Book review: Think Small by Owain Service & Rory Gallagher

My 20th read of 2017 was Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals, by Owain Service & Rory Gallagher.

A big area of interest for me at the moment is behavioural economics and the science of why we make the decisions we do.

Owain Service and Rory Gallagher work within the first ‘nudge unit’; the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). This is a social purpose company, jointly owned by the UK Government; Nesta (the innovation charity); and its employees.

BIT started life inside 10 Downing Street as the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences. Their experience, which shines through in this book, is based on split testing different options, making small changes which have a big influence on outcomes.

It looks at why our best-laid plans so often go awry and ways of avoiding the common roadblocks that stand in the way of our goals.

Here are some of the passages I highlighted on my Kindle:

We have a finite amount of cognitive ‘bandwidth’, and this limits our ability to draw on our slower system all of the time.
What they found was that people who spent the money on others (‘pro-social spending’) were significantly happier than those who spent the money on themselves.
However, there is growing evidence that learning later in life can improve your self-esteem, life satisfaction and sense of optimism.
One of the most surprising pieces of advice to come out of the wellbeing literature perhaps is the importance of developing your curiosity.
Having several goals helped the participants in this study to save about 50 per cent more cash than they would have done if they had had no goals at all. But these extra sums were small by comparison with those who were encouraged to set a single goal. This group more than doubled the amount they saved.
If we set out to achieve a long list of activities over an extended period of time, we are less likely to achieve them than if we break them down into a series of discrete steps.
Making it easy, including by introducing bright lines, is a good example of how you can use your slow, reflective system to make changes that enable your fast thinking system to operate more effectively.
He realized that we are more likely to follow through on our intentions if we are able to make a cognitive connection between our anticipated future situation and the actions needed to fulfil our objective.
If writing the commitment down helps to raise the stakes of a commitment, then making it public can turbocharge it.
So if you’re thinking of a meaningful reward, and want to consider non-financial incentives, a good place to start is by imagining what you could do that money cannot buy.
We are overly pessimistic about our fellow humans beings’ willingness to help us. In reality, people are often willing to help to a much greater extent than we imagine — around half the time they are asked.
We are often, at work and play, embedded within very strong social networks with very wide reach. We just don’t realize or provide the structures through which the individuals within these networks can make full use of them. A Reciprocity Ring brings people physically together in a circle, and encourages anyone who wants to (but only if they want to) to say what they need support with. The idea is that the individuals then think of how people they know (or people who know people they know) might be able to help that person achieve their goal.
In the original studies, Michael had found that hard-nosed investment bankers were twice as likely to donate when they had been given a pot of sweets on the way into work by the fundraisers — the value of which was one thousand times lower than what they ultimately gave. That’s reciprocity in action.
First, you need a diversity of opinions — for example, if you are predicting whether inflation will go up, you don’t just want a group of economists, but also small business owners and financially stretched single parents. Research has shown that the collective predictions of these three types of people will be more accurate than when relying on the economist alone.
Dweck’s enlightening observation is that, although people do obviously differ in their abilities, ‘everyone can change and grow through application and experience’. If you can give praise for effort and persistence, rather than simply for innate talent, you’re more likely to be able to help yourself — and anyone you’re working with — to reach their goals.
Think of signs in GP surgeries that urge you not to miss your appointment because so many other people are now failing to turn up. By signalling to people that ‘everyone is doing it’, you can inadvertently encourage more people to do the very thing you are trying to prevent.
We have a slow, reflective system; and we have a fast, automatic system. The slow system enables us to learn how to drive a car. The fast system allows us to drive effortlessly once we’ve mastered the art. The key to thinking small is to understand how and when to deploy the slow system, and how and where to encourage the fast system to take over.

Next up, I’m reading Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, by Yuval Noah Harari.