How Your Brain Is Wired to Help You

Imagine you walk into a bar. At the front door, there’s a friendly-looking person asking you to sign a petition against drunk driving. Straight forward enough, right? You sign it and go about your night just as you would have anyway, without a second thought.

Think again. In a controlled study, researchers gave half the patrons in a particular bar a pamphlet on the dangers of drunk driving. The other half received the pamphlet, but were also asked to sign a petition against drunk driving. Over the course of six weeks, those who signed the petition were six times more likely to wait for a taxi instead of driving home after drinking.

Dozens of studies have replicated this phenomenon in different contexts. And at Jawbone, we’ve used it to successfully encourage hundreds of thousands of people to get at least 7 hours of sleep. It turns out that the simple act of agreeing to do something actually makes you much more likely to do it. This understanding is based on psychology professor Robert Cialdini’s landmark work on influence—specifically a principle that he calls “Commitment and Consistency” (Cialdini, 1984). Cialdini posits that “Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.” Simply put, once you say “yes” to something, your brain doesn’t let you off the hook so easily.

Today I will screenshot

At Jawbone, we took this behavioral science concept and applied it to UP through a feature called “Today I Will”. Today I Will’s are intelligent, actionable suggestions that we provide to the UP community to put behavioral science to work for them.

For example, when UP notices you’ve recently had a few late nights compared with your normal sleep habits, it springs into action, “Hey it looks like you haven’t been getting enough sleep recently. Why don’t you try to get to bed by 10:50 pm tonight?”

This particular application of the commitment and consistency principle is called the ‘foot-in-the-door’ technique. Here’s how it works: start with a small ask, like signing a petition. Then, because of our desire to be consistent with our previous commitment, we are more likely to comply with a ‘big ask’ later. At the bar, the big ask was to actually wait for a taxi instead of driving home.

And so we integrated this behavioral science technique into UP. We may know that we should go to sleep earlier but watching one more rerun of Friends can just be too alluring (I mean Ross and Rachel — will they? won’t they? Oh wait, we already know…) To close the gap between “should” and “will,” we lean on the principle of commitment and consistency. We start with that small ask: pressing a button that says ‘I’m in’ to have your mission for the night. May the odds be ever in your favor. UP will also let your teammates know that you’re going to try to hit that bedtime for the night — if you’re lucky, they might even cheer you on.

Then comes the magic. About an hour before your suggested bedtime, UP swoops in with the ‘big ask': actually going to bed at the suggested bedtime. Time to turn off that TV and honor your commitment to get to bed earlier — your brain is already pre-wired to want to do it.

What’s so magical about this? It actually works. Leveraging this powerful science has already allowed us to help hundreds of thousands of people get to bed 23 minutes earlier on average and make them 72% more likely to get to bed early enough to get at least 7 hours of sleep.

And this is just the beginning. We are taking decades of research on how the human mind works out of libraries and into people’s hands. For the first time, we can validate and improve upon these theories at the press of a button — and immediately reach hundreds of thousands of people. It is with the breadth of reach and the vigor of science, that we are able to build products to help our community know themselves and live better.

About The Author

Kelvin Kwong
  • Kelvin Kwong
  • Director of Product Management, Head of Behavior Change

Kelvin leads a cross-functional team building experiences to facilitate behavior change to improve health outcomes. At Jawbone, he takes the learnings from behavioral science out of textbooks and into the hands of the UP community. Kelvin previously spent time at Amazon, as an investor and as a professional magician for nearly a decade -- and no, we’re not playing two truths and a lie. Follow him at @kelvinskwong if your heart desires.