’ but then finds themselves giving in to temptation day after day, against their better judgement.

    But yes, psychologists have talked about ‘rational addiction’ where it’s quite rational for an addict to avoid withdrawal symptoms by continuing their addiction rather than quitting.

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