Katy Milkman on the science of change

The Wharton professor and co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative discusses her new book aimed at helping individuals and managers inspire meaningful, lasting shifts in behavior.

Individuals who have tried to change or encourage it in the people they manage know how hard it is. There are countless resources that aim to help—to boost productivity, exercise, healthy eating, or savings. But chances are, many are still not where they want to be. In “How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be”, Wharton’s James G. Dinan Professor and Behavior Change for Good Initiative co-director Katy Milkman explains why.

At left, headshot of Katy Milkman. At right, her book cover titled How to Change.
Wharton professor Katy Milkman (Image: Peter Murphy)

The crucial thing that many get wrong? The strategy itself. Change, Milkman has learned, comes most readily when one understands what’s standing between them and success, and tailor a solution to that roadblock.

“Initially, I did a lot of what I like to call “me-search”—studying topics that related to my personal foibles. But that all changed about a decade ago when I saw a pie chart that kept me up at night for weeks afterward. The chart broke down the most common causes of premature death in the United States. And it showed that roughly 40 percent of premature deaths are the result of personal behaviors we can change — seemingly small daily decisions about eating, drinking, exercise, smoking, sex, and vehicle safety,” says Milkman.

“I’ve never seen a similar breakdown of how our daily decisions accumulate when it comes to productivity, happiness, savings, or educational outcomes, but it’s easy to guess that it’s not just health where the little things pile up fast. Recognizing that my research on behavior change could potentially make a real dent in such meaningful problems has fueled me ever since.”

Milkman finds people are still reluctant to alter their behavior despite change being easy and inexpensive. “The obstacles to change are highly variable. Your obstacle might be forgetfulness, or a lack of confidence, or a desire to take the path of least resistance, or the tendency to succumb to temptation. And we sometimes face more than just one obstacle. But whatever the challenge, identifying it and developing a tailored strategy to surmount it is key.”

Read more at Wharton Magazine.