Episode 023:

Pivoting With Purpose

with Dr. Maya Shankar

August 2nd, 2023

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Episode description

How can we build an identity that withstands life’s curveballs? In this episode, Dr. Maya Shankar, Senior Director of Behavioral Economics at Google, joins host Annie Duke, co-founder of the Alliance for Decision Education, to explore the art of building resilience. Together, they share valuable insights on adapting to change and making tough decisions—from knowing when to pivot in your career to finding new sources of meaning and purpose in the face of injury or other obstacles. Maya reveals insights from her time as a senior advisor at the White House, explains why sometimes the messenger is just as important as the message, and recounts the heart-stopping tale of a diver’s heroic rescue mission in Thailand. This episode is full of lessons that we can apply to our own decision-making!

Dr. Maya Shankar is a cognitive scientist and the creator, executive producer, and host of the podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, which Apple recently awarded as the Best Show of the Year 2021. Maya was a senior advisor in the Obama White House, where she founded and served as chair of the White House Behavioral Science Team. She also served as the first Behavioral Science Advisor to the United Nations under Ban Ki-moon and as a core member of Pete Buttigieg’s debate preparation team during his 2020 presidential run.

Maya has a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience from Stanford, a Ph.D. from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and a B.A. from Yale. She has been profiled by The New Yorker and been the featured guest on NPR’s All Things Considered, Freakonomics, and Hidden Brain. She is a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program, where she was a private violin student of Itzhak Perlman.

Annie: I’m so excited to welcome my guest today, Maya Shankar. Maya is the senior director of behavioral economics at Google. She is also the creator, executive producer, and host of the podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, which I had the pleasure of being on last year, and which Apple named the Best Show of the Year in 2021. Previously, Maya was a senior advisor in the Obama White House, where she founded and served as chair of the White House Behavioral Science Team—a team of scientists charged with improving public policy using research insights about human behavior. She also served as the first behavioral science advisor to the United Nations.

Maya is also a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music’s pre-college program, where she was a private violin student of Itzhak Perlman. She has a B.A. from Yale, a Ph.D. from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, and a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience from Stanford. That’s quite a CV, Maya.

Maya: Well, you don’t see all the failures in the CV, right?

Annie: Well, that’s fair. That’s fair, but it’s impressive, particularly for the topic we’re going to talk about today, which is decision-making. So, I’d love to hear just a little bit of your origin story. Obviously, when you listen to your bio, you hear this pivot from what looked to be an amazing career as a solo violinist to all of a sudden sort of taking this left turn into cognitive science. So, I would love to hear kind of a little bit of how that came about.

Maya: Yeah, it was definitely an unwilled change, an unwilled pivot. But long story short, when I was six I started playing the violin and I just immediately fell in love with it, Annie. It was the sort of thing where my mom had to ask me to do lots of things but she never needed to ask me to practice the violin, and so that was a pretty good sign that there was genuine passion there. And then when I was nine, I auditioned for the Juilliard School in New York. They have a pre-college program, so that kids, you know, that are in—in my case elementary school—middle school, high school they can join for classes all day Saturday.

So, fortunately I was accepted and that began a really intense path for me where every Saturday morning, my mom and I would wake up at 4:30 because we were, you know, we lived in Connecticut. We’d take the train to New York, and I would be in over 10 hours of classes. It was so immersive, and over time I started to slowly build confidence that maybe the violin could be my future. But again, remember, I’m in a sea of total prodigies, so I definitely had a lot of imposter syndrome throughout and I had a lot of insecurities.

But I think that some of that insecurity was tamed when, as you mentioned in my bio, when I was a teenager Perlman asked me to be his private violin student. And I think that was the vote of confidence that I needed. I needed some external force saying, “Maya, you might be able to do this.” And so that’s when I really put my foot on the gas pedal and everything started to become about the violin. We were now making multiple trips to New York every week to study with Perlman and really ramp things up. And then when I was 15, I was in a summer music program with Mr. Perlman, and on a single note I overstretched my finger and tore tendons in my hand. And it was a very long, drawn-out medical saga, but I was basically told I couldn’t play the violin again. So, with that one moment, my whole life changed. And I was forced to figure out what came next, and I was totally unprepared for this moment because like many kids, you’re not in reflective mode, right? You’re not thinking along the way, oh, I’ve defined myself by this instrument and so if I were to lose it, what would that mean for my identity? You’re not thinking, or at least for me—maybe precocious kids think about this stuff—but I wasn’t thinking about this stuff. So, it was like the rug had been pulled out from under me and I, and I just totally felt destabilized.

Annie: So I mean, first of all, I think a lot of people would be surprised to know that you can tear a tendon playing the violin.

Maya: I like to think I made the violin an extreme sport, so . . .

Annie: Yes, for sure. For sure. My question for you is, obviously you’re forced to stop this thing that’s your total passion. You’ve talked a little bit about that feeling of having your identity kind of ripped out from under you. And I think a lot about how identity can really affect decision-making. In some ways in positive ways, but you know, in many ways it’s quite a negative impact on decision-making. So I’d love to just kind of hear your thoughts, you know, on the intersection between identity and decision-making.

Maya: Yeah, I have really complicated feelings about the identity that I held at the time, because as I mentioned, I mean, I was first and foremost a violinist. Even before I was Maya, like that’s how I felt I introduced myself to the world. And on the one hand, it was an incredibly motivating identity to carry, right? Every day I woke up and I thought to myself, I’m a violinist. And so it’s clear what today will contain. It will contain hours of practice even though I don’t want to always practice, right? I’m a kid, too, right? It’s hard. But it was such a mobilizing force, and so I’m really grateful to that identity for giving me a really strong sense of meaning and purpose as a young child.

Then now the flip side of that, the downside, is that when the violin was stripped away from me, I really lost my sense of self, and I think I was unprepared for that. So I expected to grieve the loss of the instrument. I did not expect to grieve the loss of me. And that was really hard because I felt like I had never explored other identities that I could inhabit, right? Outside of the violin. And so I thought, well, without it, who am I? Like, who can I be? Am I anything, right? And so I learned some valuable lessons from that experience, and this is only in hindsight. I mean, it took years to discover, you know, myself and my passions and to kind of stabilize myself again.

But one thing I’ve learned in hindsight, and hopefully this is helpful for people who are in the throes of a change, wanted or unwanted, and are trying to figure out how to navigate their identity, is that it can be much more stable to attach our sense of self to the features of pursuits that light us up rather than to the pursuits themselves. So, when I tried to strip away the superficial features of the violin, I asked myself, well, what still remains? Like, what were the things that really lit you up? And I realized that it was human connection that made me fall in love with the violin. I loved the ability to get on a stage in front of strangers and have an emotional connection with them of some kind, right? Hopefully make them feel something they might have never felt before.

“One thing I’ve learned in hindsight, and hopefully this is helpful for people who are in the throes of a change, wanted or unwanted, and are trying to figure out how to navigate their identity, is that it can be much more stable to attach our sense of self to the features of pursuits that light us up rather than to the pursuits themselves.” – Dr. Maya Shankar

And when I realized that it was actually a thirst for human connection that was driving me, I was then able to find those features in other things outside of the violin, and so even though it seems like my storyline is full of these really disparate pieces, like violin, public policy, cognitive science, they’re actually really connected with this through line. Like, I went from being this violinist who loved human emotional connection to studying the mind, and studying the way that we as humans interact with one another. Then in public policy, I spent a lot of time actually talking with people and collaborating with them on ways that we can improve people’s lives.

And then with my podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, that’s just another excuse, Annie, for me to forge these kinds of emotional connections with people. And so, I would encourage people to ask themselves, what are the features of the current things that I love? And to ground your identity in that, to tether your identity to those because that way if life does throw you a curveball and you’re denied the ability to do that exact pursuit, you can at least try and find those traits in other domains.

Annie: I’m just curious about that because I know that we talked about this in the past. So, you find your way to cognitive science.

Maya: I found my way to cognitive science just through a book. Just through a pop science book, right? And so I think the other lesson I learned is you have to be so exploratory when you’re at these moments, right? You have to open your mind and think. So, I didn’t even know cognitive science was a discipline, right? I was just like perusing my parents’ bookshelf in the basement. My sister had an old coursebook by Steven Pinker. I opened it, it was on language development and language acquisition, and it was just totally happenstance. So, that was the other thing, none of this was planned. It was just trying to have as open a mind as possible.

Annie: I wanted to sort of pick apart two things that you said, which I think are so important. This idea of exploration, which I think is so incredibly important, whether it’s sort of keeping an open mind to things that you find accidentally like Steven Pinker’s book or just always sort of exploring and trying to see, like, what are the other things that might be in my peripheral vision? What are the other things that I might be doing, particularly in terms of preparing you for these moments where something might get taken away from you? Because, you know, when we’re engaged in something, we tend to get very myopic, right? Like, that’s the thing I’m doing, and we sort of forget that there are other things that might be out there. And when something gets taken away from us, as devastating as it is, it can help us to open up complete new paths for ourselves, and I think that we need to, you know, find a way to recognize those moments as opportunities, not just as having something taken away from us.

And the other thing that I really love about what you said is this idea of trying not to define ourselves by what we do but by the features of what it is that we’re doing. What are the features that we really love? What are the features that we don’t love? What are the things that we’re privileging? What are the things that we’re deprivileging in terms of the thing that we’re pursuing? Because that might help us in that exploration in terms of finding other ways to explore what it is that we love about what we’re doing. And that’s where I’m curious, because obviously you find your way to cognitive science through Steven Pinker’s book. You end up at Yale. I think you started with Laurie Santos. Then you end up getting your Ph.D., and then you end up pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship in cognitive neuroscience.

So here it feels similar to me in terms of, you know, the violin. You were on a path, it happened to get taken away from you, but this is very much, you know, if I sort of looked at your life up until that point, I would say this person is on their way to become a solo violinist. Then you start on this path to cognitive neuroscience, which you were obviously incredibly gritty about. But, after your postdoctoral fellow, as much as your life looked like a life into academics and research, you then leave. And I would love to hear a little bit about that decision process for you.

Maya: Yeah. And this was so different because it was a willed decision, right? It’s a willed change. And I mean, I fell prey to all of the behavioral biases that we fall prey to when we are, when we’ve invested years into something. Like, so much sunk-cost. I totally had blinders on. I had no idea. I grew up as the daughter of an academic. My dad’s a physics professor. And I just, I kind of idolized what that life might be like, and I just didn’t think outside of that space once I entered it, because there’s this feeling always, this very elusive feeling of like, okay, now I’ve figured it out. Okay, so the violin thing didn’t work, but okay, now I’ve actually discovered what I want to do, which is to become a professor. And then I had this jarring moment where I was in this windowless neuroscience laboratory scanning people’s brains, and it occurred to me in that moment, like, this is not a good fit for my personality. I mean, I want to be in a social environment. I want to be asking people questions. I want to be learning about them before peering at their amygdalas, like this is not a good fit. But I wanted to reject that, right? Because I feel like it was easier to just be like, no, you’ve just put so much time and energy into this career path. Let’s do it. And then I was given a total gift from my postdoc advisor. So, I remember I was in L.A. or Santa Monica or something for, like spring break or just, I don’t know, road tripping with my friend. And I came back and my advisor set up the meeting, and there I was scribbling down all these experimental ideas and thinking, okay, here’s my next plan. And I was showing that I’m still motivated and engaged, even though, you know, my subconscious knew that I wasn’t. And in the middle of presenting my first experimental idea, Sam, who I’m still so indebted to to this day, goes, “Hang on a second. Hang on a second, Maya. You don’t want to be doing this stuff, do you?”

And I was like, “Wait, what do you mean? What do you mean? Of course I do.” He’s like, “I can tell. You’re not passionate about this. You need to find something else to do, where you’re really passionate, and you’re really leveraging your skillset, and you’re excited to get up and work every day.” And in the moment, I felt so wounded, right?

Annie: Of course.

Maya: Of course. But this was a forced quitting moment that was so assisted because I don’t know if I would’ve had the wherewithal to create that situation for myself. And I mean, we’d already had conversations, I think, in which I kind of revealed that maybe this was not a good fit for me. But Sam gave me that assist. He made it feel like—he gave me a safe space. Because I also felt at the time, like, I don’t want to abandon my lab. I don’t want to abandon my advisor. I mean, this person has poured so much effort into me. And gave me that gift of freeing me from expectations and telling me, it’s okay to find something else. And I remember, leaving the conversation, he said, “And I don’t want you to wait like six months. I know you have lots of postdoctoral funding and you could stick around forever. Like, I want you to find a job like yesterday.”

And so I left and I called Laurie Santos, who was my mentor from undergrad, and I said, “Look. This postdoc thing isn’t working for me and I don’t know what other options exist. I guess I should try to become a general management consultant. Like what are the options when you have a postdoc in cognitive neuroscience? You become an academic researcher, or you become a general management consultant. And that’s when she told me, “Maya, before you do that, let me tell you about this amazing talk I heard by Cass Sunstein,”—co-author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, for those listening who know the book—“and he told me about the fact that they’re utilizing really amazing insights from behavioral economics, from behavioral science, to help enroll low-income kids into the school lunch program.”

So, long story short, what they did is they changed the program from an opt-in program to an opt-out program and helped reduce stigma and the need for paperwork as a result. And overnight, twelve-and-a-half million more kids were now eating lunch at school every day.

Annie: That’s amazing.

Maya: And, oh my God, when I heard that, Annie, it was like this was a light bulb moment for me. I realized I want to be a practitioner of behavioral science. This would combine all of my passions, right? That desire for human connection, but also my interest in the mind, and, you know, all this stuff I’ve been doing wouldn’t also have been a waste, because I was building a skillset. And then I just reached out to Cass, and I was so sheepish because I felt, of course, I felt so unqualified for any public policy positions. So I remember telling him that I was not cool enough to work with the likes of Obama, but if there was a state or local government opportunity, I’d be down for a connection. And he ignored the insecurities and connected me with the president’s science advisor, Obama’s science advisor. And a couple days later I was interviewing and pitching them on creating a new role for me where I could work as a practitioner in the field.

Annie: You know, I love—I love that story because, you know, here you are and I think it’s such a good lesson for people, right? Once the violin gets taken away from you, you, in retrospect, are thinking about how you really love human connection. And you’re pursuing cognitive science in large part because you really love, sort of that connection to other human beings and how they think and how they behave, and you end up in a lab not talking to anybody. And again, your identity gets tied up with something. Because that’s what I hear in what you’re saying, and we could think about identity sort of as two pieces. One is internal validity—the way that we see ourselves, how we want to be consistent over time. You used that word waste, which is such an important word when we’re thinking about change, that we’re worried that we’ll have wasted what we’ve already put into something. We want to be, sort of feel, that we’re consistent in our decisions.

Maya: Absolutely.

Annie: And that’s the way that we sort of view ourselves internally, but also external validity. How are other people going to see you? And what a gift that your advisor, Sam, gave you by seeing what you weren’t going to be willing to act on for yourself and kind of shoving you out the door. And I think a lot of times when we see things like that, we don’t think that it’s a nice thing to do for somebody, to shove them out the door. But it actually is. And you certainly recognized that, right?

Maya: Yeah. Yeah. And I mean, obviously, I’m such a big fan of your book Quit: The Power of Knowing When to Walk Away. But I feel like it’s the gift of quitting. It’s like when we mentor people, when we teach people, like part of our job is not simply to help them persist and to keep up their grittiness. Part of our job as mentors and coaches and whatnot, is to tell people when you think they might want to take a left turn.

“When we mentor people, when we teach people . . . part of our job is not simply to help them persist and to keep up their grittiness. Part of our job as mentors and coaches and whatnot, is to tell people when you think they might want to take a left turn.” – Dr. Maya Shankar

Annie: Yeah. And I think that, you know, on that external validity piece, particularly when you have a mentor, you’re so afraid of letting them down.

Maya: Yes, exactly.

Annie: And for them to let you know it wouldn’t be letting me down, I think, is so incredibly important.

Maya: And I felt so indebted to Sam because, again, I had all my funding lined up. It would have been totally safe for him to just say nothing, right? Just let me continue doing my thing. At some point the funding would expire and then, you know, I would go off and do my next thing, whenever, whatever that was. Maybe another postdoc, maybe apply for academic jobs, I don’t know what it would have been. But he cared about me enough to intervene when he felt it was important to intervene. And how critical was it that he intervened at that exact moment, because it was two weeks before the 2012 election. And that’s when all these new jobs were being decided for the next term of Obama’s presidency. So anyway, I just feel it’s a good reminder to all of us, encouraging quitting as being, I mean this is your line of work, as a real gift we can give others.

Annie: Yeah, you know, I think a lot of people would be afraid, because obviously, as you said, it hurt your feelings in the moment, right?

Maya: Absolutely.

Annie: But to have your long-term vested interest at heart, like that is such a gift, and what a special person to have been able to give you that gift. So you go and, you know, as one does, you get the White House to create a job for you. And I’d be interested to hear, I mean, obviously you used the term default before, when you were talking about the school lunch program. You know, maybe using that as an example, I’d love for you to tell us how you think you might apply behavioral psychology, behavioral economics to help to improve people’s lives. In other words, exactly the kinds of things you were thinking about during your time in the Obama White House.

Maya: Yeah. I mean, we really utilized nudge theory, right? So Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge on how these small tweaks in the way that we design programs and policies could have outsized impacts on people’s behaviors. And oftentimes policy makers are focused on other aspects of the program other than how it’s implemented, right? They’re thinking about, okay, how much money should people be given as part of this benefit? When should it roll out? What should the application process be like? And they’re not always considering the behavioral barriers that might prevent someone from taking action or actually acting in their long-term best interests.

So, my job, and then in this team I built, our mandate was to make sure that we were integrating our best understanding of human behavior into the design of policies and programs so that the benefits of the programs were actually realized, right? It’s useless to have a wonderful school lunch program if kids aren’t eating at lunch every day, but it was simply available to them, right? And so we were, in many ways, trying to solve that final mile problem, which is, okay, the federal government is offering all these wonderful things for people, but there are barriers that exist that we need to break down.

One example of the government offering something that was not being utilized was with the Department of Veterans Affairs. So we offered an educational and employment assistance program to recently returned vets to help them make what’s otherwise a very challenging transition from military to civilian life, right? It’s fraught with obstacles, psychological, physical, and we want to ease that transition, that journey.

And similar to the school lunch program, not enough people were signing up, right? In part, this was because not that many people knew about the program or it was confusing or challenging to sign up. You know, the onus was on the government to make this easier to access. And I remember when we partnered with the VA, they said, “Look, Maya, we don’t have a huge budget for this. All you, all we’ve got here is one email that you can play around with that’s going to market the program to these vets.” And my teammates ended up changing just one word in this email. Instead of telling veterans that they were eligible for the program, we simply reminded them that they had earned it through their years of service. And so this utilizes a principle called the Endowment Effect, which says we value things more when we own them, or in this case, have earned them. So now veterans feel like they have something to lose if they don’t take advantage of the program, right? Like, they own this benefit now and it’s theirs. It’s on the table; it’s theirs to lose. And we found that that one word change led to a nine percent increase in access to the veterans program, which is amazing, again this small costless tweak.

And, you know, we were also—part of our mission was not simply to implement these insights, we wanted to make sure we were rigorously testing them because they are very context specific, right? A tweak in one domain with a certain population might not work with another population, or might not even work with the same population in a different decision-making context. And so we always made sure that we ran A/B tests, you know, randomized control trials, to try to validate that these insights were working. Sometimes they weren’t, and that was really helpful for us to learn. And sometimes they did, and then that was an argument for scaling the insight.

Annie: So how did you, I mean, that’s such a small tweak. But, you know, I think one that most people wouldn’t think about. So how did you come up with that word switch between eligible and earned? Did you try different messages or . . .

Maya: So, yeah. No, we only tried one because unlike, say at a tech company, where A/B testing is just routine, business as usual practice, this division of the Veteran Affairs Department had never run an A/B test in their history. So, this was the first time ever that we set up an email A/B test. That itself was a huge victory. And so we weren’t given many opportunities to change very much, but you know, in any of these situations, you’re building intuitions and what the equivalent of muscle memory over time, around people’s psychology and what we think are the greatest levers to utilize.

And we really felt, look, there’s so much pride around having served our country. And we wanted to tap into that pride and the fact that our country owes them something back in return for their service. And so that’s why we ended up going with this particular change.

Annie: Well, that’s amazing. I mean, a nine percent increase is huge in terms of just, like, the good that you’re doing for this group of people who have served.

Maya: Yeah, and I think the important thing is, with all of these nudges, and this is baked into nudge theory, right? You’re always preserving freedom of choice. People can absolutely choose not to enroll, but in many of these contexts, we’re just trying to make sure that they’re aware of the program, they’re aware of the intention behind the program, right? In this case, to make sure that veterans have the ability to smoothly transition back to civilian life, and the choice, again, remains completely in their hands, but we want to make sure that they have a full understanding of why it is that we created the program in the first place.

Annie: Yeah, so I’d love to hear your thoughts, actually, on that idea, freedom of choice. You know, one of the critiques that I hear about nudge theory, and nudge theory is, just to be really clear, that the context or the framing or the opt-in/opt-out types of questions, that the variety of ways that you’re sort of posing something to somebody can shift their likelihood of doing one thing versus another.

So kind of classically, there is very famous work that was done on organ donation, where they were looking across Europe and there were wildly different proportions of the population who agreed to donate organs. And they had all sorts of theories about, like, how religious the country was and so on and so forth. So there’d be a huge difference between say, France and Germany, where France would be really low and Germany would be really high, or between Germany and Austria. And they were trying to think about, like, religiosity, for example, as maybe the driver of whether people would donate organs.

But it actually turned out to be really simple. If you knew if the country had an opt-in versus an opt-out, you could predict what level of organ donation there was. So when people were automatically enrolled as an organ donor and then opted out, you would get very high levels of organ donation. But when it was an opt-in, you had to say yes to that, but the default was you didn’t donate your organs, then you had a very low participation rate. So that’s one of, sort of the classic, you know, nudge studies.

So one of the critiques that I hear, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, is who are you to say? Right? Like, who are you to say what’s best for the person? You’re guiding people into a particular choice that you’re deciding is the best choice for them. And I’d just love to hear, because you touched on it a little bit, what your response—and I’m sure you’ve heard that critique before no doubt—what your response of that critique is.

Maya: Well, I think it’s important to first establish that there’s no such thing as a defaultless state of the world. And so, when you create a bunch of barriers that prevent parents from signing their kids up for a school lunch program, that in and of itself is a nudge. It’s nudging them away from accessing the program. And so we have to be mindful that this current state of affairs is not a neutral one. It has in-built biases. And we shouldn’t just assume that because it represents the status quo, that it is the optimally designed program.

The other thing is to recognize that, at the end of the day, these nudges are not silver bullets. So, we’re slightly changing the choice environment again to make it easier for people to understand, say, what their options are, their choices. Some of the work we did was around student loan repayment plans and trying to better differentiate between income-driven repayment plans and income-based repayment plans, and it’s just maddening as a student loan borrower to understand these options.

And, in cases like that, and I think across the nudge space, we’re talking about trying to change people’s behaviors who have a stated goal, have a goal that they believe is in their long-term best interest, and to actually act on that. We are not going to change people’s behaviors who don’t want to sign up for the program. We found this, for example, with service members, right? We were highlighting to them the opportunity to sign up for a retirement savings plan, and people who had always wanted to sign up but were confused about the fact that this was an option for them or what their choices were, these nudges were really assistive decision-making aids, right? And helped them get their intention over the finish line, right? To actually act on signing up. It didn’t change the minds of people who thought—I don’t want to save for retirement right now. I want to use that disposable income on a mortgage for my house, or for date night—or whatever the many, many reasons are that a person might not want to save for retirement. And so, I think it’s important for us to view the impact of nudges with some degree of humility as well, which is, we’re not going to be able to change people’s minds. We’re simply helping to bridge an intention/action gap for people who want to take an action but for whatever reason—procrastination, confusion, complexity of the choice—they haven’t yet taken that action.

Annie: Yeah, I mean, I love what you said about there’s always a default.

Maya: Yes. And we forget that sometimes.

Annie: Yeah. And so what nudges are doing is, thinking about, given what the goal of the program is, how do you create an optimal default or an optimal choice architecture where it’s easy for people who want to do it, and again, they have free will, right? Who want to do it to be able to access it. I think that that’s so incredibly important, and you mentioned status quo, and I think that we do have a tendency to think, well, if you’re changing from the status quo, somehow you might be pushing people into something they don’t want. But the status quo may not have had any thought put into it whatsoever. And it may not be the optimal status quo to establish.

Maya: Yes. And it’s also important to note that, of course, we are making some claim about what we think is in people’s best interest. Of course. Because why would we have designed a school lunch program and offered it in the first place if we did not think that it was going to be in these kids’ best interest? And so, it does assume that the objective is defined and is a benevolent one. And so there can be challenges there. But because we don’t know what the impact of the status quo is, this is why experimentation was so crucial. Right, Annie? Like, we might have found out, actually, with the tweaks that we were making, that it performed worse. And that was important. We were always transparent about the impact of our randomized control trials. We published the results of everything that we ever ran so that we could build trust with the public, to show them, look, here are the changes we’re making—this can be a dialogue. You’ll also know when things did not work, and when we need to revert back to the status quo.

And so I think that level of transparency is pretty critical in the nudge space. Certainly when you’re working in a public policy context. And you need the trust of, in this case, the American people in order to make these kinds of decisions.

Annie: So, I love what you said and, just to paraphrase, what I heard you say is that the program itself is the statement about value, right? So if you have a free school lunch program that gets passed by Congress and signed, you know, by the president, that’s the value statement.

Maya: Absolutely. Well said.

Annie: Nudges, though, in some sense are quite neutral, right? Given that this program has been passed, how do we get people to sign up for it? So I like that way of thinking about it. That the program exists—that’s actually the statement of values. The nudge itself doesn’t actually contain values or not, it’s just pushing you toward something that somebody already established as a value of that administration.

Maya: Yes. Nudges are values neutral, for sure. That’s really well said. And that’s why it’s important, you know, in my case, to align with policy and program objectives that I feel are good and pro-social and are going to help lift people up. But you have to evaluate whatever the objective for the program is, aligns with your moral code.

Annie: You talked a lot about, you know, transparency and creating trust with the public. And I’ve been thinking about, within sort of all spaces that we’re communicating with each other, this idea of trusted messengers that you know, can be, sort of, in a good way, right? That if we have a trusted messenger, it can cause us to change our mind toward a direction of something that’s more accurate, or to move us toward something that is going to be in our long-term best interest. Obviously, it can also cause us to refuse to really update our beliefs, right? If the message is coming from someone who is out of our group who isn’t a trusted source. And I know that this is something that you were thinking about when you were working in the White House, thinking about how do we think about the messenger when we’re making decisions? And I’d love to sort of hear your thoughts on how you incorporated that into your work at the White House.

Maya: I think we tend to focus so much on the content of messages, and we sometimes forget to focus on who it is who’s delivering the message. And if you choose the wrong messenger, then the message could be excellently crafted, it could say exactly what you hoped it would say, but it’s going to fall on deaf ears. And so we really kept this in mind during our time at the White House. A very salient example was in Flint, Michigan. The Environmental Protection Agency was tasked with drafting safety sheets around good water safety practices. So, you know, this is how you install your filter, make sure you don’t boil water. It was dispelling many of the myths that were circulating in any high-anxiety environment. And I think, prior to the situation, we would have thought, okay, well, the EPA should be the messenger of these fact sheets. I mean, they are the leading authority figure when it comes to safety and environmental health and whatnot. But then, when you looked at the context in which Flint residents were making decisions, you realize, well, their local government has just lied to them.

They’ve completely betrayed any trust that might have existed before. And they poisoned an entire generation of young kids as a result of their lies. And so you could easily imagine a spillover effect where it’s like, well, if they don’t trust their local government, why are they going to trust the federal government, right? They might not trust larger institutions with very good reason after such a betrayal. And so, what the local EPA ended up doing is organizing a local canvassing effort, in which they recruited really trusted members of the community. So, heads of the local YMCAs, heads of the Red Cross, heads of churches, people that you would see on Sunday when you go to the grocery store. And they would take these EPA-vetted fact sheets, and they would go door to door knocking and saying, “Hey, you know, Annie, I see you every week. You can trust that I believe the content of this fact sheet to be true.”

And I believe that was a much more effective strategy of actually getting people to absorb the information and really taking it to heart than if it had just been issued by some government agency with that stamp, you know, the seal of approval on top.

Annie: So I love that idea of, you know, think about who the right messenger is. So we’ve got—how are we structuring the decision? That’s one piece. You know, defaults, for example. Wording, right? Can we create endowment to the decision? Then we have—who’s the messenger? Who’s actually the deliverer of the information, which, I think, is such an important thing to think about. And then there’s a third piece, if we can roll all the way back to identity, and I’m thinking about, you know, for example, Todd Rogers’s work here on social identity priming and how that can help people to really become better decision makers at least in realizing their long-term best interests. And I’d love for you to maybe speak to that as well as sort of a third piece of the puzzle.

Maya: Yeah. And this goes back to the conversations we had about identity, which is a very powerful tool. And it can be used for good. So when we know from research that people will act in ways that align with their social identities or their aspirational identities, so you know, Todd Rogers’s work, when you tell people that they were voters in previous elections, they’re more likely to show up and vote in subsequent elections. When the Red Cross reminded people of their previous status as donors to the Red Cross, they were not only more likely to donate in future years, they actually increased the magnitude of their donations.

So, you know, when you view yourself as a charitable person, as a donor, you might be more likely to lean into that identity. And so, I think this is great for us to know about, that the identities we associate with can have a really powerful impact on our behaviors. But we do want to be mindful when it’s an identity we’re trying to break from.

So, an example of a project we worked on when we were at the White House was with the Department of Justice, and it was with a division called the Bureau of Prisons. And they were creating guidebooks to help people transition from prison life back into civilian life. And one of the challenges with the existing language is that it was using really backwards-looking language. So, like, you know, X prisoner, X convict, you know, criminal, and we wanted to make sure that it was forward-looking language to help inspire and motivate forward looking behaviors, right? So the guide was scrubbed of the backwards-looking labels and instead we used language like community members, job seekers, right? Knowing that these would be far more powerful at helping people really give themselves the best shot at a second chance.

“The identities we associate with can have a really powerful impact on our behaviors.” – Dr. Maya Shankar

Annie: So, in that identity piece, you know, what do you think is so powerful about the difference between, say, in the voting behavior, right? Or the, being a blood donor? It’s the difference between saying—you have voted in the past and you are a voter; you have given blood in the past versus you are a blood donor. And I’d love to, just hear your thoughts on, like, why what seems like such a small difference in the way that we might express something about our past behavior or our future behavior, why that small change has such a powerful difference in the way that we then behave.

Maya: Yeah, because I think one comments on the things that we do, and the other comments on who we are. And that’s a pretty big difference in psychology, right? Oh, you voted. Okay, that was an action I engaged in. I also took a walk this morning. I also… There are things that I do that might not even represent what I would normally do on any given day. But when it comes to who I am, there’s a constancy there, right? There’s this feeling of, oh, you know, being a voter is in some way aligned with my true self. Like that’s what defines Maya. And I think that’s why it’s a more powerful motivator.

Annie: Yeah, I mean, I love what you’re talking about in terms of the words, because the changes, as you said, like, seem so small. But they have such outsized influence and effect. A little change, like eligible versus earned. Like the difference between someone who has been in prison versus a job seeker, or, you know, you voted in the last election versus I see that you’re a voter. And these differences are so tiny, really. I mean, it feels like, right? But they’re so big. And I think it’s such a look into unraveling kind of the mystery of the way that we make decisions and what can drive our behavior, not just in terms of in a thoughtful way—thinking about how can we actually change people’s behavior to drive them toward things that we think will be better for them—but it makes me think about what are the ways in everybody’s everyday decision-making where they’re not even realizing the influence of these tiny little changes, these little things that they could be doing in order to, drive outsized results in their own life.

So, to that end, I just want to ask you, obviously you have this award-winning podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, where you’re interviewing guests who have navigated major life changes. And obviously you discuss your own experience, which has had a lot of major life changes, and I highly recommend the podcast. It is so incredibly wonderful. Do you have a particular, like, one favorite story from that show?

Maya: You know, the one that comes to mind right now, it’s called the Thai Cave Rescue. And I interview an anesthesiologist, Richard Harris, who ended up being part of the team that rescued the 12 boys on the soccer team and their coach from inside the cave. And the reason it’s one of my favorites is that it takes lessons from your book, Annie, on Quit, and it shows how they played out in real life. And I think one thing that Richard Harris had to do is really focus on evaluating the quality of his decision rather than basing things on the outcome, because the outcome was so precarious, right? He had the best possible plan, it had the highest expected value, and I don’t want to give away too many of the details, but it’s such a gripping story. But for factors that were completely outside of his control, like if the water temperature had been one degree colder, or if something had just gone a little differently, he was kind of flirting with either being a world hero and being doctor death.

Annie: Wow. Yeah.

Maya: Right? He was on this, like, it could have ended up either way. And he knew going into this extremely high-risk situation that either of those could’ve been his fate, but he was a cognitive scientist at heart. He seemed aware that of all the possible paths to take, this was the best one, this was the smartest one, this was the one with the highest likelihood that those kids and their coach got saved. And it’s such an inspiring story where, when you see these decision-making principles play out in the real world, I mean, it just packs such an emotional punch. And so I loved going on that journey with him and figuring out where his courage came from, because at the end of the day, courage is defined as, look, I really trust the quality of my decision but I know that for reasons, again, entirely outside of my control, I could end up in a number of distinct worlds after this is over, and I was just so impressed by the courage.

“When you see these decision-making principles play out in the real world . . . it just packs such an emotional punch.” – Dr. Maya Shankar

Annie: I love that. We’ll make sure to link to that particular episode in the show notes as well so that people can go listen to it, which I’m going to go do right after this.

Maya: Oh, it’s so good.

Annie: So one last question, Maya. Obviously, we’re doing this for the Alliance for Decision Education. So my question for you, Maya, is what impact on society do you think there would be if the Alliance succeeds in its mission to ensure Decision Education is part of every single student’s learning experience?

Maya: I think it will breed more empathy in people. So I’ve often thought of cognitive science as a great empathy building tool because when we understand why it is that we make decisions, and, or why it is that other people make decisions, it helps bridge gaps in our failure to understand them, right? Oftentimes we feel like we’re at an impasse with people that we disagree with, but when we unlock the key and understand what goes into people’s decision-making processes, I think it helps bridge some of those gaps.

“I’ve often thought of cognitive science as a great empathy building tool because when we understand why it is that we make decisions . . . or why it is that other people make decisions, it helps bridge gaps in our failure to understand them.” – Dr. Maya Shankar

Annie: I love that answer. So much.

Maya: Yeah, I really believe it’s true.

Annie: It’s so funny because I think about, like, benefits to society and helping people to navigate the information space that exists right now which is so complex, but empathy is such a beautiful answer.

Maya: It’s really hard for me to hate people. Like the more I learn about the human mind, the more I learn about the factors that go into someone’s belief system, then it’s not all based on facts but societal grouping and membership and tribalism and all that stuff. It’s just, you can really strongly disagree with them. In fact, you can find their views abhorrent but it, just… Yeah, yeah. It builds just a little bit of empathy.

Annie: I just love that answer and that answer is so you. So I love that you’re the one who gave that answer. It feels really good. All right, so just to finish, if listeners want to go online and learn more about your work or follow you on social media or listen to your podcast, where should they start?

Maya: So I basically engage with only one form of social media. There is a Twitter account, but I don’t really manage that one. But I’m @DrMayaShankar on Instagram. So D-R-M-A-Y-A-S-H-A-N-K-A-R, and I give behind the scenes glimpses into how we make the show, A Slight Change of Plans, and then there’s also a personal angle, too.

Annie: I love that. And we’ll obviously link to that in the show notes as well. In addition to any links to any books that we mentioned today, obviously Maya’s podcast, A Slight Change of Plans, Maya’s Instagram that you’ll be able to find in the show notes on the Alliance site; you’ll also be able to find there a transcript of today’s conversation. So, Maya, I am so appreciative of you joining us. I always look forward to our conversations, and I’m so happy that you’re willing to have this conversation with us today.

Maya: Well, it was such a joy, Annie. And you know I’ll take any excuse to have a conversation with you, so thank you so much for your time.

Annie: Well, thank you. I feel exactly the same way and I hope everybody else enjoyed it as much as we did.

Published Aug 2, 2023

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