Work 2.0: The Obstacles You Don’t See

Introducing new ideas is hard. Most of us think the best way to win people over is to push harder. But organizational psychologist Loran Nordgren says a more effective approach is to focus on the invisible obstacles to new ideas.

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Additional Resources:

Books:

The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance that Awaits New Ideas. Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal, Wiley, October 2021.

Research: 

Mass-Scale Emotionality Reveals Human Behavior and Marketplace Success. Matthew Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, Loran Nordgren, Nature Human Behavior, 2021.

Emotionally Numb: Expertise Dulls Consumers Experience. Matthew Rocklage, Derek Rucker, Loran Nordgren, Journal of Consumer Research, 2021.

The Creative Cliff Illusion. Brian Lucas and Loran Nordgren, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020.

Persuasion, Emotion, and Language: The Intent to Persuade Transforms Language via Emotionality. Matthew Rocklage, Derek D. Rucker, Noran Nordgren, Psychological Science, 2018.

The Strength to Face the Facts: Self-Regulation Defends Against Defensive Information Processing. Rachel Ruttan and Loran Nordgren, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2016.

Smoking-Related Warning Messages Formulated as Questions Positively Influence Short-Term Smoking Behaviour. Barbara CN Muller, et al., Journal of Health Psychology, 2014.

Mimicry for Money: Behavioral Consequences of Imitation, Rich B. van Baaren, et al., Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 2003.

Grab Bag:

Loran Nordgren’s website

1950 Betty Crocker cake mix ad 

1951 Betty Crocker cake mix ad

Another 1950’s cake mix ad

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Male Speaker: Honey, when was the last time you baked a cake?

Female Speaker: Last week, dear.

Shankar Vedantam: When American food companies introduced cake mixes in the 1930s, they figure they had a winner. All you had to do was add water to the mix and pop it into the oven.

Female Speaker: You don't have to be an expert when you use my cake mix. The men really go for it.

Shankar Vedantam: There was just one problem, American women were not going for it. Sales lagged for nearly two decades. Northwestern University researcher, Loran Nordgren, says the lack of interest wasn't because the cakes tasted bad, the problem was psychological.

Loran Nordgren: What baking a cake represents is care. And the perception was that making cake with a prepackaged mix was a violation of that act.

Shankar Vedantam: General Mills hired a psychologist named Ernest Dichter who came up with a clever solution. Instead of including dried eggs in their mixes, General Mills asked bakers to add fresh eggs.

Male Speaker: When you make a cake from a mix, which do you want? A fresh egg cake or a cake made with dried eggs? Why fresh eggs, of course.

Shankar Vedantam: Cracking eggs and whisking them into the mix gave bakers the sense that their cake was homemade. Sales with mixes took off.

Female Speaker: A perfect cake. You be the judge. Or, write General Mills, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and get your money back.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, we look at a core component of innovation. Seeing things from the perspective of other people. It's the first in a series of episodes about work and business. We'll explore the psychology of motivation and how you can derive greater satisfaction from your work. Drawing on the inspiration of our annual You 2.0 series, we're calling this series, Work 2.0.

Shankar Vedantam: Many organizations struggle to gain traction in a crowded marketplace. They can't decide, should they invest in more marketing, better products or hiring? At Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, psychologist Loran Nordgren says all those things are important, but very often they fail to move the needle. That's because most organizations focus on the things that can move them forward instead of the things that hold them back. Loran Nordgren, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Loran Nordgren: Thank you so much. I am honored to be here.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to start by understanding the nature of the problem you've been studying for a while, Loran. You have a wonderful example of a Chicago-based furniture company. You call this company Beach House. That's not the real name of the company, but can you tell me what they were selling and what their sales pitch was?

Loran Nordgren: Beach House makes fully customizable sofas and chairs. And the promise is that you end up with a one of a kind piece of furniture, almost something like your own art. And their target audience is young millennials. This is often their first piece of adult furniture, and they love the idea. So whether they would go into the design showroom, whether they would do it online, people would spend hours designing the perfect sofa for them.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow. Now people clearly like the idea. They were coming in spending hours designing the sofas they wanted, but that turned out to not be the full story because something happened before they could make the sale. What happened, Loran?

Loran Nordgren: These would be customers disappeared. Now in Beach House's mind, their thought was, well, perhaps we need to reduce price further, thereby making our product more attractive. Maybe we need a better customer experience, so we should invest in that training. Maybe we need to create higher quality fabrics and materials. Maybe that's how we make the idea more attractive.

Shankar Vedantam: And in many ways, this is so intuitive. If you're a company that finds that people are not buying your product, if you want to grow, if you want more customers, you say, I need to improve my product. I will give them a better deal, or market yourself better. Now, Beach House eventually figured out why their potential customers were not completing the sale. They brought in a colleague of yours, David Schonthal, to try and understand the problem. What did he discover and how did they fix the problem, Loran?

Loran Nordgren: David Schonthal did what we might call an ethnography; a deep dive into the needs and backgrounds of these disappearing customers. And one idea came up again and again, and it was, people didn't know what to do with their existing sofa. Think about it, it's not as if they were just sitting on the floor, they have an existing sofa, they have an existing chair, and they loved what Beach House had to offer, but at some point it occurred to them that they cannot move forward with this thing they want to do until they figure out what to do with their current sofa, because they can't have two. So the questions would be things like, can I physically move it? And if I can, do I just take it out to the trash? Or is there some special day or some special service? Do I trust that the city of Chicago is going to be efficient in providing that service, et cetera?

Shankar Vedantam: How did Beach House go about addressing the challenge once they discovered what the problem was?

Loran Nordgren: The solution was to offer to pick up existing sofas upon delivery. And the moment that offer was made, that conversion problem, that disappearing customer conundrum largely evaporated.

Shankar Vedantam: The lesson of the story is that Beach House didn't need to push harder to make the sale. It didn't need to lower prices. It didn't need to change its business model. Customers were already sold on all those things. What it needed to do was remove a hidden impediment that was keeping customers from completing the purchase. Loran says the same principle applies in the nonprofit world. Organizations trying to help people often think they need to market themselves better or sell their vision more strongly.

Loran Nordgren: You're bringing to mind one of the powerful stories that we think about, which comes from a woman by the name of Stacy Alonzo, and she was working at a shelter called The Shade Tree for women and children who've experienced domestic abuse and homelessness. And she would have this similar experience to the Beach House case where again and again she would see women pull up to the shelter, stare at the shelter for minutes or hours. Sometimes they would even walk all the way up to the door and at the last second they would turn away. And the question is, why would they turn away? And she discovered what they were seeing is a sign on the door that said, no pets allowed. So if you are in a difficult domestic relationship, the benefits of escaping that relationship are often very clear. What was holding people back is this realization, this strong emotional sense that I simply cannot leave a pet behind. So the way they solve this problem, and in such a beautiful story, is she created what's called Noah's Animal House, which is a facility that allows women to shelter their pets close by on the grounds of the shelter itself.

Shankar Vedantam: So in each of these examples, Loran, if you don't study what's holding people back, it can seem as if there's some kind of invisible force that's demotivating people and keeping them from taking action. So our stock response in these situations is to push people harder to add carrots or sticks, or what you call, fuel. You see a better approach is to understand the source of what's holding people back to understand the source of the friction. Can you talk about the contrast that you're drawing between fuel and friction?

Loran Nordgren: The job of fuel is to elevate, enhance the appeal of an idea. So, using incentives, using an emotional appeal, giving data, evidence, all of that is designed to demonstrate the value of the new idea and initiative. Friction is the psychological force or the set of forces that resist change. Now, frictions take different forms, and we often don't see them. We often don't talk about them, but in essence, frictions act as drag on innovation and change.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we're going to talk about the different forms that friction can take and ways to overcome it. But I want to start by laying out in some ways why it is organizations and individuals tend to focus on the fuel component of the equation rather than on friction. And I was thinking about trying to launch a spaceship into orbit, for example. It does seem tempting to focus on building a bigger rocket instead of designing a lighter spaceship. Why do you think that is, Loran?

Loran Nordgren: It's because we naturally understand behavior in terms of internal forces, things like motivation and intent. Understanding behavior, interpreting it in terms of these internal forces like motivation, intent perfectly maps on to fuel. So you're trying to launch a new product and maybe people aren't buying. The way the mind understands that is to assume that it's because the appeal, the allure, is insufficient. And if that's the problem you imagine, the way you solve that problem is to elevate appeal, and fuel does that job.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering if it's also possible, to go back to my analogy of the spaceship, should you build a bigger rocket or should you build a lighter spaceship? It's also, in some ways, sexier to build a bigger rocket. Designing a lighter spaceship means doing a vast number of things that are more humble; designing lighter materials, lighter technology. If you have astronauts on board, you want lighter plates and cups, or maybe even lighter clothing. I'm wondering if one reason it's easier to focus on building a bigger rocket is because friction can be caused by so many different things. And in some ways it's easier and sexier to think about the big solution rather than the myriad small solutions.

Loran Nordgren: Absolutely. Friction requires discovery. Friction tends to require that we shift attention from the idea itself, which is our natural point of fixation and instead start to consider the audience. The broader contextual emotional needs of the audience. So, frictions tend to be buried and therefore require discovery. They require knowing our audience and knowing the context.

Shankar Vedantam: It's really hard to remember that people don't engage with us for our reasons. They engage with us for their reasons. So we think, we are selling a great sofa, surely that's what matters. From the customer's point of view, the hassle of getting rid of their old sofa matters as much, maybe more than the beauty of our sofas.

Loran Nordgren: Absolutely right. Finding, uncovering friction requires perspective taking and knowing your audience.

Shankar Vedantam: The problem goes even deeper. It's not just that we need to pay attention to both fuel and friction. Sometimes fuel creates additional friction. Loran told me about one effort that try to dissuade man from writing graffiti on the walls of a public bathroom. One message was a low fuel message. The other made a stronger sales pitch. It applied more fuel.

Loran Nordgren: So there were two versions that are roughly alike. One is please do not write on the bathroom wall, and the other was much stronger where it was in essence under no circumstance should you write on the bathroom wall. And not surprisingly the one that had the stronger message produced the greatest backlash.

Shankar Vedantam: And in some ways that speaks to what you were saying a second ago, which is that our stock responds of using fuel as the way to get what we want, we sometimes fail to see that in some ways it can produce its own resistance.

Loran Nordgren: Yes. This is the folly of fuel. So if you think about when we push on people, their instinct is to push back. So you see that fuel doesn't move the people who are open to change, and it often makes things worse for those who reject the message.

Shankar Vedantam: Even the best ideas in organizations can face resistance. Motivational messages can backfire, perfectly polite signs can make people more prone to bad behavior. When we come back, the different kinds of friction we confront in the workplace and in our relationships and techniques to fight them. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. We've seen how it often takes more than a good idea to make something a success. All around us, there are hidden forces making it difficult to reach our goals, close a sale, or convince others to adopt new ideas. When organizations meet resistance all too often, they focus on adding fuel; building better products, selling harder or marketing better. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but there is something many organizations fail to do. They don't ask how they can subtract friction, how they can remove the obstacles that allow their audiences, customers and clients to fully engage with them. In their book, The Human Element; Overcoming The Resistance That Awaits New Ideas, Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal, both professors at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, say that part of the problem is that friction comes in many disguises. We often fail to dismantle it because we simply don't see it. Loran, you tell a story about the University of Chicago. It's one of the best schools in the world, but for years, the university had inexplicably low applications from prospective students. So in 2005, for example, Princeton had 28,000 applications. Chicago had fewer than 4,000. And initially you say many people at the university believed it was because their school was more rigorous, and that this was what was discouraging applicants.

Loran Nordgren: The unofficial model of University of Chicago is where fun goes to die. Part of its culture, it is a place of rigor. And the belief was that, that rigor, that reputation kept people away. Well, it turns out the rigor of University of Chicago at that time was not the only thing that set it apart. Most schools today, when you apply to a college, you fill out some forms and then you can distribute those applications to dozens of schools. University of Chicago required a customized essay. And often it is a wild outlandish essay that would require you to write a completely tailored application. And from an economist, I suppose you would say, given both the prestige of the school and the low application rate, the day or two that is required for you to write this application is a worthwhile investment. But a few years back, a controversial decision was made to drop the uncommon app and to start using the same system their competing schools use. And the moment that happened, applications went through the roof. And that speaks to a really essential idea of friction. It's that we tend to dramatically underestimate the power of these frictions. Often small changes can have such a dramatic impact on behavior.

Shankar Vedantam: I want to spend a moment talking about a few other examples of this idea that people really prefer the path of least resistance. You cite research that shows that in many workplaces, people choose their friends based on where their friends are sitting, and that most people form close relationships in the workplace with other people who are within 160 feet of them. Now, obviously, we spend more time with the people who are sitting around us. Maybe those people are part of our teams. We get to work with them more often, but it's telling that something as simple as workplace geography can end up shaping personal relationships.

Loran Nordgren: It's often referred to as the proximity principle. And one dimension of effort is ease of interaction. And this was one of my first experiences in understanding the power of friction as a graduate student. There were two departments on the same floor. And although we were two departments, it felt like one department; lunches together, table tennis tournaments, coffee, beers after work, a lot of camaraderie. And then one department moved up two floors. Now it occurred to no one that this would change the dynamics. In fact, we were all happy that we were getting more space, but what happened? Those relationships, those interactions, it was like night or day. The only time you would see these people that you once saw with great regularity was this awkward moment in the elevator where it really revealed what was the depth of this relationship. Well, apparently, it's not stronger than two flights of stairs.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow. So we've seen that following the path of least resistance, in some ways, is the first friction that we have to contend with. And it turns out there are at least three other kinds of friction. And one of those, Loran, is the issue of inertia. Much of the time when we review something, a new change, a new proposal, a new product, we're often comparing it to what we have, to the status quo. Can you talk about the role that inertia plays in holding organizations and communities back from change?

Loran Nordgren: Yeah. The human mind reflexively favors the familiar over the unfamiliar, even when the benefits of the unfamiliar option are indisputable. And we tend to favor the system we are in over better, new ways of doing things. And this inertia tends to be greatest when we are pursuing big, radical change. Like we think of the kinds of change that we are most hungry for, whether that's societal or leaps in innovation. The problem is the greater the change, often the more resistance people have because that unfamiliarity is an inherent friction. It creates resistance and reluctance in the mind.

Shankar Vedantam: If you've suggested a new idea at work and watched it get shot down because it's too novel, you've just encountered the friction of inertia. If your company has come out with a new product and customers rejected it out of hand because it seems unfamiliar, that could be the result of inertia too. The third form of friction is related to the first two. People don't just pursue the path of least resistance when it comes to things involving effort. They pursue the path of least resistance when it comes to their emotions. Loran cites the example of a challenge faced by US army recruiters.

Loran Nordgren: Much like the Beach House case, army recruiters want more recruits, they want better recruits. And they're mostly targeting junior and seniors in high school. And very often you see these people who are excited by the idea and army life for the right person is heavily fueled. There's patriotism, so meaning comradery, connection, professional advancement opportunities. You see these people who are clearly intrigued, excited by the idea, but many of them, a significant proportion of them, never enlist. And a reason why is because they're afraid to tell mom and dad, and for many of them, it's the anxiety around what parents will say, how they'll respond that leads them to simply never follow their dream.

Shankar Vedantam: Now you can try to push harder on the idea of joining the army. This is the fuel based approach, but remember the people the army wanted to persuade were already sold on the idea. That wasn't what was holding them back. Lauren says the army came up with a different approach to reduce emotional friction.

Loran Nordgren: The army recruiter has scripts that can help the student have that conversation. Anecdotally, we've heard cases of recruiters even volunteer to have that conversation or be in the room when that conversation takes place.

Shankar Vedantam: So people experience emotional friction, even when it comes to doing things that they're highly motivated to do. And in this case, I want to talk about the idea of dating. Many people sign up for dating websites, but then drop out because they find the process to be emotionally draining. Can you talk about this idea and how some companies have tried to find ways around this particular form of friction?

Loran Nordgren: A great story around emotional friction is thinking about, so the emergence of online dating, the first generation platforms, for example match.com, and the second wave, Tinder being the best example. And Tinder, specifically that second wave, quickly became the dominant model. And a reason for that is because Tinder could spot a friction that was embedded in the first generation website. So when you talk to people on say, match.com, there are emotional frictions embedded in that process. There are several, but a big one is rejection, right? So imagine you find the person that checks every box. This could be the one. So now what do you have to do? You have to craft the perfect email, funny, but not too funny, serious, but not too serious, et cetera. That is its own form of effort, that other friction, but now you write the perfect email. You've made your friends look at it, et cetera. You send it off. And what happens? While people hear responses like you're too short, you're not in my age range, I don't date Republicans. Or worst of all, you don't hear anything at all. And so seeing that, Tinder came up with a very compelling and elegant friction removal solution; mutual matching. So if you're familiar with the Tinder platform, you swipe on people you are potentially initially interested in, but you are only matched with people who signal initial interest in you as well. In other words, there isn't this act of putting myself out there only to experience rejection. I'm only paired with people who signal interest with me.

Shankar Vedantam: So we've looked at how our desire to follow the path of least resistance to prefer the status quo and to reduce emotional costs are three forms of friction. You also talk about a fourth way that friction manifests in our lives. You cite the example of mandatory seatbelt laws. In 1984, New York State became the first state to pass a mandatory seatbelt law. Anyone in the front seat of a car had to wear a seatbelt by law. Even though the move would eventually save tens of thousands of lives, many people were initially outraged. I want to play you a clip of Michael Nozzolio. He's a New York state assemblyman at the time discussing the new law.

Michael Nozzolio: The question here is whether we have the right, whether we have the responsibility, whether we have the judgment to turn to the citizens of this state and be there in 1984 big brother.

Shankar Vedantam: Loran, you call this reactance. Can you explain what you mean by that term?

Loran Nordgren: Yeah. Reactance is the idea. It's the human impulse to want to push back against change, and it is rooted in our desire for autonomy. Humans, like most other animals, have a fundamental need to exert control and influence over their environment. Innovation, creating change and influence is incompatible with that basic human need. What is the innovator in the conventional sense, trying to do? They're trying to get them to follow a particular direction. Well, that's a restriction of freedom. And when we feel that freedom being restricted, the human impulse is to push back in order to restore our autonomy or control.

Shankar Vedantam: I can't help but think about people who are hesitant to get the COVID-19 vaccine right now. It seems like the harder public health authorities push and press for people to get vaccinated, the more reactants they produce.

Loran Nordgren: Absolutely right. The more evidence you give, the stronger the evidence, the stronger the push, the stronger the pushback.

Protesters: No more shots! No more shots! No more shots! No more shots! No more shots!

Loran Nordgren: There is a great experiment demonstrating this about capital punishment. So they look at people who are, let's say for capital punishment, and then they read evidence that either says that capital punishment is a good thing because it reduces crime. That's the principle argument for it. Others read an equally strong and compelling argument saying it's ineffective. It is not a deterrent to crime. And then they measure people's beliefs about capital punishment, the death penalty afterward. And those who support the death penalty, seeing the confirming evidence strengthens their view a little bit, but receiving evidence that says capital punishment is ineffective, only serve to entrench their beliefs. It pushed them further down that path. And that is precisely the problem with using pushes, the hard sell, strong evidence for those people who see the world differently than we do.

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways it had a backfire effect is what you're saying.

Loran Nordgren: Absolutely. So now people are more entrenched, they have a firmer position than they had before.

Shankar Vedantam: You have a wonderful analogy in the book about, how a bullet is fired from a gun. It has two elements to it. It has both fuel and friction come into play. But you use this analogy, this metaphor to talk about the different ways we should think about fuel and friction. Can you take us back to our high school physics days and explain how a bullet actually comes out of a gun and what this has to do with fuel and friction?

Loran Nordgren: We've asked thousands of people over the last year, what makes a bullet fly? And the near universal answer to that question is gun powder. And people say gunpowder because when gunpowder ignites, it expands rapidly, creating tremendous pressure inside the barrel of a gun. And the only way for that pressure to be released is to push the bullet out the end of the barrel. So gunpowder isn't the wrong answer to that question, but it is a woefully incomplete answer, because anytime a physical object, be it a bullet or an airplane takes flight, there are these two opposing forces at play. There are the forces that propel the object forward, gunpowder or a jet engine, but there are also these forces that oppose progress, namely gravity and wind resistance. The principal obstacle to a bullet is wind resistance. And that is because the faster an object moves, the stronger the resistance or drag. In other words, add more gun powder, you simply add more drag. So gunpowder explains the initial velocity, but the reason a bullet is able to fly so far and so true is because it's aerodynamic. It has been built to reduce the frictions operating against it. And this is a useful metaphor for understanding our tendency to think in fuel rather than friction.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm a recreational swimmer, Loran, and I'm also a student of swimming. I think a lot about swimming technique. And for a long time, I thought that the way to propel yourself forward in the water was essentially to kick harder or to pull harder. And it's only in recent years that I've actually started to realize that paying attention to drag is actually much more important than paying attention to force. For one thing, drag matters much more than force. The amount of force you need to overcome drag is enormously costly, but if you can be a little bit more aerodynamic or hydrodynamic in the water, you need much less power to actually move you forward. That's the same idea, I think.

Loran Nordgren: Yes. And what resonates with me, the story we've heard again and again, is that this is not the first insight, that it takes a lot of trial and error for people to arrive, whether it's swimming or in cycling for them to come to appreciate how critical friction is and how costly trying to improve performance just through more exertion, more fuel, really is.

Shankar Vedantam: We've seen the different ways friction can hold back organizations, communities and governments from achieving their goals. We've also seen that pushing harder can sometimes not just be ineffective, but actually counterproductive. When we come back, techniques to reduce friction. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. When prospective customers fail to buy a product, or employees fail to listen to a directive, or citizens fail to comply with a law, marketers, managers and policy makers often focus on selling their message harder. If carrots fail, they bring out sticks. At Northwestern University, Loran Nordgren and David Schonthal say there is a better way. Instead of selling harder, make it easier for the people you are trying to convince to buy what you are selling. Fight the frictions that hold them back. Loran, one of the first forms of friction we discussed was our desire to follow the path of least resistance. Many years ago, psychologists were asked to help boost the number of people getting tetanus shots. They tried the idea of selling the value of the shots being more persuasive, adding fuel, but only 3% of people bought that message and got the shot. But they also tried something else that boosted that number to 28%. What did they do?

Loran Nordgren: They simply asked people to mark down in their calendar when they are going to get the shot and gave them a map of the inoculation center.

Shankar Vedantam: And what do you think that is showing us, the fact that in some ways they did these very simple logistical things that help people with the logistics of the decision, rather than trying to persuade them that in fact, it was the right decision?

Loran Nordgren: What it is doing is simply making the action easier. So one dimension of effort is simply the complexity of performing the task. Writing it in a calendar makes it easier to remember. A big reason why people don't go to checkups they intend to go to is not because they don't see the value in it, is simply because life gets complicated. Helping people find the window of opportunity, to give them a roadmap for performing the behavior you want is often the most important step in creating the behavior we want.

Shankar Vedantam: When Netflix automatically plays the next episode of a TV series, it's reducing the tiny friction of requiring you to say, you want to watch the next episode. The result, a lot more streaming, a lot more binge watching. Now, the reduction in friction seems trivial. How much effort does it take to pick up a remote and hit play? But Netflix and other streaming companies have found reducing this tiny friction has big effects. Loran has found the same thing when it comes to getting his students to do something he really wants them to do, fill out course evaluations.

Loran Nordgren: First, it's essential that you have near 100% completion to make sense of evaluations. And for years I and my colleagues have been following a decidedly, and now in retrospect, embarrassingly fuel based approach. Describing the importance, looking people in the eyes, this eyeball to eyeball emotional appeal, assuring them that I take it seriously and learn a lot from it. And I have found no influence technique that could get this particular student body above 75% completion rates until one day I changed a practice and now it is near universal. What I do now is simply carve out time on the final day to have people complete the form. And what I am doing in that act is simply making the thing we want easy because I suspect they all want to fill out this form, but the moment they walk out the door, tomorrow is a better day to do it. And many of them just never complete their intended action.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the pernicious forms of friction we discussed earlier, Loran, was reactance. We often respond like small children when someone suggests something to us, our first reaction is often to object. Even if it's something we might like, or at least eventually like. Researchers in Germany, the Netherlands and Luxembourg once tried different methods to get people to quit smoking. Do you remember the study? Can you tell me what they did and what they found?

Loran Nordgren: Yeah, it was a very simple idea. Smokers were exposed to messages that were anti-smoking, about the health risks of smoking, but they created a very simple manipulation. In one case, someone read the script to them, in another case, they read the script out loud. And in that latter case, people found the ideas more persuasive than when the very same evidence and data was read to them. And what that speaks to, I think is one of the most important ideas around creating change in the world. And it's the notion that we are most effectively and profoundly influenced, not by ideas and data and evidence that people give to us or force upon us, but rather by ideas and evidence we generate on our own.

Shankar Vedantam: It's a remarkable study because in this case, the messages actually did come from someone else. They were not self-generated, but merely the act of reading the message, as opposed to listening to the very same message changed the ownership that people felt relative to the idea.

Loran Nordgren: Yes. Ideas are also like kids, in that we always love our own more than any other. The intuitive role of the innovator is to have the idea and to push for change. A master of influence and innovation is going to understand that through some process of co-design through co-ownership, we want people to commit themselves to these ideas.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, this is easier said than done. If you want to bring about change, what Loran is saying is you want the people you are trying to change to feel like they are the authors of that change.

Loran Nordgren: So how do you go about creating the conditions for self-persuasion? One fundamental feature is we need to begin at positions of alignment. What I mean by that, is very often we begin conversations at the point of conflict. You and I might both recognize that we need to change practices, but what we disagree upon is how to solve this particular problem. So we begin the conversation there. That's starting at the place of misalignment. Self-persuasion begins by understanding what is our space of alignment and establishing that baseline of agreement. The second feature of self-persuasion, we need to stop telling people what to think, and instead we need to ask. An executive gave this great example. His rule of thumb is, when you are in a meeting and you disagree with someone's position or the direction the team is taking, never give your counter arguments until you first get people to tell you they're open to what you have to say. And the way you do that is, you listen very closely and then ask the question. Are you open to a different point of view? I see the merits of your position, but I have some concerns. Are you open to a different perspective? That is what we would call a yes question. Because when you ask that question to people, the vast majority of people will say yes, and simply getting people to say yes, I want to hear what you have to say, in fact, makes them more open to your point of view.

Shankar Vedantam: One place to see how fuel and friction produce very different outcomes is in the context of interpersonal relationships like marriage. Psychologists have found, for example, that adding fuel to a relationship is a great idea. Say and do nice things, offer compliments, but it's even more important to reduce friction. Removing the negatives in a relationship is often far more important than increasing the positives.

Loran Nordgren: It is one expression of the negativity bias. The idea that negative experience carries greater weight, psychologically, emotionally than positive experience. For relationships, it's something like five to one. Good relationships are a very loose rule of thumb. They can afford the occasional negative experience. But the key point here is if you are in a relationship that's one to one, whether it's your significant other, whether it's your boss or manager for every one nice moment, you have one negative moment, that is not a balanced experience. That is experienced as a negative, toxic interaction, because negative experience carries so much weight. And it's precisely for that reason that focusing on friction can be so valuable.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, focusing more on the problems in a relationship, trying to reduce those elements of friction, of conflict, in some ways that might matter more than trying to score more positive points in a relationship. Not to say the positives don't matter, but that reducing the negatives might matter more than increasing the positives.

Loran Nordgren: Yes. It means that if you have wonderful romantic dinners and surprise and delight flowers, and you create these positive interactions and moments, but then you're prone to the blowout fight, that one moment can undo so much of these other positive experiences. And the same is true at health and happiness within organizations. When you have a toxic work culture, often the impulse is to throw rewards and perks, happy hours, inducements. That's all fuel based thinking. That does very little, because until that negative experience is addressed, that positivity is worth very, very little.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the ideas that you talked about right at the start, and I want to return to, is the idea that more organizations should act like ethnographers. We cannot understand what is holding us back until we take the time and trouble to see things from the points of view of our customers and clients and partners. Can you talk about this idea and the importance of applying the principles of ethnography as we go through life, Loran?

Loran Nordgren: Yes. Friction, as we said, is a process of discovery. It requires understanding the needs of the people that we are trying to serve. And the better insight we have, the better position we are to understand and remove the frictions that hold people back. And there are different ways to achieve that level of insight and perspective. One can be: talk to people. And when you're talking to people, the best question is a simple one. It's simply asking why. And you might ask it more than once, because often it takes a while to really understand the true issue holding people back. Another interesting technique is to bring the people you are attempting to serve into the process, because now you can better understand your idea or innovation through their lens, through your perspective, because you have them in the room with you.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm wondering Loran, you've done all this thinking and work about the roles of fuel and friction. Have you applied this in your own life? Do you find yourself applying fuel to solve a problem, at stopping yourself and saying, let me try and understand the source of the friction?

Loran Nordgren: Yes, absolutely. So one example that immediately comes to mind is my lifelong effort to convince my father to buy a mobile phone. So my father's in his mid-90s, he fought in World War II, fascinating guy, and still active despite his age, still takes walks in the woods, is quite independent, but because of that independence and living alone, I worry a lot about him. And I, and the rest of the family would feel a whole lot better if he had a communication device at his hip. Unfortunately, he tracks all societal ill to the innovation of the cellphone. And for years I've been using all the influence, persuasion, nudge techniques to try and convince him to get a cell phone, but he is a classic resistor. And I suspect all of those techniques simply pushed him further along the path. I would love to be able to say, I have now succeeded in that effort, but I haven't because now there is such deep suspicion and resistance anytime I even broach the subject. But if I were to start over, if I hadn't so effectively solidified his anti-mobile phone views with all of my pushing and reactance, I might say something like, so dad, a friend of mine is trying to find the right phone for his grandmother, and she's about your age. Would you be willing to come with me and look at phones? I'd like to see which ones seem better for her. And what I'm attempting to do in that process is not to push him down this path, but to create an environment and room for him to begin to discover this technology on his own. That's one way you could move from reactance to say self-persuasion.

Shankar Vedantam: Loran Nordgren is a psychologist at Northwestern University, along with David Schonthal, he's the author of the book, The Human Element: Overcoming the Resistance That Awaits New Ideas. Loran, thank you for joining me today on Hidden Brain.

Loran Nordgren: Thank you so very much. This has been delightful.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brains’ executive editor. Our unsung heroes today are Jimmy Hart and Ty Hyman. Jimmy and Ty sales engineers at Sweetwater, a company that sells equipment and software for musicians and audio producers. Whenever we reach out, they respond quickly and helpfully. As Loran Nordgren might say, they reduce all the frictions that might get in the way of our work. As an added bonus, they are a delight to work with. Thank you, Jimmy and Ty. Coming up next week on our work 2.0 series, if all work and no play is a recipe for misery, is there a way to make work more like play?

Ethan Mollick: It's not that we can turn work into a game and then work becomes amazing, but we can take aspects of games that make work compelling, or make learning compelling and apply those.

Shankar Vedantam: For more Hidden Brain, be sure to subscribe to our weekly newsletter. You'll find new research insights about human behavior, a brain teaser, and a moment of joy. You can subscribe at news.hiddenbrain.org. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you soon.


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