Best-selling author, TV host, behavior expert and Regulatory Convergence keynote speaker Daniel Pink has spent years looking at why people do the things they do, and how sometimes subtle changes can make big differences in their behaviors. As host of The National Geographic Channel’s Crowd Control, he has conducted fascinating experiments that show just how some of these changes play out in real-world situations, and how social science can be used to tackle real problems. When Regulatory Focus recently had a chance to ask him about his work, some of the things he’s learned over the years and how it all may relate to the world regulatory professionals operate in every day, we jumped at the chance.
Regulatory Focus: How did you first become interested in studying human behavior?
Daniel Pink: I was a pretty quiet kid, so I guess I spent a lot of time watching other people. In college, I majored in linguistics, which is a glorious blend of social science, cognitive science, with a smidge of literature mixed in.
RF: What are the most important, interesting or surprising things you have learned about behavior over the years?
DP: Wow. So many things. For starters, it’s amazing how much people go through life on automatic pilot, largely unaware of their surroundings or themselves. There’s a good reason for this, of course. It can increase efficiency if we don’t pay attention to everything. But I do think, as William James said, we largely go through life only half awake. Also, as a super-rational guy who studied economics alongside linguistics, I’ve learned that the way people make decisions, alas, relies much more on emotion than on reason—at least in many cases.
RF: What do you plan to cover in your keynote remarks at RAPS’ Regulatory Convergence?
DP: I’ll be talking about what 40 years of behavioral science tells us about human motivation and motivating others.
RF: How can behavioral techniques be used to encourage better health?
DP: That really depends. Much of what we do throughout a day consists of default behaviors—that is, we’re not really thinking, but simply doing whatever is convenient or easy at the time. So something like replacing junky vending machines with fresh fruit can have an impact. Same with, say, putting parking places further away from entrances to encourage walking. Those are small moves, of course. But it’s often easier to rearrange the environment than simply to implore people to change their behavior.
RF: How does what you have learned about behavior, motivation, persuasion, etc. apply to the regulation of healthcare and medical products or the process for getting new products approved by regulators?
DP: Regulators are people, too. So much of the science of persuasion and influence applies to them with the same force as it would apply to anyone else. For instance, regulators might look for what the great Robert Cialdini calls “social proof,” the idea that others are making certain decisions so they should do. On this persuasive task, as with many others, being able to take the regulator’s perspective is essential. Can you understand their interests and try to find common ground. Likewise, there’s some great research on how many arguments we should make and in what sequence that could play a big role here.
RF: Knowing what you do about motivation and the lessons from experiments like the candle problem, what can either healthcare companies or regulators like FDA do to better encourage innovation in medicine and medical treatments?
DP: Provide greater autonomy to talented people. Instead of relying on what I call “if-then rewards”—as in “If you do this, then you get that”—companies are better off giving people much greater sovereignty over what they do and how they do it. That could mean carving out regular time for “noncommissioned” work. Or it could mean doing things akin to hackathons or “ship it days” or concentrated periods when people are free to do whatever they want. At the same time, great people want to work with other great people—so attracting top talent can foster innovation. Same for having a sense of purpose that threads through the organization.
RF: Nearly every medicine or treatment carries both potential benefits and risks. What do regulators, healthcare product makers, doctors and consumers need to know about human perceptions of benefits vs. risks?
DP: I’m not sure. But the science is pretty clear that human beings are not very good assessors of risk. We’re more concerned about dramatic events with low probabilities (lightning strikes, shark attacks) than we are about non-dramatic events with higher probabilities (eating poorly and not exercising for many years). We also are generally pretty bad at planning for the future, usually prefer a goodie now to a larger benefit many years later.
RF: Regulatory professionals often must work across departments with people in many other areas who may not report to them to ensure regulations they have no control over are followed. What can they learn about human behavior that can help them do their jobs better?
DP: Here I think it’s a matter of perspective taking again. In these situations—indeed, in most situations on the job—we have very little coercive power. We can’t force other people to do things. So we need what is, in some sense, the opposite ability—to get out of our own heads, understand another’s perspective, and try to find common ground. Fortunately, with practice, most of us can get better at perspective-taking.
RF: FDA announced last year it will study the effect of the physical attributes of drugs on patient adherence. What do you think they might find?
DP: That’s really interesting. I have no idea what they’ll discover. But it wouldn’t shock me if the size, shape, and color of a particular medicine had an effect on both patient adherence and perhaps even drug efficacy. It’ll be interesting to find out.
You can find more background on Daniel Pink at www.danpink.com and follow him on Twitter at @DanielPink. For more information about, or to register for, The Regulatory Convergence, go to RAPS.org/convergence.
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