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  • I'll tell you a little a bit about irrational behavior --

  • (Laughter)

  • I want to talk about one particular problem which is self control.

  • There were two sisters, in Northern Carolina,

  • the Delaney sisters,

  • and when the youngest of them got to be 100 years old

  • they asked her "What was your secret for longevity?"

  • -- they had an interview with the New York Times --

  • "What was your secret for longevity?"

  • and they said they had two secrets.

  • The first one was that they said they decided never to get married.

  • (Laughter)

  • They said they did not want a husband to drive them to an early grave.

  • (Laughter)

  • And my wife is sitting here

  • so I am going to skip this particular insight,

  • (Laughter)

  • but the second thing they said was that they did not want to go to hospital

  • because hospital is a place where you get diseases.

  • And there is a lot of wisdom in what they said.

  • I was in hospital for a very long time

  • and like many other people I got some new diseases

  • while in hospital.

  • I got burnt, I was in the burn department,

  • but I got an infected blood transfusion

  • and I got a disease as a consequence of that.

  • It's bad enough to be in hospital, in general,

  • it's worse to get a liver disease

  • it would affect my recovery, it'd slow down the operation,

  • it rejected transplants, all kinds of bad things,

  • but it was also the case that the doctors didn't know where it came from.

  • They didn't know what was the essence of the problem.

  • Fast forward years from time to time my liver would act up,

  • about seven years later I have some kind of episode.

  • I check myself into hospital and they tell me the good news:

  • they know what the problem is, it was hepatitis C.

  • It that was a particular virus that I got at the time

  • and they did point they had -- they've isolated the problem

  • and not only that. It that was a new FDA trial for that;

  • they were trying a new medication

  • call Interferon, to see whether this would work on hepatitis C.

  • And they ask me whether I want to join the clinical trial.

  • And of course I wanted to,

  • who would want to die from liver cirrhosis?

  • So I join this trial,

  • and what they told me when I joined

  • was how annoying and difficult Interferon really is.

  • And here was that -- for me these injections of Interferon

  • kind of symbolize the complexity of human life.

  • Imagine that you are standing there with an injection,

  • and you have to inject your thigh

  • three times a week, for a year and a half.

  • And you knew that if you did it for a year and a half,

  • you might not have liver cirrhosis 30 years from now.

  • But you also knew that if you did it right now,

  • you will be really miserable for the next 16 hours:

  • vomiting, headache, fever, shaking,

  • now think for a second whether you would do it?

  • Like, would you do that? Would you be able to take on

  • the short terms consequences of a loss,

  • for a potential probabilistic long term gain?

  • If you think about it this is kind of an ancient problem

  • for human behavior: It's this question, Adam and Eve.

  • You would say:

  • "Who would give eternity in the garden of Eden for an apple right now?"

  • (Laughter)

  • It seems crazy!

  • But here's the modern version of this question.

  • (Laughter)

  • "Who in their right mind would risk their life while texting?"

  • Please rise your hands if you have texted while driving.

  • I'm guessing that most of the rest of you are just lying!

  • (Laughter)

  • There was a study a couple of weeks ago that asked the question of

  • "What happens in states that restrict texting while driving?"

  • Accident rate actually goes up! Why?

  • Because instead of texting like this, people start texting like this!

  • (Laughter)

  • Anyway the problem is much more general

  • than texting. Right?

  • This is about health.

  • Think about dieting, really good for the long term,

  • not so fun right now.

  • Exercising, not so good now, good for the long term.

  • Financial savings, not fun now, good for the long term.

  • Safe sex! The same applies.

  • And it turns out that when we face these problems

  • we just fail regularly, systematically and consistently.

  • Here is one way to think about it.

  • Imagine I offered you a choice between half a box of chocolate right now

  • and a full box of chocolate in a week.

  • Half a box of chocolate now, and a full one in a week.

  • And imagine that you actually have a sample.

  • So it's not just hypothetical,

  • but you could see it and smell it and feel the chocolate.

  • Under those conditions,

  • how many of you would wait another week for another half of a box of chocolate?

  • Rise your hands. Ok! We have a few patient people here,

  • maybe 20% and I am sure if it would be for real there would be less of you that would be --

  • (Laughter)

  • -- but the majority said, "Give me the chocolate now!"

  • Now imagine I push the choice to the future,

  • and I said what would you rather have,

  • half a box of chocolate in a year,

  • or a full box of chocolate in a year and a week?

  • Now, notice it's the same question,

  • it's the question whether you are willing to wait another week for another half a box of chocolate.

  • How many people now are willing to wait?

  • Everybody! (Laughter)

  • --because in the future we are wonderful people!

  • (Laughter)

  • We will exercise, we will diet, we will save!

  • The problem of course is we never live in the future.

  • We always live in the present. And in the present, we are very, very different people.

  • Fast forward, I took these injections for a very long time,

  • and it was a very miserable period of my life,

  • and when I finished, the doctors told me two things.

  • First of all they said that the medication worked,

  • it eradicated the virus from my system. That was good news!

  • The second things they said was that in this whole FDA protocol,

  • I was the only patient who took their medication on time.

  • The question is, how could I do it?

  • Do I have better self-control, do I look better to the future than other people?

  • Do I care more?

  • And the answer is none of those!

  • The answer is that I designed a trick for myself.

  • And my trick is based on the fact that I love movies.

  • If I had time, I would watch lots and lots of movies,

  • sadly I don't have that much time.

  • So I basically had a deal with myself, that I'd only watch movies after I inject myself.

  • So on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, which were injection days,

  • I would go to school, I would stop on the way to a video store,

  • I would rent some videos I really wanted to watch,

  • I would carry them in my backpack the whole day anticipating watching them,

  • then I would get home in the evening, I would put a video in,

  • I would inject myself, I would get a bucket and a blanket for the side effects,

  • I would inject myself and start watching the video immediately.

  • Now if you think about it this is kind of a strange idea.

  • 'Cause if you think about things in life that are important or not,

  • livers are really important. (Laughs) It's somewhere up there.

  • Injections, side effects: not that important in the big scheme of things.

  • Movies are even less important!

  • So what happened?

  • The problem is that we see the problem, we see the world,

  • it's not like this, it's not that we say

  • that livers are important and side effects are not,

  • we also have a time horizon for this.

  • And when we add a time horizon,

  • because livers are important but they are far in the future,

  • we discount them dramatically, like we did for the chocolate in a week.

  • And because the injections are now, we exaggerate their importance dramatically.

  • So let's think about it, did this trick with the movie

  • help me care about my liver,

  • did I wake up every morning, feeling energized to do something about my liver?

  • No! I did what we call reward substitution,

  • I replace the liver with movies.

  • I started behaving as if I cared about my liver.

  • I cared about it because there was something else in the way

  • that was immediate and appealing.

  • And even though it was not as important as the liver,

  • it became a substitute for the reward.

  • Now, the reality is that we face problems

  • with self-control all the time,

  • all these problems I describe are really basic human problems.

  • Can we get people to wake up in the morning and feel energized about solving these problems?

  • Very unlikely.

  • Can we use reward substitution? Maybe.

  • Think for example about something like global warming.

  • If you were going to design the problem that people would not care about,

  • it would be global warming.

  • (Laughter)

  • Right?

  • It has all the elements for human apathy.

  • Long term in the future, will happen to other people first,

  • we don't see it progressing, we don't see any other individual suffering,

  • and anything we would do is a drop in the bucket!

  • All the elements that create human apathy rolled into one!

  • Can we get people to wake up in the morning and feel energized about global warming?

  • Maybe a very few fraction.

  • But perhaps the key is in creating reward substitution!

  • Getting people to care about other things that would be linked to behaving well,

  • and getting people to behave nicely for the wrong reasons.

  • So, if we think about self-control I told you a little bit about reward substitution,

  • I want to tell you about one other approach.

  • And this is what I'd call self-control contracts or the Ulysses' contracts.

  • So if you remember the story about Ulysses and the sirens,

  • Ulysses knew that if the sirens would come he would be tempted.

  • So, he tied himself to the mast, he got the sailors to put earplugs in their ear,

  • so even if the sirens would come he would not be able to be tempted.

  • That's a different version of the self-control mechanism,

  • and it's quite more sophisticated!

  • It says, "We know that when the time comes, we will be tempted,

  • so we are going to do something now that would eliminate temptation from our path".

  • Imagine for example that you go to a restaurant,

  • and you've vowed to be on a diet.

  • What are the odds

  • that if the waiter comes with chocolate soufflé,

  • you will resist temptation?

  • Not very high!

  • Would you be willing to do a Ulysses contract, which is to say to the waiter:

  • "Here is a dollar, don't show me the dessert tray."

  • (Laughter)

  • Before we look at this, let's go back for a second,

  • and think about whether animals can do that.

  • So imagine you are a pidgeon or a rat,

  • and imagine that you learn two things.

  • You learn that the green button,

  • means one pellet of food immediately,

  • and the purple button means 10 pellets of food in 10 seconds.

  • So you learn this one, you learn this one, now we put them together.

  • The question is,

  • you are a rat or a pidgeon, what would you choose?

  • And just to kind of get a feeling of scale, for a rat 10s is like a week for us.

  • What do you think they choose?

  • They choose the green one.

  • Sadly, they take the 1 pellet, they forego the 10 pellets.

  • It gets slightly worse, you start the trial,

  • the purple button comes up, some times passes

  • and then the green button appears.

  • If the rat or the pidgeon can just hold off, they can just sit on their hands,

  • they can wait, they can distract themselves,

  • they would get 10 pellets of food.

  • They can't!

  • They press the green one and they forego the 10 pellets of food.

  • But here is kind of a good news!

  • The good news is that if you introduce a red button,

  • and the red button is not connected to food,

  • and pidgeons and rats don't like pressing them,

  • but the red button is going to eliminate the appearance of the green button.

  • The purple button appears, they press on it, the red button appears.

  • If the rat or the pidgeon would press that,

  • the only thing that would happen is temptation would not come!

  • What do you think? Do they do it?

  • They do it!

  • Not all the times, but they do it quite often.

  • And I think that's very optimistic because if they can do it,

  • you know -- maybe -- we can do it too!

  • (Laughter)

  • So here are a couple of examples.

  • This is a clock that one of students in the Media Lab has designed.

  • It's called Clocky. It has two big wheels as you can see,

  • and when the alarm starts it also starts running in the room.

  • Now here is what happens!

  • When you go to sleep, in your mind, you are the kind of person

  • who wakes up at 6 o'clock in the morning and goes for a run

  • before going to the office or to school.

  • When you wake up at 6 in the morning you are not the same person, (Laughs)

  • you are a person that stays in bed until 8.30, you know,

  • thinks about running the next day. (Laughs)

  • This clock eliminates this problem, because if you set it up the night before,

  • the next morning you have to get up!