4 ways to Nudge Yourself


Photo by chatirygirl / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

A few months ago, I did an experiment in which I tried to be totally and completely rational for a month. To eliminate all of my brain's mental quirks and Paleolithic biases.

Of course, I failed. My irrational monkey mind has a powerful hold on me, and won't let go so easily. But I made some baby steps.

Plus, the experiment introduced me to the idea of nudging myself. The recent (okay, 10-day-old) New York Times article on Cass Sunstein reminded me of this notion. (Full disclosure: Cass is my cousin, which is how I first heard about nudging and behavioral economics in the first place). The article is about Cass's idea of taking advantage of our brain quirks to produce better behavior. As the Times puts it: Nudgers want "school cafeterias put the fruit before the fried chicken, because students are more likely to grab the first food they see. They support a change in Illinois law that asks drivers renewing their licenses to choose whether they want to be organ donors. The simple act of having to choose meant that more people signed up. Ideas like these, taking human idiosyncrasies into account, might revive an old technocratic hope: that society could be understood so perfectly that it might be improved."

But in addition to the government or institutions nudging us, we can nudge ourselves. Here's some of the homespun, unofficial strategies I've come up with.

They seem to work for me – though I realize it could be the placebo effect. On the other hand, the placebo effect is kind of a nudge as well. So we shouldn't underestimate placebos.

1. A mirror on my desk

This isn't vanity. Or isn't simply vanity. Studies show people behave more virtuously when a mirror is present. They can see themselves sinning, and they stop. So I have a small mirror next to my laptop. I swear it's cut down on the number of times I check gossip websites.
Also, I use mirrors in eating. I got this idea from Cass's co-author, the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who told me that people eat less when they eat in front of a mirror. We're too self-conscious. A warped mirror – one that makes you look fat – could even cut more calories out of your diet, though I haven't resorted to that yet.

2. Watchful eyes

Studies show that people also behave better when there are pictures of eyes on the wall. You don't even need real eyes. Just pictures of eyes.

People unconsciously think they're being watched and judged. So I've snipped out dozens of eyes from magazines – Sela Ward's eyes from a clothing ad, John Malkovich's from an interview — and taped them around my home office. I put a stern-looking set of eyes (Lynne Cheney's) on the cabinet where the fruit snacks are kept.

I taped some eyes in my kids' room. I realize it kind of makes my house look like it was decorated by DeNiro's character in Cape Fear.

But I kind of like it. Plus, my son seems to throw slightly fewer tantrums. An anecdotal finding no doubt, but nobody's offered to fund a rigorous study.

3. Light Bulb

This is a new addition to my office. I adjusted the lampshade off one of my lamps so I could see the bare bulb. This was inspired by this study on priming effects.

If you see a light bulb, it brings to mind the idea of creativity. And, in one experiment at least, the sight of a light bulb made people more creative: they solved logic problems better.
I'm behind deadline, so I need all the creativity I can get.

4. Memento Mori

This is an ancient nudge, and perhaps my most effective. I have a memento mori on my computer desktop. As you might know, memento moris are reminders of death, and were popular in the Middle Ages when paintings often included skulls and other macabre symbols. So I have a JPEG of a skull on my computer. But I didn't want it to be gruesome, so it's a fun, multicolored skull — a design I downloaded from some site. It puts things in perspective. It helps stop the small-stuff-induced sweating. Reminds me to enjoy my life and my family while I'm here.