grit | November 16, 2017

Changing Behavior Means Changing the World: Angela Duckworth and Katherine Milkman on Making Good Habits Stick for Life

Anyone can drop a bad habit for a little while—but what about kicking it forever? Researchers Angela Duckworth (who literally wrote the book on Grit) and Katherine Milkman, a leading expert in behavioral economics, are investigating how to turn the intention to change into long-term reality.

Making Behavior Change Stick


“There are billions of people in the world, pretty much all of whom have challenges related to goals they’d like to achieve, whether it’s weight loss or medication adherence or finances,” Milkman told UPenn. “Pretty much everyone is looking to self-improve, and whether they have a lot of resources or not, everybody could be better. Many things get in our way, but behavior is a struggle for everyone.” Now, with the Behavior Change for Good initiative, Milkman, Duckworth, and two dozen other scientists, are conducting real-world experiments (including one with Blink Fitness members) to create “enduring behavior change.”


Duckworth is the leading force behind defining grit—the quality of perseverence that goes beyond I.Q.-based assessments of success. A recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, Duckworth’s research has been widely cited by educators, professional sports teams, and even the White House administration. Milkman’s research on the science of self control dovetails with Duckworth’s, targeting the ways we deviate from optimal choices and how we can resist temptation. An associate professor at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Milkman’s research is notable for using big data to document the many ways individuals and groups deviate from making healthy decisions—which both she and Duckworth are harnessing in the Behavior Change for Good initiative.


Duckworth explains that they want people to go to the gym more, so they plan to deliver 28 days of support—questionnaires, videos, educational materials, and an online scheduling tool, as well as incentive payments for 28 days of gym visits, along with associated text reminders about workouts—designed by scientists at Penn and elsewhere. “Then we’ll look at what the gym-going pattern is after the 28 days,” says Duckworth. “The plan is to build on the knowledge we acquire,” Milkman says. “I don’t think we’ll ever solve completely how to change behavior for good. Right now we don’t have an endpoint; we have projects that could occupy us forever if we keep rolling them out.”


Interested in behavioural economics? Our speakers comprise some of the leading thinkers, writers, and educators in the field. Give us a call to learn more about brand new additions to our roster like András Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield, authors of the forthcoming book Meltdown.

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