Interview with Dan Pink – Manipulating the Masses and Hacking your Life

We recently caught up with Dan Pink, the mastermind and host of Crowd Control, a 12-part National Geographic TV series in which Dan and his team use behavioral science, design and technology to solve public problems. He has over 20 years experience as a journalist and writer, and is the author of five bestselling books about human behavior, including his latest book, To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others.

With his TED talk on the science of motivation below being one of the 10 most-watched of all time (nearly 10 million views!) we asked him a few questions about Crowd Control, and more specifically, on motivating the masses and motivating ourselves to change our lives for the better.

Dan Pink in OfficeWhat are the main academic theories that you draw from in the devising of your crowd control experiments?

Dan: We drew on a variety of studies and lines of research for the show. For instance, we used the famous research showing that a certain shade of pink — called “Drunk Tank Pink” — had a calming effect and then painted a towing lot reception area pink to calm frustrated drivers.  

Along those lines, we drew on research showing that the smell of lemons triggers thoughts of cleanliness and pumped lemon scent into a baseball stadium men’s room to increase hand-washing. We used research showing that the color blue operates as an appetite suppressant — then painted a dining room blue to slow people’s eating and deter their overeating.

And that’s just the beginning. We used some principles of gamification. We harnessed research showing that it’s possible to alter behavior simply by explaining why the behavior is necessary. We used the principle of social proof — that is, our tendency to look to others for cues about how to behave — to get people to walk more carefully on sidewalks while using their cell phones.

Reward versus punishment and orders versus encouragement seem to be to be recurring themes in your social experiments, could you comment on this?

Dan: Sort of. For simple, short-term tasks if-then rewards and punishments (as in if you do this, then you get that) can be pretty effective. But sometimes they don’t last very long. We instated a speed camera lottery to reward drivers who stayed under the speed limit. While the lottery was in place, speeds dropped. But once we removed it, my guess is that people went back to their bad behavior.

On orders versus encouragement, that’s tricky, too. But in general, human beings don’t like being told what to do. In fact, we have only two basic reactions to control. We comply. Or we defy. But that often doesn’t lead to lasting behavior change. Encouragement — whether helping people make regular progress or understand the “why” of their efforts — often has less short-term impact. But its effects can last longer.

Has Crowd Control inspired any crowd-controlling action by governments, organizations or businesses that you know of?

Dan: Yes! In New Mexico, we installed a musical road to deter speeding. When drivers go the speed limit over this stretch, grooves in the highway vibrate and play the song America the Beautiful. That road will be there for years — and several other states (as well as a few other countries) are now investigating building these sorts of roads themselves.

Also, in one episode we went to Austin, Texas, to try to crack down on people parking illegally in spaces reserved for the disabled. Our technique was to install signs, alongside the existing signs, that read “Think of Me. Keep it Free.” The signs also featured a photograph of a local person in a wheelchair. That technique eliminated illegal parking in the area. Now cities in the states of Texas, Connecticut, and Colorado are doing the same.

And finally, how can we invite some of the life and society benefits from your Crowd Control experiments to our own personal real-lives?

Dan: There are all kinds of ways. Take the lemon scent experiment. During flu season office, schools, even homes could put a bowl of lemons in the washroom to encourage hand-washing. Or if you want to lose weight, use blue tablecloths, blue napkins, and blue plates to see if that dampens appetite. (Use smaller plates, too, since we found those substantially cut down on overeating.) We did a great experiment using a photo booth to show people what they’d look like without apply sunscreen. That got them — at least that day — to change their ways.

Since we do a terrible job planning for the future, if you’re trying to get yourself to save for retirement or exercise more or use sunscreen, try a smartphone aging app like Aging Booth or Oldify. Snap a picture of current you, wait for a picture of future you, and you might be shocked into changing your ways.  

More broadly, recognize that most of us go through life pretty blindly, barely thinking about what we’re doing. So try whatever you can — fun, surprise, games, etc — to jolt people out of that default behavior and jolt them into better, more productive behavior.

Image via STH / Shutterstock.

Carla Clark, PhD

Carla Clark, PhD, is BrainBlogger's Lead Editor and Psychology and Psychiatry Section Editor. A scientific consultant, writer, and researcher in a variety of fields including psychology and neuropsychology, as well as biotechnology, molecular biology, and biophysical chemistry, you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter @GeekReports
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