Katy Milkman is a triple threat.
Wait: quadruple threat. (Quintuple?)
One could be forgiven for losing count of the endeavors with which the Wharton Professor of Operations, Information and Decisions is involved, a staggering list that has rightly propelled Milkman to that rarefied echelon of Academic Rockstardom. (See also: Atul Gawande; Adam Grant; Daniel Kahneman.)
There’s Choiceology, her acclaimed podcast from Charles Schwab. There’s her forthcoming book, How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. There’s the undergrad course she co-teaches with fellow Academic Rockstar Angela Duckworth, of Grit, Character Lab, and MacArthur Genius fame; perusing the duo’s syllabus would make anyone want to be 20 again, privy to guest lecturers like Google’s Maya Shankar and Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler.
And then there’s the Behavior Change For Good Initiative (BCFG), at the Wharton School and School of Arts and Sciences of the University of Pennsylvania, which Milkman runs along with Duckworth.
BCFG brings together world-renowned experts in a wide range of fields—from behavioral economists to physicians, educators to marketers—to “advance the science and practice of behavior change.”
BCFG brings together world-renowned experts in a range of fields—from behavioral economists to physicians, educators to marketers—to “advance the science and practice of behavior change.” The team includes more than 100 behavioral science experts, including two Nobel Laureates, five MacArthur Genius Award winners, and many members of the National Academy of Sciences.
Sounds wonky, sure. But far from being some obscure Ivy Tower endeavor, BCFG tackles questions that affect all of us, as individuals and a society:
What will it take for you to actually follow up on getting your flu shot—and, down the line, a Covid-19 vaccine?
Is there an inexpensive, effective way to help public school students bring up their grades?
How can you make exercise a long-term habit—whether you’re a 60-year-old woman, or a twenty-something male?
An emphasis on rigorous science
BCFG has looked at all of these questions. Other social scientists have as well, of course, but what sets BCFG apart is the rigorous scientific approach applied to all of its work: The group oversees massive studies that simultaneously test multiple ideas.
Take, for example, their current research study on flu vaccinations. It’s a national endeavor being conducted with Penn Medicine, Geisinger Health, and Walmart that involves hundreds of thousands of participants, and will test about 20 different text messaging communications encouraging people to get a flu shot.
It’s not about educating folks about vaccines, or explaining the science of the flu—it’s about closing the action-intention gap or, as Milkman says, the space between “I mean to do it, but life gets in the way.”
That gap can be affected by many factors that BCFG scientists take into account—like poverty. “The action-intention gap can be a big barrier if you’re overwhelmed from working multiple jobs, if you don’t have enough to eat, if you’re basically not facing a level playing field,” Milkman says.
She points to the work of one BCFG scientist, Sendhil Mullainathan, who co-wrote Scarcity: Why Having So Little Matters So Much, about the psychology of poverty, and the vicious cycles that can emerge when resources are limited.
“We might be looking at the different modes that could be effective in encouraging people to get their flu shot, but the vision is that what we learn here should be equally applicable to closing the action-intention gap when hopefully, someday, we have a Covid-19 vaccine available,” Milkman explains.
Behavior change, she and her colleagues know, is not about willpower.
In a 2018 academic journal article co-authored by Milkman, Duckworth, and Harvard Professor of Economics David Laibson entitled “Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control,” the three professors open their piece with a quote from Alexander Hamilton:
“Men are rather reasoning than reasonable animals for the most part governed by the impulse of passion.”
In other words: People, well, suck at self-control.
And that, we know, can have catastrophic effects—on themselves, and on the world around them. But, the authors maintain, changing habits goes beyond self-control—it’s not about willing oneself to save more, eat healthier foods, exercise consistently. (They point to the bona fide failure of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign by way of example.) Instead, fueling lasting behavior change is largely about understanding barriers to goals—and minimizing or eliminating them.
The paper, like the rest of the team’s work, proposes that there are different approaches to reducing failures of self-control—namely situational (don’t even bring the cookies into your house!) versus cognitive approaches (use mindfulness to avoid overeating the cookies), and self-deployed (setting a goal, and posting it on your fridge) versus other-deployed (text nudges from your nutritionist).
Looking at the bigger picture
BCFG’s research doesn’t just strive to understand these approaches to behavior change, but to find insights about them that are generalizable.
“We might be looking at the different modes that could be effective in encouraging people to get their flu shot, for example, but the vision is that what we learn here should be equally applicable to closing the action-intention gap when hopefully, someday, we have a Covid-19 vaccine available,” Milkman explains.
And BCFG has the financial resources for big, ambitious visions—they receive NIH funding as well as funds from the likes of Marc J. Leder, co-CEO of Sun Capital Partners; AKO Foundation; Steel Partners Executive Chairman Warren Lichtenstein; Alexander Production Company President John Alexander; Chan Zuckerberg Initiative; Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and more. Funds will help them ultimately create toolkits so that their findings can be widely and rapidly disseminated to key policy makers to inform, for example, Covid-19 vaccination efforts.
Dena Gromet, executive director of BCFG, believes that everything you really need to know about the initiative is right there in its name.
“‘For good’ is about helping people make positive changes in their lives—exercising more, saving more money, getting your flu shot—but it’s also about understanding enduring change,” she says.
And the cross-collaborative nature of BCFG, she says, is the key to unlocking those insights.
“By partnering with large organizations that have a broad reach and serve so many different types of individuals, we’re able to have more confidence that when our results are applied in other settings, they’d work well,” says Gromet.
“No one discipline has all the answers. And so by encouraging both cross-collaboration between disciplines and being able to really directly compare, perhaps, a more economic strategy versus a more psychological strategy, you’re typically not able to do that when you have people working in silos,” Gromet says. “And that facilitates us being able to understand which strategies are going to be the most effective. It opens up possibilities.”
Partnering with entities outside of Wharton and Penn—like Walmart for the flu study, or 24/7 Fitness for an exercise study; a public school district in Florida for the student performance study, and a city in Michigan for a mask-wearing study—doesn’t just have the advantage of sample size. It also really speaks to the scalability and the generalizability that are at the heart of BCFG’s mission.
“By partnering with large organizations that have a broad reach and serve so many different types of individuals, we’re able to have more confidence that when our results are applied in other settings, they’d work well,” says Gromet. Lab settings have their place, no doubt—but BCFG’s real-world studies pave the way for broad applicability.
The intersection of rigorous scientific research and real-world applications lies at the heart of what drew Milkman to this work in the first place. As an undergrad at Princeton, she majored in engineering, then pursued graduate work in computer science at Harvard. While there, she discovered behavioral economics, a burgeoning field in the early 2000s.
“I was like wait a minute, there’s a whole field that models human foibles, which I know I have, and that can be what you study—all the ways people goof—and also try to fix it?” she says, laughing. “I was like, I could fix myself! I could fix my friends!”
What sealed the deal for her was a popular report from 2007, showing a breakdown of the percentage of premature deaths and their causes. “I didn’t know this until then, but 40 percent of premature deaths are the result of decisions we could change—not genetics, or environmental exposure, or socioeconomic status, but the daily decisions we make about vehicle safety, vaccinations, whether or not we eat healthy and move enough, whether we drink alcohol and smoke,” she says.
She and Duckworth connected the dots and realized how the same decisions could affect educational outcomes and financial wellness—and that became the impetus for BCFG.
And if the fate of our waists, wallets, and wellness has to be in anyone’s hands, there’s perhaps no one better suited to guide us through the real world than Milkman, Duckworth, and their ever-devoted army of super-scientists.Header photo of Katy Milkman (L) by Peter Murphy and Angela Duckworth by Scott Spitzer