Making Communities

The Most Powerful Behavior Change Technology in History

24 min readApr 3, 2018


By Omar Ganai & Steven M. Ledbetter of Habitry

And so it turned out that only a life similar to the life of those around us, merging with it without a ripple, is genuine life, and that an unshared happiness is not happiness…” — Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago

Humans evolved in small, cooperative groups. Language, reasoning, culture, morality, and everything else of what it means to be human, we create and absorb through interactions with the other humans around us. This is not optional; it’s survival. “An isolated human,” anthropologist Peter Farb notes, “is usually a dead human.”

Community is at the heart of every great movement in human history. It’s the evolutionary imperative that drives:

  • Every religion
  • All sciences
  • Every successful company
  • Every political movement
  • Democracy
  • Every language
  • Logic, reason, and math
  • Art
  • Your book club

But it’s easy to forget that community is also technology. It’s an invention that coordinates the efforts of individual organisms to extract more nutrients from the environment than they would otherwise be able to get on their own. For humans, community was supercharged by technologies developed later in human evolution like stories, language, and culture, but community had to come first. We did not develop community because we had language. We developed stories, language, and culture because we were already communities who needed better ways to coordinate finding food and killing mastodons with rocks.

Much like fish in water, the depth of that integration is often easy to overlook. It’s not that we’re in community, we are of community. And not only a single one. We’re swimming in hundreds of little communities that shape us in so many ways that it’s impossible to talk about a concept of “self” outside of these human relationships. As Peter Farb also reminds us, “a human being cannot survive alone and be entirely human.”

People are individuals with complex motivations who inhabit social worlds that are even more complex. How do we deal with all that complexity? The same way we evolved to deal with almost everything: we outsource it. In this case, to a community.

  • We subconsciously scan our social environment, and create stories about other’s motives (Hassin, Aarts, & Ferguson, 2005).
  • This instinct is so deep, we even attribute motives to inanimate geometric shapes.
  • We interpret every human-designed object as communicating ways of being normal or “good” (Verbeek, 2011).
  • We influence each other all the time without even realizing it. We create and pass on stories about how to act to and from each other. And our beliefs about others change how we behave and how they perceive us. This comes so naturally to us that psychologists have to do experiments with double-blind procedures to avoid subtly influencing study participants (Gilder & Heerey, 2018).
  • When we we feel connected to others, we take on their goals and motivations (Loersch, Aarts, Payne, & Jefferis, 2008).
  • Motivation spreads between peers when students ask and provide help to classmates (Krishen, 2013).
  • As demonstrated in one infamous experiment done by Facebook, emotions can spread between 700,000 users simply via text (Kramer, Guillory, & Hancock, 2014).
  • People also adopt goals from others when we see them trying (Dik & Aarts, 2006).
  • We adopt goals from strangers almost mindlessly when we see we’re similar to them (Walton, Cohen, Cwir, and Spencer, 2012).

As you can see, humans are constantly shaped by our community relationships and we constantly shape our communities in turn. Self-Determination Theory calls this dance the Organismic Dialectic. It’s the way our goals, wants, beliefs, motives, and values bump up against those of other people. And it’s the way the goals, wants, beliefs, motives, and values of others slowly integrate into our sense of self. And the way ours integrate into theirs. Over time, this dance — the Organismic Dialectic — shapes what we learn to “give a damn” about.

We’ll give you an example:

Have you ever tried to put pants on a toddler? It’s a nightmare of kicking, screaming, and small-fisted violence that ends with them running around naked at least 50% of the time. The goal of wearing pants is alien to them, so they resist the loss of control and bare-assed freedom. Fast forward a few years and not only are they wearing pants, they’re exerting their autonomy by insisting they want to wear those pants. They have begun to integrate the value of pants, as long as we support their autonomy in wearing pants on their terms. Fast forward to when they’re a teenager, and now they’re obsessed with finding the perfect perfect pants. The values of wearing pants are so integrated that they are beginning to see the pants they choose to wear as a part of their identity.

What’s happening there? Pants are not awesome for their own sake. Neither is there a biological need for them (there’s lots of ways to keep the lower half of one’s body warm that are not pants). But humans are driven to belong in communities that support our Basic Psychological Needs. At first we look on culture as coming from outside ourselves, an outside force that is trying to influence us. But then we voluntarily integrate the goals, wants, beliefs, motives, and values of the community members who support our Basic Psychological Needs into our identity, and how we express it.

How many stories of personal transformation look like…

“At first I didn’t care about [quitting smoking, weight loss, going to the gym, learning a language, open source code]. Then I met some cool people with the same goals and started to take it more seriously. Then I noticed how doing it was improving my life and started helping some new people who were just getting started. Now I honestly have no idea where I’d be without it. It’s changed my life.”

This story is what Self-Determination calls Organismic Integration. It’s how we learn to be human, and it’s how we learn to value and give a damn about new behaviors that we otherwise don’t give AF about. Integration is the story at the heart of behavior change, and communities are the setting and soil in which that story is created and passed from person to person.

And it almost always sounds the same:

“This is how I was. This is what I did. This is what doing that changed about how I see myself.”

This story, repeated over and over again in as many variations as there are members, is how communities influence us, and how we influence communities in turn.

Communities are the most powerful transformative force in the world because they spread social norms that help people rewrite the story of who they are, and who they are becoming, faster, on a mass scale. This is not accidental. It’s survival technology

“[Story] offers a convincing ‘explanation,’ as far as that could be done in prescientific times, of the world and its origin and of the origin and nature of humans. It thus provides a satisfying answer to the typical…questions of ‘from where, how, why?’…humans knew so little of the actual physical background of the workings of nature that they needed myths to explain it, as well as to summarize all observed and known facts.” (Witzel E.J., 2012).

When people perceive that other people similar to them are also pursuing the same goal, they try harder (Shteynberg & Galinsky, 2011), and they learn faster when they perceive others are paying attention to the same information (Shteynberg & Apfelbaum, 2013). Interestingly, this effect is strongest when people believe that other people are looking at the same information at the same time (Shteynberg, 2015). Both pleasant and unpleasant experiences are more intense when they are shared with others (Boothby, Clark, & Bargh, 2014). Human motivation and behavior change outcomes get better or worse faster in communities. It’s like putting gas on a fire. Communities are the original scalable human behavior change technology.

And if you want to help as many people as possible change their lives for the better, then it’s your job to facilitate, elicit, record, and share those stories of change.

Some Community Myths

  1. Myth: Community is a marketing thing.
    Reality: Only the shitty communities. Successful companies are the ones that know that great products are built with the people that use them. Great UX designers are obsessed with user stories. Great engineers are obsessed with user problems. Great customer success people are obsessed with how to help people use products in their lives. Great executive teams are obsessed with how to improve their products and services in order to improve the lives of their customers (and hopefully their employees, too). All of these are things one can only learn by engaging with and listening to a community, then recording and distributing what they say.
  2. Myth: If we can grow the community to a certain size, it will take care of itself.
    Reality: There’s no such thing as Critical Mass. Communities always take work. Great communities take the dedicated and specialized work of experts (a.k.a. “community managers”). You’ll always be fighting indifference, inertia, and entropy, but isn’t that true of every aspect of a running a company? If you want something to resemble a design in your head, you have to exert energy to directing the forces that shape it. We like to think of it as, “tending the garden.”
  3. Myth: We need more “engagement.”
    Reality: “Engagement” is the word businesses use when they don’t know what they want. Choosing metrics to track will mean deciding what behaviors you want people to be doing and why. And these might change as you learn more about your customers and the stories they’re telling. In the meantime, we’ll give you guidelines to help you figure those out.
  4. Myth: More engagement is always good.
    Reality: It depends on what behavior you want people to be doing. If you’re trying to help people live healthier lives, you might find that time spent liking and commenting on your community posts will actually get in the way of that. But it sure does feel effective, doesn’t it? At Habitry, we call this superficial chasing of engagement, The Engagement Illusion. In long-term groups on our Habitry iOS app, we found that drops in commenting and liking actually correlated to higher adherence to the diet and exercise habits their coaches were writing. Basically, as people built more habits, they needed to talk about it less. And since that’s what the coaches paying for the app wanted, a drop in activity (at specific points in the user journey) was a good thing! So just remember that not every business is Facebook.
  5. Myth: Communities are too much work.
    Reality: Everything is work. The better question is, “is this work worth the benefits?” And that’s only something you can judge with testing and careful metric selection.
  6. Myth: Communities have too much conflict.
    Reality: Conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. Conflict means passion, and two passionate camps in your customer base could be beneficial. It really all depends on what your business goals are. People arguing might demonstrate that your product is solving two problems for people instead of one. A conflict might be surfacing a customer need you never thought of. We’ll give some examples and questions to ponder in our guidelines, but just know that arguing means they are passionate customers, which is way the hell better than indifferent customers.
  7. Myth: Communities have to be peer-to-peer.
    Reality: Since the rise of “social media,” it’s easy to assume that all communities need to be peer-to-peer. But people in a community do not have to talk to each other to consider themselves in a community, as long as the stories are there. For example, Stevo is an ultralight packer; no matter how long the trip, he never carries more than 6kg of luggage. He spends a lot of time, energy, and money on this goal, but he doesn’t really converse with anyone else who shares it. He’s not on any ultralight packing forums or Facebook groups. But he does read blog posts, watch YouTube videos, and listen to stories about other people who travel light, which makes him feel like he is part of the Community of Ultralight Packers. The only thing you need to make people feel like part of a community are stories about other people on the same journey trying to solve the same problem. Habitry has even helped companies create communities in industries where allowing peer-to-peer communication was not possible for liability reasons (some companies interpret HIPAA as precluding patient interaction without a doctor present). We just helped them create a method and schedule for collecting user stories, anonymizing them, then distributing them in a HIPAA compliant format.
  8. Myth: Community is a Facebook Group or Internet Forum.
    Reality: Those are not communities, they are just media — the mechanism by which people in communities communicate by recording and distributing stories. And people were swapping stories long before Mark Zuckerberg got involved. As we’ve shown, the media on which these stories are recorded and distributed can be any shared platform. They can be:
  • Testimonials
  • Blog posts
  • Video
  • Newsletters
  • Facebook groups
  • Forums
  • Smoke signals
  • Morse code
  • Or any other way that humans share stories.

Minimal Viable Community

So what is a community?

A community is three or more people with a shared mission to solve a common problem.

More specifically, you need at least one “teacher”, two “students”, and some practices for the community to work on the shared mission. The medium doesn’t matter and the members don’t even have to talk to each other directly. As long as they’re hearing stories about each other, it’ll “feel” like a community.

What do communities “do”?

Communities scale behavior change by telling and listening to stories about their shared mission.

More specifically, they share stories about how to help each other get what matters.


  • Boy Scouts share stories about how to personally uphold the standards of the Scout Law (“A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent”) by following the Scout Motto (“Be Prepared”).
  • A company shares stories of how they can be the best in the market by creating the best product or service.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous members share the stories of how they can not drink today by following the 12 steps.
  • Researchers using the Open Science Framework share stories about how they can solve the replicability crisis by pre-registering studies and sharing data.

What you’ll notice about all of these examples is that there isn’t one “medium” that all of them use. In fact, they all use lots of different media to engage in the act of storytelling.

These stories also take lots of different forms: tips, tricks, fails, strategies, information sharing, books swaps, mythology, art, confessions, etc. The variety can be overwhelming, but these stories almost always follow a narrative structure: “This is how things were; this is what I did; this is how things changed.”

You can see that narrative at work in

  • A video by a Boy Scout about how to tie knots.
  • An internal memo from the CEO of Slack about their design philosophy.
  • The Big Book by Bill W.
  • A blog by a scientist dedicated to her experiences using the Open Science Framework.

We’re pretty sure this narrative structure is emergent in communities. It’s natural for people who share problems and common ideas about how to solve them to “finish the narrative.” That’s why pretty much every StackOverflow thread reads like this:

OP: “This is how things are.”

Reply: “Do this.”

OP: “Great! This is how things changed!”

And it doesn’t have to be fancy; it just has to be genuine. Stevo learned this watching his friend and legendary coach Dan John. Every time Dan meets a new athlete — no matter the skill level — he asks, “Why are you here?” He listens to learn more about them, then inevitably starts a sentence with, “You know, you remind a lot of an athlete I worked with…”

Then Dan tells this person the story of what that athlete was like, what they did, and how things changed. And before he even finishes the story, that new athlete is part of Dan’s community (see Guideline #4 for Fostering Relatedness below).

The Central Mantra

Habitry has been helping companies tackle the problem of “how do we get people to do stuff” for five years. We’ve helped people in a wide variety of industries, and have yet to come across a place where some sort of “community-thinking” wouldn’t help. It’s not a silver bullet (at all), but community is a very useful tool for changing behavior. What follows is a set of guidelines for how you can approach using this tool with your business.

We actually think it’s intuitive if you can get in a little practice (and get out of people’s way). All it takes is getting people to reflect on their stories, record them, and distribute them. They can do the recording and distributing or you can, but all the guidelines that follow in this article flow from a central question you need to be asking yourself every day:

“How can I share more stories about our common mission?”

This mantra contains the answer to pretty much every other question you’re going to want an answer to. We’d suggest writing it on a post-it note and sticking it on your monitor.

Scaling Behavior Change with Community

Setting the Frame

In any given social setting, we each bring our own complex motivations. Since everyone else we interact with is also bringing their own complex motivations, it can be difficult to figure out how to act when we are in a new community. The stories we come into contact within these communities make life easier by giving us suggestions for how to behave. Stories convey multiple social norms about what to do, how to be, and how to relate. And the stories you tell about your community constrain how people behave in it. They “set the frame.”

According to computational anthropologist Alan Fiske, people use four fundamental mental models to understand and motivate each other in human relationships like communities (Fiske, 1991). These mental models are fundamental in the sense that they are the basic building blocks of social bonds, and because they are intrinsically motivating to use. Each mental model provides different culturally prescribed patterns of behavior. The four models are

  1. Communal Sharing
  2. Authority Ranking
  3. Equality Matching
  4. Market Pricing

To give a brief example, consider how the meaning of being a member of a community can change depending on the mental model you’re using:

Stevo lives in an artists’ cooperative. Some of the members see the community as…

  1. Communal Sharing: a shared commons where we all have chipped in to get the space we need to make our art.
  2. Authority Ranking: a hierarchical organization, where the “cool kids” run things and decisions are made by the mysterious and powerful “Board.”
  3. Equality Matching: a marker of equal status (if you’re a member you’re a “real artist” who’s “made it.”)
  4. Market Pricing: a business investment where cheaper rent and better networking means more opportunities to make art.

If you want to influence the behavior of the community, the point is not to figure out who’s “right”, but to try and “set the frame” to get as many people in the same frame as possible. Otherwise something as simple as giving a holiday gift will be interpreted in wildly different ways. As (1) simply a gift with no expectations of anything in return, (2) a tribute to a superior or pity to a subordinate, (3) quid-pro-quo, or (4) a transaction that needs to be repaid at market rates.

One way we can get people into the “same frame” is to tell stories stories that convey information about what to do, how to be, and how to relate to each other. Instead of just giving someone a gift, we can tell them a story about why we are giving them the gift referencing the framework we are coming from.

  1. Communal Sharing: “Here’s a gift. It’s tradition in my family to share in the bounty and I consider this community like a family.”
  2. Authority Ranking: “Here’s a gift. You’ve done a lot for me as Board President, and I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to help me.”
  3. Equality Matching: “Here’s a gift. As a fellow artist, I was sure you’d get it.”
  4. Market Pricing: “Here’s a gift. Like the one you got me last year.”

The frame is what makes stories and the intention of the storyteller “obvious” to the listener. Based on the stories you tell, a community member can infer:

  • The kind of community you’re fostering (communal vs authoritarian vs egalitarian vs market)
  • Your beliefs about her as a member of the community (motivated vs unmotivated)
  • Your beliefs about the motivational quality of the tasks you’re asking her to do (intrinsically vs extrinsically motivating)
  • The motivations of the community designer (controlling vs autonomy supportive)

And we see this borne out in the research as well. Students who receive (presumed) volunteer tutoring report greater enjoyment and interest in future learning, compared to students who receive (presumed) paid tutoring (Wild, Enzle, Nix, & Deci, 1997; Wild, Enzle, Hawkins, 1992). Students infer volunteers teach because they find teaching interesting and enjoyable. So students “catch” intrinsic motivation from their volunteer tutors. Students then pass on the motivations they learned from their tutors on to future students when they themselves are asked to teach (Radel, Sarrazin, Legrain, and Wild, 2010). And just remember:

People need a frame to understand how to interpret other people’s intentions and actions. So if you don’t “set the frame,” then someone else will.

So what stories should you tell? If you’re like most community builders we’ve worked with, you’ve got two basic problems:

  1. Fostering a sense of relatedness, so they feel comfortable enough to ask for help.
  2. Fostering a sense of voluntary benevolence, so they feel motivated to provide help.

6 Guidelines to Foster Relatedness

1. “There are other people like you here”.

Share stories that show there are other people just like them in your community (Ryan, Patrick, Deci, & Williams, 2008; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009; Walton, Cohen, Cwir, & Spencer, 2009). You can share stories that convey similar experiences, problems, values, desires, geographic location, and interests. Really, talking about any attribute they have in common will foster perceptions of connection and relatedness.

2. “You’re one of us now.”

When people join your community, have a special ritual to mark the occasion. You want to communicate that they are now an “insider” (Bauer, Bodner, Erdogan, Truxillo, & Tucker, 2007). For example, you can create a “welcoming committee” that introduces new members to the rest of the group. You can show them how other people like them have succeeded in the community. Or you can send them a gift (not money) that marks their inclusion into the group, like schwag or a thank you note.

3. “This is an intimate setting to have fun conversations and collaborations.”

You can foster a sense of connection by merely telling people they can expect to have fun with other people (Carr & Walton, 2014; Loersch, Aarts, Payne, & Jefferies, 2008). And telling them what they can expect will also promote a sense of competence by providing structure.

4. Tell stories about the shared past.

Dan John, the legendary coach we mentioned earlier (who interestingly was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study the function of narrative structure in Beowulf), reminded us to emphasize that user stories are only the “Horizontal Community.” Dan thinks it just as important to tell stories about the “Vertical Community.” These are stories about how the identity, problems, and point of view about how to solve them have been passed down by successive generations in the community. Founder myths, stories about how your product has developed and changed, the provenance of your community’s techniques, even stories of how you learned what you know from someone who also had the problems you have are stories that situate someone in a history, a “vertical community” stretching back in time.

This is important for creating a shared sense of history. Share stories about how the techniques of the community have been passed down through successive generations. You can do this even if you have a brand new community.

Guiding questions:

  • Who taught you what you know?
  • Why did they have such a great impact on you?
  • How did you come to realize what they taught you was important?
  • What motivates you to pass this knowledge on?

5. Tell stories about the shared future.

These are stories about the community mission, and how the community will achieve it.

Guiding questions:

  • What is the difference we are trying to make in the world?
  • Why do we want to create that impact?
  • How will we achieve it?
  • How can we help others achieve it, too?

6. Tell stories about the shared present.

Share stories of present successes and struggles. Shared pain promotes cooperation among strangers (see CrossFit, and Bastian, Jetten, & Ferris, 2014), and acknowledging negative emotions improves relationship quality (Reeve, 2015).

Here is an example of guiding questions that Habitry developed with Michael Littig (another Fulbright who studied the power of stories) using Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth as a framework.

Guiding questions:

  • The Call: What excited you this week?
  • The Refusal: What doubts did you have? What were you nervous about?
  • The Threshold: How did you know you were ready?
  • The Road of Trials: Who helped you this week? What tested you?
  • The Great Battle: What was the pivotal moment for you?
  • The Boon: What is the one thing you learned this week that you would have never believed, but made sense to you after the week was over?
  • The Return: What tip or piece of advice do you have that you would feel comfortable sharing outside of this group?

If you would like to watch an hour-long webinar with Michael Littig and Steven M. Ledbetter on how Habitry developed these, it’s available on Crowdcast:

8 Guidelines to Foster Voluntary Benevolence

1. “We help because it’s meaningful, enjoyable, and that’s the kind of people we are.”

Volunteers help more when it’s done for autonomous reasons (Bidee, Vantilborgh, Pepermans, Huybrechts, Willems et al 2013). Their helping behaviors are higher quality when they’re done for autonomous reasons (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). And they enjoy helping more when it’s done for autonomous reasons (Martela & Ryan, 2016a; Martela & Ryan, 2016b)

So give autonomy-supportive reasons (Steingut, Patall, & Trimble, 2017)! When you ask people to do things, make appeals about the community. Connect giving and receiving help to the community mission. And practice what you preach, otherwise people will notice and think that your reasons are not genuine.

2. “We celebrate people who ask for and provide help.”

Encourage asking for help. Highlight community role models that ask for help. And those that provide help. You want to do this because you want to create a norm of helping for the sake of helping (Weinstein & Ryan, 2010). It could sound like… “In this community, we ask for help because we’re all on the same mission to solve a common problem. We ask for help because that’s the kind of people we want to be. We ask for help because it can be fun. And we ask for help because we want to, not because we feel pressured.”

3. “Your help is effective.”

People provide more help when they know their help is effective (Haivas, Hofmans, & Pepermans, 2013). So tell them about the difference they are making!

4. “Your participation uniquely matters.”

In a community, people can feel lost in the crowd. So you need to remind people how their contributions are uniquely helping the community (Ryan, Patrick, Deci, & Williams, 2008; Niemiec & Ryan, 2009). In online coaching groups, we encouraged coaches to take time every week to write feedback to every single participant to describe how they made the community better that week.

5. “We’re thankful for your help.”

People provide better help when they receive gratitude for providing help (Kindt, Vansteenkiste, Cano, & Goubert 2017; Kindt, Vansteenkiste, Josephy, Bernardes, & Goubert, 2018). Notice, call out, and indicate you care about them.

If you want to give rewards, make them surprising and symbolic, rather than expected and financial (Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999). You can accidentally teach people that helping is a self-interested action, rather than a voluntary benevolent action, by creating a financial quid-pro-quo situation. Hint: thank you notes are the secret weapon of every community manager.

Remind people that you appreciate their efforts, and show them the work you are doing so they see the “price” you’re paying for the mission, too.

6. Show trust by leaving the amount of help at their discretion.

When people feel coerced, they decide that you don’t trust them. As a result, they reduce their contributions (Falk & Kosfeld, 2006). So explain how your community is different from other communities. In your community, you don’t coerce. You help because helping is meaningful, enjoyable, and prosocial (Gagné, 2003; Hadden, Rodriguez, Knee, & Porter, 2015). In your community, someone helps another person because that’s the kind of person they are.

This is a little tricky, because Motivators want to control people when they assume they are unmotivated (Pelletier, Séguin-Lévesque, & Legault, 2002; Sarrazin,Tessier, Pelletier, Trouilloud, & Chanal, 2006), sadly at the price of the long-term motivation of community members.

7. Make it easy to help.

Provide a structure on how to help. This makes it easier for people to contribute. For example, one study looked at nearly 61,000 edits across more than 1,300 Wikipedia pages over a period of eight years (Aaaltonen & Seiler, 2015). They found that the median article edit was half a sentence long. It has to feel like it’s almost no work to get a new contributor to edit a Wikipedia page.

Teach them how to ask and provide help in a low-level way. Share different standards of participation so that people can toggle their level of sharing based on their perceived competence.

8. If you want to use contests and leaderboards, then you must provide high-quality feedback to everyone.

One of our favorite studies is Vansteenkiste & Deci (2003), titled “Competitively Contingent Rewards and Intrinsic Motivation: Can Losers Remain Motivated?”

Competitions are fantastic sources of feedback. Winning, losing, ranking, it’s almost impossible not to form an opinion on “how am I doing” in an competitive environment. But it turns out that winning and losing is only one source of feedback in a competition. And it’s not even the most powerful one.

Vansteenkiste & Deci (2003) is one of the only studies that controlled for other forms of feedback in competition and tested to see what happens to the motivation of the losers. The researchers used a novel puzzle game called, “Happy Cubes,” a game like Tetris that people played in the lab even when they didn’t have to. They gave the game to people with different sets of instructions that we’re paraphrasing.

  1. Non-Competitive. The experimenter simply asked the participants to work on the puzzles, “doing your individual best.”
  2. Competitive with rewards for winning. The experimenter added, “the purpose of this competition is to try to outperform the other person by solving your puzzles faster than he or she. You will get $3 if you solve more of the puzzles more quickly than your opponent.”
  3. Competitive with rewards for winning and feedback on standards. “You will get $3 if you solve more of the puzzles more quickly than your opponent. Solving three of the four puzzles within the allotted time will put you in the 70th percentile of performance.”

Then they gave them questionnaires to assess how motivated they were to continue playing the game (and remember, this is a game as addictive as Tetris) and recorded how long they played the game when no one else was around.

So what happened? Winners in the competitive groups showed more intrinsic motivation than the non-competitive control group. But everything changed when there was feedback. Losers who received positive feedback (the ones that were told they were in the 70% percentile):

  • Reported they enjoyed the game more and spent 50% more time playing the game in their free time than losers who got no feedback.
  • Spent 50% more time trying to figure out the puzzles they got wrong than losers with no feedback and 4 times longer than the people who won.
  • Reported they enjoyed the as much as the people who won.

And here’s the kicker: Remember the instruction “Solving three of the four puzzles within the allotted time will put you in the 70th percentile of performance?”

It was entirely made up.

The losers just needed feedback that they could trust. Since they had no other context for understanding how they were doing, they believed the people around them and the person with the clipboard.

So when anyone at your company says, “leaderboard”, reply with “great! How are we going to get meaningful feedback to the people that aren’t on the leaderboard.”


When most designers and technologists sit down and try to answer the question, “how can I help people change their behavior?” we reach right for the shiny and the new ideas. Apps, trackers, machine learning, blockchain, etc. But it’s easy to forget about the oldest and most effective technologies. The tools that have been coordinating and providing human action with direction since we were trying to take down mammoths with rocks. The oldest and most effective technology humans have ever created for changing the world is community. It’s not that new technologies are worse, but it’s community — the little pockets of shared experience we hold together with stories, language, ritual, and mutual care — that make these new technologies possible.

Which is why even if you never make a peer-to-peer content platform, we think you’ll benefit from some community-thinking in your design process. Community-thinking is work, but at Habitry we firmly believe it’s the most efficient way you can work.

About Habitry

Habitry helps companies and designers make their products and services more effective with Practical Motivation Science. We consult on metrics, strategy, and education for improving engagement, retention, and customer success.

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