The Power of Fifty Bits: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: January 19th, 2016 by bobmorris

Power of 50The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results
Bob Nease
HarperBusiness (January 2016)

What the “intent/behavior gap” is and how to minimize it, if not eliminate it

Bob Nease is on to something. He really is. With regard to the “intent/behavior gap” and its significance, he observes, “Because we are wired for inattention and inertia, we often let things slide and go with the flow. Over time, this causes a big, persistent gap between what we want to do (were we to stop and think about it) and what we really do.” There have been gaps in human experience since the Garden of Eden. A few years later, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Bob Sutton wrote an HBR article and then a book about the knowing-doing gap. There are other behavioral discrepancies such as the doing-knowing, promising-delivering, and beginning-completing gaps. Good news: none is permanent. Bad news: none is easily reduced, much less eliminated.

As for the intent-behavior gap, how to formulate the new behavioral change strategies needed to get at the root of the problem? Ease: “If you think intention and behavior move in lock step and you see that someone’s behaving badly, you’ll conclude that bad intentions are the root cause. And then you’ll pursue strategies to change those underlying intentions. But once you understand that bad behavior can result from good intentions, you start to pursue a completely new set of strategies: one that is focused on activating good intentions rather than changing good ones. The Power of Fifty Bits shares seven practical strategies that can be used to activate people’s good intentions.

With regard to this book’s title, “fifty bits refers to a startling statistic: of the ten million bits of information out our brains process each second, only fifty bits are devoted to conscious thought. This limitation means that, to a large degree, humans are wired for inattention and inertia, which in turn leads to a gap between [as previously noted] what people really want (were they to stop and think about it) and what they do.”

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Nease’s coverage:

o Fifty Bits Design Versus User-Centered Design (Pages xix-xxi)
o The Intent-Behavior Gap (3-6)
o Brains on Autopilot (15-17)
o Three “shortcuts” to building strategies that unlock good intentions (20-40)
o The Seven Strategies for Fifty Bits Design (40-42)
o Designing with Active Choice (51-56)
o Putting Recommitment to Work (59-63)
o Commitment Contracts (66-69)
o Why Precommitment Works, and, Designing with Precommitment (69-74)
o Designing Using Opt-Outs (82-84)
o Cues for the Clueless, Clues for the Cue-Less (91-94)
o Finding the Flow, and, Designing by Getting in the Flow (98-101)
o Words Matter — Washington, DC Edition (105-107)
o Two Magic Words in Customer Service (109)
o Reframing Choices Using Social Norms (109-112)
o Reframing Choices Using Loss Aversion (112-113)
o Reframing Attention on a Key Attribute (113-114)
o Designing by Reframing the Choices (115-118)
o Accidental Exercise (121-122)
o Designing with Piggybacking (125-127)
o Why Is Easy So Good? and, Why Easy Isn’t Always Better (135-138)
o Designing with Wise Simplification (138-141)
o The Contraceptive CHOICE Project (145-148)
o Making the Most of Fifty Bits Design (148-150)
o Guardrails (150-152)
o A Better Way to Better Behavior (155-158)

The principles and seven strategies of fifty bits design are best revealed within the narrative, in context, but — in my opinion — they can be mastered by almost anyone during a relatively brief period of time. Don’t be misled by the appeal of “practice makes perfect” because perfection is a never-ending process rather than an ultimate destination. However, the more time, thought, and effort you invest in understanding what fifty bits design is, what it isn’t, and how it works, the more effective your behavioral change initiatives will be.

Since beginning the process that Nease recommends, I have concentrated on three specific behaviors of mine that I wanted to change. That process continues as I compose this brief commentary but I want to share one personal experience that may be of interest: I am also changing how I think about trying to help others to change. For example, one of the three aforementioned behaviors is becoming a more attentive listener. As that occurs, I realize, I am also serving as — or at least suggesting — a model for others to emulate.

Here are Bob Nease’s concluding remarks: “Better behavior is mission critical for everything that matters to us as individuals, families, organizations, communities, and as a species. My deep hope and strong belief is that fifty boots design will be an important part of our success.” I share that hope and am now at work on strengthening that belief. Like everyone else’s, my life really is a work-in-progress.

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