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“Fifty Bits” and the optimism of rethinking how people choose

6 min read


When you hear why “The Power of Fifty Bits” is titled such as it is, you may think, “That sounds pessimistic.” After all, the brain take in 10 million bits of information each second, but only 50 bits of that is processed as conscious thought. Feels like our brains are pretty inefficient.

And, then, if you learn that author Bob Nease’s background was in pharma, and as chief scientist of Express Scripts his challenges included getting patients to be better about taking their medication, you might think, “Ah, this is about getting people to stop being jerks and take their medicine!”

Fortunately, as his book and a recent conversation we had illustrate, Bob Nease is an optimist about our ability to make better choices — a revelation that initially surprised him, too.

Simply put, Nease takes the approach that it is neither a lack of information or education, nor a lack of willpower or moral fiber, that leads us to poor choices. He argues that it is clear most people have good intentions most of the time. As he told me, no one wakes up and says, “I want to be unhealthy” or “I want to be fat” or “I want to make a bad decision.” Yet there is still a divide between those intentions and many of people’s day-to-day choices and outcomes.

This may not sound new to some of you. After all, there are countless books on leadership and other disciplines that explore decision-making and habits. But, as Nease said, many of these books are not particularly helpful for people who would like to apply what they’ve read — to translate the theory into action.

So, what is Nease’s practical plan? It’s not a “do this and things will fall into place.” No, the “fifty bits” field is relatively new and open to exploration. He does offer seven key strategies, each with its own time and place and meant to be deployed in combination as needed. I’ve paraphrased them below:

  • Make people stop and choose among options
  • Help people decide today about future choices, thus “locking” them in
  • “Let it ride,” or setting a desirable default that people can change if they wish.
  • Go to where people’s limited (50-bit) attention is being directed.
  • Present, or “reframe,” the options in a different way
  • Tie the action you want people to take to something else that is desirable.
  • Simplify options, but with some kind of pause built-in if a poor choice is about to be made.

“The Power of Fifty Bits” is a book that underscores a process of trial and error, of discovery. It is also a book that reminds us of how important communication, phrasing and word choice are. It is a book that asks us to accept as a foundation that most people have good intentions and that the strategies offered assume good intent from the designers of solutions, even though we know that there will be bad actors.

Why would Nease take those positions, and why might you want to consider them? Here are a few reasons:

We still have a lot to learn about behavior, both in the lab and in society. One, while we may know much of the “basic science” of behavior, as Nease says, we don’t have the certainty that we do in, say, building a bridge and knowing that it will be structurally sound. So, those who study behavior, decision-making and whatnot still have much ground to explore. If the science is still unfinished, certainly our practical applications of his strategies will need revision.

Nease has lived on both sides. At Express Scripts, he told me, they searched well beyond the pharma industry in search of insights and ideas that they could bring back and use. And, since then and in the writing of the book, he’s studied the field from multiple angles.

This freedom to explore and adjust reflects the fact that people have many different needs, circumstances and motivations. If you’re developing an 401(k) program, as he notes in the book, an opt-out situation is wonderful because people intend to save, but a majority will not get around to opting-in, even with the incentive of a company match. Making 401(k) participation an opt-out exercise, however, greatly increased involvement because instead of a complex series of decisions to opt-in, employees would only have to act to decline.

However, there are situations where opt-out would be a cumbersome process, or would result in organizations losing too many participants. In the “50 Bits” system, that’s OK. Try another one of the strategies. See which paths work best.

The way in which ideas and views are communicated matters greatly. We all know how tone and setting matter, how feedback can be felt as hurtful words instead of constructive criticism. The same applies when people are trying to make decisions. Nease illustrates how people react differently to a scenario depending on how it is presented by telling of a health crisis where a disease could kill as many as 600 people. When one option was phrased as “save 200 people,” it was viewed more favorably than when phrased as “400 people will die,” even though the information was identical.

People generally are more averse to loss than they are excited about gains. How you frame the situation matters, and with that comes a host of considerations, including ethical ones.

People are not the problem. The effect of “50 Bits” design is to recognize the talents people do have and help them deliver on intentions, rather than to denounce deficiencies and demand rehabilitation. As Nease writes:

“[50 Bits] rejects the assumptions that we are poorly educated, hoodwinked by others who are in the know, inadequately incentivized, resistant to change, or of questionable moral character. … the goal of fifty bits design isn’t to change people’s minds. Instead, fifty bits design works by activating the good intentions that already exist.”

You’re trying to get people to act differently. Be aware of this responsibility. It is tempting to use the strategies Nease presents for selfish or manipulative reasons (and it’s easy to do so inadvertently). You’ll need to determine the specific boundaries, but he offers a few “guardrails”:

  • Would you be comfortable with your mother hearing about what you’re doing? What about The New York Times?
  • Would a reasonable, informed person feel deceived?
  • Are you being intellectually honest in your efforts?

“The Power of 50 Bits” can be digested by the layperson, but it is based on behavioral science and research and thus requires a patient and curious reader. Many of its examples lead directly to innovation or marketing applications, but the strategies can be applied in your personal life, to management situations and other scenarios. Most importantly, from my perspective, it’s a book that would rather have us trust people rather than assume the worst. Trusting others will inevitably lead to some heartbreak, but the alternative means closing the door to countless possibilities.

James daSilva manages SmartBlog on Leadership and edits SmartBrief’s daily newsletters on leadership and entrepreneurship.