Self Improvement


A Behavioural Design Guide to Happiness in 2021

By | All, Self Improvement

What is the secret to happiness? Which behaviours lead to a happier life? In this blog I want to explore how a deeper understanding of behavioural science can help us to design for happiness. I want to explore how you can use Behavioral Design thinking to nudge yourself into living a happier life.

Tom De Bruyne

Happiness comes in four chemical flavours.

The problem with designing for happiness is that happiness is a bit of a tricky state of mind. It comes in many flavours: excitement, joy, satisfaction, wellbeing, a sense of belonging, etc. So if we want to pursue happiness, what are we talking about? The most objective way to think about it is to look at the neurochemicals that produce happiness. In the end, our experiences are nothing more than triggers that produce neurochemicals: 

  1. Dopamine gives a person a sense of joy when a goal is reached or fulfilled. Dopamine comes in instant rushes, right before the moment of success. Think about: scoring a goal, crossing the finish line, winning a pitch, get a Tinder Match, beating your competitor, etc. 
  2. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. Whenever you feel deeply connected with a loved one, or when you feel you truly belong to a group or community. Oxytocin produces a sense of bliss and a feeling of security. Sapiens is a social primate that needs this connection with others. 
  3. Serotonin is the wellbeing hormone that we produce when we achieve social status. Serotonin generates a feeling of self-importance. Your body releases serotonin when your investments in yourself, your skills, social life, and professional life start to pay off. There lays the difference with dopamine, a hormone that is all about instant gratification. 
  4. Endorphines are the hormones that produce a feeling of euphoria. Endorphine is the neurotransmitter that many of the well-known drugs activate. Its biological function is to mask pain. Your body releases endorphins, for instance when you transcend your limits in sports. E.g. Runners often refer to the endorphin rush when they talk about the runner high. 

The problem with happiness: Addiction to dopamine

We live in a dopamine economy. Whenever you open your senses, you are under attack by an endless stream of messages that try to persuade you to go for instant gratification. The promise of snacks, candies, alcohol, processed food is that there’s instant gratification within reach. Social media is nothing more than a dopamine pump on steroids. It always tries to lure you back with notifications. After every social media notification lays the promise of a like, comment, important e-mail, offer, etc. 

The problem with dopamine is that it depletes. The more you chase it, the more dopamine you waste. The more dopamines you waste, the more you need to approach the memory of that feeling of initial satisfaction. The drama of the availability of instant gratification machines in our life (cheap calories, cheap social technologies), is that they make us crave for more, but in the long run, produce less and less happiness. 

Buddhists try to solve this problem by detaching themselves from every desire. They argue that the desires we chase are not our desires anyway. When we desire beauty, success, wealth, admiration, and victory, we all become a slave to a passion that is not our own. We copy these desires from other people, and we assume that the success stories that we see in the media are the ultimate goals for successful living.

While we assume they will deliver happiness in the end, they produce a lot of misery and a continuous state of dissatisfaction. 

I never found the Buddhist answer completely satisfying. Perhaps because I grew up in two of the greatest cities of under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy: Ghent and Bruges. There’s just too much joy in feasting, and in being passionate and gluttonous once in a while. However, I do recognize that the chase of desires is a dead end. I’ve seen too many seemingly successful people, who keep chasing more and more success, but without being happy or satisfied. 

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The solution: Design for Serotine and Oxycotin. 

In an podcast interview with Naval Ravikant, I overheard the quote “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life”. That’s such an elegant phrase. It suggests that we should go for the happiness that follows from investment in mastery and connection with others. 

You produce serotonin when you finally get in shape. It’s in the flow you experience once you master your craft. It’s in the joy you feel when you can apply your creativity, intelligence, experience to solve problems.  

You produce oxytocin when you have deep and meaningful friendships. When you can experience the joy of being with people, you can fully trust. People that always pull you in delightful and effortless conversations. People who care about you and people who appreciate the fact that you care for them. 

The things in life that take investment, that are a bit risky, and that require pain and abstinence upfront, are the things that produce happiness. 

Five practical behavioural design interventions to achieve happiness.

The guidelines above are still a bit abstract. ‘Design for Oxycotin and Serotonin’ is not exactly a practical guideline. I want to propose five practical behavioural design principles that will lead to the behaviours that release the right mix of serotonin and oxycontin, topped with a little bit of dopamine.

Intervention 1: Framing. Frame life as a game. 

This is one of the simplest ways to live a happier life. Think of everything you do as a game. If you think of your relationship as a game, you will have much more fun with it. Your goal is to crack the code of how to keep the relationship playful and how to maintain curiosity. 

The same rule applies to work: Work is a game. You need to figure out how to get good at it. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never make progress, and you’ll remain stuck in the same bland level. If you take a chance and it doesn’t pay off, you will always get a second shot. 

However, there is a pitfall; A game can become an addictive dopamine pump. People too often don’t understand when to stop playing the game. And the moment this happens, the game will play with them. The tail starts wagging the dog. Too often, people get trapped inside status games or success games. At this stage, the game start to produce misery, anger, competition, stress, anxiety, and fear of losing status. 

There’s a big difference between “game” and ‘play”. Once you reach a level where you can enjoy the game for the sake of playing it, then you can truly enjoy it for its own sake. I have this approach to most games in life. I don’t care if I win them or not, as long as I enjoy the game in itself. That usually suffices to make a very decent living. It also prevents me from detaching my happiness from the outcome of these games. Granted, that’s a bit easier to say when you are the company’s owner, but I have always had this approach this game-frame to life. 

Intervention 2: Fuck it, let’s do it. The 5-seconds rule. 

One of the most critical behaviours that lead to happiness is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people learn more, meet more people, get more achievements. In other words: Curiosity produces both dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. To force yourself to experiment and try things out is one of the best approaches to living a happier life. We’ve written about the “fuck it, let’s do it” approach in the past. The essence of this philosophy is: treat your whole life as a continuous set of experiments. You should be running experiments all the time to figure out if they make you happy. If they don’t: cancel the experiment and be grateful for what you’ve learned. This way, you will never experience failure again. Instead, you have learned that some things don’t work for you.

Intervention 3: Create Forcing functions

For the body to produce serotonin, we need to do the things that require investment, effort and abstinence. Think of eating healthy, getting fit, growing in your job, etc.  

However, our senses are bombarded continuously with dopamine alternatives to serotonin. Why go to the gym if you can watch Netflix right now? Why cook for an hour, while you can order a pizza? Why read a book, if Facebook is full of instant gratifications? 

At a certain point, we need to find ways to manipulate or force ourselves into serotonin behaviours. For instance, I have made a deal with a personal trainer to train me three times per week for six months. In the first weeks, I wouldn’t say I liked every second of it. I called her my closest thing to a Nazi. But I had no excuse to skip training. I had a gym subscription for more than four years, but I never could get beyond the initial suffering phase. Now, after four weeks, I even start to enjoy it.

Intervention 4: Priming. Do Misery Benchmarking 

Misery often follows from benchmarking with people who are more successful than you. We always seem to look up. But isn’t that insane? If you read this blog, chances are very high that you are part of the 1% of the world that is educated, financially well-off. 

Whenever you are a bit bored, confined to your house, blaming the pandemic for your misery, think about the refugee mothers with babies in tent camps in Lesbos, whose babies are being bitten at night by rats. See if you still think your sense of entitlement is justified. 

Intervention 5: Practice gratitude

I won’t spend too much effort on this one. The value of gratitude should be a well-established idea by now. 

Practising gratitude leads to a more fulfilling life. Furthermore, it primes your brain to focus its attention on the good things in your life. By doing this every day, you gradually train your brain to pay attention to the good stuff. 

That’s it. 5 interventions to hack your happiness hormone system. Try them: You’ll love it.

Tom De Bruyne

Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Reading books

Books I loved in 2020, and why you should read them too (updated)

By | All, Self Improvement

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to make lists like these. But on the other hand, I love to read these curated lists myself. Exciting reviews and recommendations always inspire me to buy books for myself. So here’s a list of the books I think you’ll love as much as I did. The list is as random as my reading habits. I sincerly hope I can succeed in triggering your curiosity to buy at least one of these books.

Update January 25th 2021: How could I forget not to include “The Invention of Nature”, the biography of Alexander von Humboldt! Check out why below.

Tom De Bruyne

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Category: History

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science. 

The Invention of NatureThis book blew me away. Von Humboldt’s life is marked by an endless curiosity about understanding the world and the principles of physics, biology and nature. He lived in an era that marked the beginning of scientific enquiry and in a way he was the posterchild of that era. Von Humboldt combined an insaturable curiosity with total fearlessness and a sense for adventure. One of the best biographies I ever read. Highly recommended.


HHHH by Laurent Binet

HHHH - Laurent BinetThis year I read this book for the third time. The best way to describe the book is that it’s the journey of a neurotic historian who gets into a conversation with his readers about his struggle to tell the story of the assassin of Heinrich Heidrich in Prague. It’s hilarious and fascinating. If I would have had a history teacher like Binet in high school, I’d probably become a historian. I also re-read The Seventh Function of Language. I love this book, but you have to have a bit of background in French philosophy to appreciate his mockery of the scene around Foucault, Derrida, Jakobson, Lacan and others. I also loved his latest book Civilizations, a thrilling fictitious history of what would have happened if Columbus failed and the Incas would have conquered Europe.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in ChernobylThis book made a significant impression on me. It tells the story of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. You get a deeper understanding of how the Communist System shaped the behaviours that eventually lead to the nuclear disaster in 1986. The story of Chernobyl is the story of a system that produced layer upon layer of bureaucrats that only wanted to hear good news and who were obsessed with success and glory at all costs. 

I previously wrote a blog about this book here.

Several books by Philipp Blom

Wicked Company - Philipp BlomThis year I discovered the historian and philosopher Philipp Blom. What a lucid writer. A Wicked Company, the forgotten Radicalism of the Enlightenment takes the reader to the Seventeenth Century philosophical salons where Diderot, D’Holbach and their famous guests like David Hume lay the radical intellectual groundwork for a new theory on humanity that doesn’t require a God.

Fun fact: The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the writer of Emile, a famous treaty on education, got five kids with his mistress and got rid of all babies. He was also a paranoid, vicious man, quite in contrast with his philosophy.

What’s fascinating about this history is that one salon in Paris created the circumstances in which the greatest minds of that era connected, cross-pollinated and pushed each others thinking and writing. If the saying is true that “you are the average of the five people you hang around with”, then this was the place where the 0.00001% of lucid minds came together. A great reminder that brilliance is the product of creating the right context. 

Other books I enjoyed by Philip Blom (in Dutch):

  • Wat op het spel staat. The book hasn’t been translated yet. A highly recommended read on the challenges we’re facing today due to climate change and robotization, where Blom shines a historical light on the challenges we’re facing.
  • Het Grote Wereldtoneel. A marvellous essay on the battle between the stories that define our view on the world. Blom argues that we need new collective narratives to deal with the current challenges.

The Full Fundamentals Course experience.
All from your Home or Office.

You can now access the FULL Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course live from your home or office. Watch a live trainer and get real-time feedback & coaching. Interact with fellow peers. Work together in virtual break-out rooms. Don’t let COVID slow you down!

Category: Economics

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

Alchemy - Rory SutherlandWhenever people ask me to recommend a book on behavioural science, this is the one I recommend. Alchemy is witty, creative, sharp. Rory Sutherland knows how to make you fall in love with the intriguing world of behavioural economics. His book challenges flawed human understanding in the way we think about designing products, services, policies and our private life. When you embrace irrationality, you will come up with highly counterintuitive ideas that can make a huge difference.

Tip: You can also listen to Alchemy as audiobook on Storytel, read by Rory himself.


Angrynomics by Marc Blyth and Eric Lonergan

AngrynomicsI have written about Mark Blyth several times. He’s a Scottish-American professor in political economy at Brown University. He wrote a lot about austerity, arguing that austerity is the dumbest solution to an economic crisis. Angrynomics is a relatively short book in which Blyth and his co-author Eric Lonergan attempt to build up an economic theory on why we’re witnessing so much anger that has been captured so well by populists. I loved the book because it read like a little masterclass in economic theory. Blyth is also fascinating and funny to watch or listen to online.


Fantoomgroei by Sander Heijne and Hendrik Noten. 

Fantoomgroei - Sander Heijne en Hendrik NotenI sincerely hope this book is going to get translated into English. Hendrik and Sander did a fantastic job exploring a simple question: Why is it that the economy is booming, but less and fewer people benefit from this boom? They explore how we became obsessed with the economy while forgetting that the economy should be instrumental in shaping society. Fantoomgroei inspired my liberal friends and me to think about how the rules and the beliefs underneath the current economy produce growing inequality. It explores how to fix it through more cooperative ways of thinking.


Category: Science

How Innovation Works – Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley - How Innovation WorksI discovered Matt Ridley this year after listing to the interview that Naval Ravikant did in his podcast. His most recent book, How Innovation Works is an excellent history of innovation. A highly counterintuitive insight is that invention is never the product of a lone genius. On the contrary, innovation is somewhat in the air at some point in history. And for every great invention, several inventors were working on cracking the problem at the same time. Ridley is one of those great minds, comparable with Yuval Harari. I started reading Genome, a book about our genes’ history but didn’t finish it yet. His 2010 bestseller The Rational Optimist blew my mind. You can think of it as a history of human problem-solving capacity and if you need some antidote to apocalyptic climate change fearmongering, then this is your book.


Category: Creativity

Obliquity by John Kay

Obliquity - John KayFascinating book. It’s a bit of a cult book in the planning community. Obliquity makes a strong case for approaching goals indirectly. If you want to get rich, never go after wealth. If you’re going to get happy, never chase happiness. If you want to learn how the pursuit of financial goals time and again turns out to be the fastest path to oblivion for companies, read this intriguing little book. 


Range by David Epstein 

Range - David EpsteinThis book was one of the most recommended books by the Farnamstreet blog learning community. It’s a great book about how we learn. The core idea is that true mastery is all about combining skills, instead of focus on learning just one. Real outperformers seem to combine know-how from multiple disciplines. But the book is much richer than this elevator pitch. Tons of insights on how to learn. For instance: You will learn much faster if you try to apply the theory and fail. Failing fuels your curiosity for the right approach, and as a consequence, your learning experience becomes much more profound. This is a book I’ll have to re-read multiple times.

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Image of happiness

The Behavioural Design of Joy and Happiness

By | All, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

These are challenging times and it’s not obvious to keep up the positive spirit. That’s why I want to explore some thoughts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to inject more joy and happiness into your life.

How to design joy and happiness?

‘Winter is coming’. Whenever these three words were uttered in ‘Game of Thrones’, you knew misery was nearby. Today they seem to have the same effect when talking about the psychological drama called reality. This winter, the pandemic is coming, the recession, climate catastrophe, and the end of democracy. Pessimists seem to have a competitive edge these days in debating contests.

And yet, I would like to argue that we don’t need to become pessimists, as long as we make some simple decisions based on behavioural science. Here are two simple behavioural rules to maintain an overall level of happiness.


Rule 1: Design Attention

This one sounds trivial but is critical. What you focus your attention towards, influences your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Research amongst older people demonstrated that happy older people apply a simple heuristic to life: They decided that life is too short to spend their attention to people and events that make them unhappy.

Attention is a choice: You can choose to be consumed by thoughts and feelings about what other people think or say. Or you can decide not to pay attention to it. You have to learn to appreciate that everyone is fundamentally insecure about life and death, and they all try to cope with it in their limited way. That’s a very liberating thought. By the way, the expression “to pay attention” is quite literary true: You pay the price to your psychological wellbeing by investing your attention in things that deplete your energy and happiness.

Attention also means: Not allowing your attention to be hijacked. I have deleted all news apps, social media apps and their little notification bastards from my smartphone because I know they are designed to seize my attention for monetization. The amount of time that becomes available for family, friendships, reading, and fishing in the Amsterdam canals is bizarre.

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Rule 2: Design a Happiness Habit

A second rule is to instil habits that drive happiness. Or more importantly: practices that help you to prevent distraction from living a happy life. For instance, Astrid and I start every monthly MT-meeting with checking how the past months have scored on the most critical drivers of psychological happiness:

  • Experiencing flow,
  • Chasing curiosity and novelty,
  • Achieving success and accomplishment
  • Having meaningful relationships
  • Growing and learning as a person.

These are the most important ones. (Tip: If you want to learn more about the science behind this, check Astrid’s lecture on the psychology of happiness at Behavioural Design Fest 2018 (Dutch). We use these happiness criteria to decide where we need to intervene in our work and our life. A great company should feel like a well-designed game in which flow, missions, achievements, curiosity, experimentation and adventure are central to the setup of the company. If we wouldn’t keep asking ourselves these questions, we would all gradually slip into boredom.

I’m fully conscious of the fact that financial stability and good health are necessary conditions for the above to be true. If you are uncertain about your capacity to sustain yourself or your family, you will be eaten by stress to survive. But unless we take back control, others will hijack our attention, manipulate our desires, exploit our talent and creativity, and eat away our limited time on eath.

If you look at it this way, living a happy life is a pretty simple behavioural design briefing.

Image courtesy: Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash. 

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design
Dart Throwing Chimp

How to Smell Bullshit? 7 Rules that will Improve your Judgement

By | All, Self Improvement

The great philosopher Bertrand Russell once said “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt”. In work, life and politics there’s an overwhelming amount of bullshit being sold as knowhow. Here are 7 behavioural design rules to smell, attack and destroy bullshit

In the famous book “Superforecasting“, Philip Tetlock tells the story of how experts are on average not better than dart-throwing chimpanzees when it comes to predicting the future. Even worse, Tetlock discovered an inverse relationship between the fame of an expert and the accuracy of their prediction. In other words, TV-Pundits performed even worse than dart-throwing monkeys. The simple explanation for this remarkable feat is that pundits have this single big idea, mental model, or ideology in their head that they use as a template for everything.

If you believe passionately in free-market capitalism, then all of your predictions will be formed through this template. What Tetlock also discovered was that society greatly rewards lousy forecasters who have strong convictions than cautious forecasters, who express themselves in probabilities. People with strong opinions just make better TV. I guess this explains why total nitwits who deny the imminent threat posed by the climate crisis, always seem to outplay the more cautious scientists who are 100% sure about the size of the danger, but ever careful on how it will play out, and in which time frame. There simply is no way to predict the precise behaviours of the rapid changes in an incredibly complex ecosystem as our planet.

People with strong opinions just make better TV.

Bullshit is everywhere and on an epic scale. In this blog, I want to share some convenient rules of thumb from behavioural design to help you to smell and fight bullshit and form better judgement yourself.

Dart Throwing Chimp

Rule 1: Don’t mistake outcomes for good judgement

Never suspect a direct relationship between outcomes and the quality of the decision, unless an A/B test can prove it. 

The British government under Margeret Thatcher once launched a zero-tolerance policy to fight youth criminality. No matter how small the crime, kids would end up in jail. The problem, of course, is that there’s no way to prove it worked. If crime rates went down, it could have been attributed to dozens of other factors. It’s like the story of the man who sees a guy carefully throwing powder on the side of the street. When asked what he’s doing, the guy says “this will keep away elephants”. “But there are no elephants here”, the man answers in astonishment. To which the guy replies: “Great powder, isn’t it!”. 

The only condition in which you can safely say that you’re confident your action makes a difference is when you’ve done a randomised controlled test. This is an experiment in which you test one variable by assigning a random group of people to two groups. The only difference between both groups is the one variable you want to test. When Uber decided to temporarily shut down 100 million of the 150 million dollars of digital advertising spend for a week, they discovered it did absolutely nothing to their performance. They were pissing away the money, and they only found out about this after doing a proper A/B test. They eventually closed down 120 million of the 150 million dollars of their programmatic advertising budget. 

“We turned off two-thirds of our spend. We turned off $100 million of the annual spend out of $150 and basically saw no change in our number of rider app installs. What we saw is a lot of installs we thought came through paid channels suddenly came through organic. A big flip flop there, but the total number didn’t change.”

Rule 2: Never confuse reasonable with rational

Confidence and arguments that sound reasonable, are how experts get away with bullshit. 

As I wrote in an earlier blog, we tend to mistake confidence for competence. This mechanism is a classic ‘system 1’-shortcut. Our brain doesn’t want to waste too much energy on actively analysing a problem rationally, so it tries to answer a question by using shortcuts. The confidence of the bullshitter is a handy shortcut that allows you to make up your mind without having to think. Unconsciously, your brain thinks in a split second: “He looks like an expert” + “He seems confident about his stance” + “they allow him to say this on TV, so there must be some importance in what he says” + “He must have some information that I don’t have” = He must be right. 

This reminds me about one of my all-time favourite movies “Wag The Dog“, a secret service spin-doctor Conny (played by Robert The Niro), has a memorable conversation with movie director Stanley (played by Dustin Hoffman). They both successfully staged war between the US and Albania, just to divert the public attention from the fact that the president had sex with a cheerleader, just days before the election. 

Stanley: “There is no war
Conny: : “Of course, there’s a war. I’m watching it on Television“.

The solution to this rule:
Always ask for second opinions on important decisions. It’s not because an expert sounds confident that you should take his word for granted. Even the emperor is naked underneath their clothes. Furthermore, never give the information you got from your first source to the second source, because this will unconsciously influence their judgement.

Rule 3: Attack vagueness

Never let people get away with vague predictions because they can never be held accountable. 

If a pundit says: “This decision by the European Union will very likely push the economy into a recession”, and after a year this prediction hasn’t materialised, they can always get away with “oh, just wait. It hasn’t happened yet” or, “I said very likely. That didn’t imply I was sure”. Vague predictions are compelling: They sound reasonable, and they always allow you to get away with things. 

In the Ancient Greek City of Delphi, people went to see the high priest called Pythia, to ask for predictions. High as a kite, she murmured some incomprehensible sounds, that were interpreted by her nodding assistance, who seemed to indicate that they understood what she was saying. They translated the outcome in verses, so they could always be assured that there was still lot’s of room left for multiple interpretations.

The Solution to this rule:
Most pundits are really good at using the same techniques that the Pythia priestesses used in the 8th century BC. You can freak them out if you push them to be more precise about their prediction. If they can’t, then accuse them of bullshit.

Rule 4: Always suspect confirmation bias

When you hear someone defending their judgement with research: Always look for confirmation bias

The business model of firms like McKinsey or Boston Consulting Group is to provide arguments for a decision that was already made. This is called Franklin’s Gambit – the process of creating or finding a reason for what one already has a mind to do. 18th-century inventor Benjamin Franklin first stipulated this principle. Kahneman would call this principle the confirmation bias: the tendency to look only for evidence that supports one’s convictions. 

The irony of Franklin’s gambit is that it’s probably nowhere as persistent as in a discipline that always insists on projecting an image of ultimate rationality: the financial sector. In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, report after report was commissioned and published that underscored how genius the so-called mathematical models were and how incredibly successful the financial sector was in creating value and wealth. 

Counterfactual evidence was being ignored with force: Whistelblowers were bullied; credit rating agencies blackmailed (or participated in the scam); the financial press had all kinds of perverse incentives not to spoil the party because that could hurt the stock market. Etcetera. 

The solution to this rule:
There are some fascinating experiments with blue teams vs red teams. Some investment firms assign a red team that will get a big incentive if they can bring up the arguments to kill the deal that the company is working on. This setup prevents the firm from being too blinded by the prospect of success. 

A more straightforward approach: always look for counterfactual data and learn a great deal by how the other party responds to this data. If they use it to improve their argument, you will get a better hunch about whether they know what they’re talking about. 

Wag The Dog

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Rule 4: Always look for Skin in the Game

Always check how much skin in the game the other has. 

I have written about this topic before in this blog so that I can be brief here: If someone is trying to persuade you to buy something from him or her, always try to get a feeling if he or she can both win and lose. The one simple intervention that could take away most of the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector is to introduce punishments next to bonuses. If I would offer you a chance to win big if you win, but lose nothing if you lose (because you’re playing with my money), wouldn’t you be tempted to play as much, and as risky as you can? That’s the financial crisis of 2008 in a nutshell in behavioural terms.

The one simple intervention that could take away most of the excessive risk-taking in the financial sector is to introduce punishments next to bonuses.

Like Warren Buffett once said: If you sit at a poker table and you don’t know who’s the patsy: you are the patsy. 

The Solution ot this rule:
Never buy or trust people who have nothing to lose and much to win, whether that’s money or a good reputation.

Rule 6: Expect Goodhart’s Law at work

Goodhart’s law: never trust metrics that are KPI’s

Have you ever heard about the Net Promotor Score? The magical, simple metric that predicts future success, based on how likely customers are to recommend the product or business to their friends. To measure NPS, you ask the one question: How likely are you to recommend this product/service and people have to rate their satisfaction from 1 to 10. 

This metric is highly problematic for several reasons: 

  • First of all: My 5/10 could mean the same thing as your 7/10. Attaching a number to a subjective feeling is very personal. 
  • Second: You have to measure the NPS by the percentage of promotors (the percentage of customers who gave you a 9/10 or 10/10) minus the percentage of detractors (the percentage of customers who scored you under 7/10 is). If you have 0 people rating you with a 9 or 10, and 10 people rate you with a 7/10, your NPS will be -100. If you have two people rating you with a 9/10, but 8 people gave you an angry 0/10, you will end up with an NPS of -60. In other words: You won’t see how dramatic you’re doing, because you’re NPS goes up. 
  • Third: Therefore, it’s quite apparent how much incentives there are to influence the NPS. When your bonus depends on improved NPS-ratings, there’s so much you can do to manipulate the numbers: Avoid asking the question to angry customers, give happy customers extra nudges to fill in the questionnaire. Present the question at a peak moment in the customer journey. Etc. 

This phenomenon is called Goodhart’s law, and it says: every metric that is used as a KPI, loses its value as a metric. If you give targets to police officers, they will get highly incentivised to harass people, just to meet their goals. If you connect funding of Universities to performance thinking, universities will become incentivised to attract as many students as possible, shut down departments with fewer students and skew investments only towards hard sciences. If you introduce individual bonuses, people will be very incentivised to meet their bonus at all costs, even if this would imply getting into a fierce competition for resources with other departments. 

When a KPI is introduced, it will start to direct the behaviour of the people affected by that KPI. 

The Solution to this rule:
Whenever you’re involved with planning and goal setting: Always look for perverse incentives. They’re everywhere. And they’re nearly always neglected or thought of as trivial. The problem with KPI-setting is that it’s the people who pretend to be rational, who do the thinking. They usually think of human behaviour as nothing more than a nuisance to their spreadsheets.

Rule 7: Status Anxiety affects Judgement

Never underestimate status anxiety as a driving force of bad decision making

In his magnificent book Alchemy, Rory Sutherland asks his reader to imagine the following story: Suppose you have to book a flight to New York for your boss. You know JFK is a nightmare: Long cues, lot’s of delays, endless transfer walks and when you finally leave the airport, you’re rewarded with a traffic hell till Manhattan. So you decide to do something slightly less obvious: You book a ticket to Newark, New Jersey: This is a much smaller airport, you can see the Manhattan skyline from the airport and traffic is pretty OK. The thing is: you have now taken a risk by trying something new, against the obvious popular choice. If it goes right, your boss will hardly notice. But if something goes wrong, like a flight delay, you will be blamed for stupid decision-making. “What were you thinking!” “There’s a reason why everyone flies JFK!”. 

Rory Sutherland has this brilliant quote:

“It is much easier to be fired for being illogical than it is for being unimaginative. The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to the same place as your competitors.”

The problem with being imaginative is that it usually defies ‘common practice’ or ‘common sense’. And doing something different can trigger all kinds of unwanted consequences: You can be held accountable for taking a decision that didn’t work out. If you would have followed standard practice, nobody will blame you. You can also be blamed for not respecting authority. I have written before about how the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl can be read as a story of layers upon layers of bosses that were highly incentivised not to hear bad news. So they didn’t get to hear bad news. The reactor was so unstable that it took nerve-racking skills from the operators to keep it afloat. One fatal mistake triggered a cascade of nuclear reactions that caused the nuclear meltdown. 

The Solution to this rule:
Always try to understand the forces that shape the behaviour of the other. Use the Influence Framework to map their pains, gains, habits and anxieties and Jobs-to-be-done: Try to understand how they define success? What keeps them awake? What are the things they are accountable for? Whom do they have to convince in their organisation? How is their relationship with those stakeholders? Only when you understand the social web around the other, you will get a better understanding of what prevents them from bold or confident decision-making. 

Also Read: The psychological prize of being rational is being unlikeable

More on Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life.

How does influence work in practice?

Enroll now in one of our monthly editions of the Behavioural Design Academy. and learn how to predictably change behaviour. SUE trained over 1000 people from 40+ countries and our program is rewarded with a 9,2 satisfaction rate.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Prototyping happiness

By | All, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

If I asked you to think about the secret of life, love and happiness, the answer you’d probably least expect would be… prototyping. And yet, I want to argue why prototyping is the open gate to living a happier life. Psychologist Todd Kashdan claims that the number one driver for living a happy life is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people experience new things, meet new people, experience success, develop new skills, get surprised, etc.

Fear of failure kills curiosity

However, when it comes to the pursuit of curiosity, fear of failure is the big elephant in the room. Our daily life, as well as our professional life,  is filled with a near panic fear for failure: Fear of embarrassment, fear of being held accountable, fear of being confronted with our limitations, the fear of imposter syndrome, etc. The sole purpose of most meetings is to cover the risk of taking risky new decisions.

My co-founder and wife Astrid have a simple mantra to break this pattern. It’s called prototyping. Our default answer to exciting new ideas is: “Great idea, let’s prototype it”. Prototyping comes down to experimenting with a minimal version of something, to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. You can apply this to startups, marketing, but also to your professional and personal life.

Eric Ries argues in the Lean Startup that we shouldn’t think of startups as mini-enterprises, but rather as learning projects. A startup is an experimentation lab in which the founders need to figure out how to generate paying customers before the money runs out. They do this through frantic tweaking with the product, service, proposition, marketing and communication.

The biggest threat to startups is the “reality distortion field” of the founders: the ability to convince themselves and their stakeholders that they have a killer product. But too often, they only discovered too late they were building a solution in the search for a problem.

Learn the Behavioural Design Method

The 2020-editions of the SUE | Behavioural Design Academy foundation course are now online

Prototyping everything

The cool thing about prototyping is that you can never fail. You can only learn. That’s why Astrid and I prototype everything in our life: From working at home to working where it’s summertime. From the creation of a presentation deck to the development of a new training programme for the Behavioural Design Academy. From running half a marathon to living plant-based and going for zero-emission. We slice the problem into its smallest components, try out a minimally viable version and try to figure out what we could learn. Failure is not an option because every outcome of the experiment is exciting and can help us to make better decisions.

There are only two psychological barriers that cripple innovation: the fear of failure and the ego desire to be seen as an expert. They both block curiosity and hence the road to mystery, excitement, discovery and a little wiiiiii when you discover that something works.

Book a 60-minutes with SUE

Do you consider hiring SUE to learn how we could help you to imrpove your product, service or marketing through behavioural psychology? Book 60-minutes with SUE. Get a Behavioural Design perspective on your challenge. Who knows where it could lead to…

The dark design pattern that made me quit Twitter

By | All, Behavioural Science, Self Improvement

The Behavioural Design of the Twitter Platform

Dear reader,

I deleted Twitter from my phone today. It drove me nuts.

I noticed that every time I opened Twitter, the platform is working hard to get me in an angry indignation mode. Under the “recommended for you”-header, partisan political messages are being suggested to me all the time. Twitter doesn’t do this because it thinks I’m interested in this content, but because its algorithms have figured out that angry people spend more time on the platform. I decided this week that I don’t want to spend more time on a platform that is actively using behavioural design to appeal to my darkest fears and desires just for the sake of being able to serve me more ads.

Twitter used to be my brain-feed. It was a delight to tap into the thoughts and links of smart people. However, the behavioural design of the Twitter-platform is triggering the worst in people: It triggers slogan-like writing, it rewards controversy with more likes and shares, and it allows people to hide their identity and reputation behind their avatar. Its design triggers outrageous behaviour and its algorithms fuel this outrage further.

I decided to switch my craving for interestingness to platforms where:

  1. The design of reputation is much better: People are much politer and wiser on Linkedin because their professional status is much more at stake
  2. Algorithms can’t play me. There’s no way for an algorithm to manipulate me when I’m listening to my favourite podcasts (Freakonomics Radio, Making Sense, The Knowledge Project). I decide to subscribe, and then the author has to work hard to earn my time. If not, I unsubscribe.
  3. Threes had to die for it: Books are still the number one source for interestingness. To take time to explore a subject through the writing of a skilled author is the greatest joy.

If you can read Dutch, this is a screenshot of my Twitter notifications. Twitter suggests under the “recommended for you”-headings three Tweets to fuel my anger: An “I love Trump tweet”, a “leftist elite gone mad tweet” and “Immigrant crimes are being tabooed (by the leftwing conspiracy of course)”.

image twitter

Learn the Behavioural Design Method

The 2020-editions of the SUE | Behavioural Design Academy foundation course are now online

How to nudge people to eat vegetarian?

Simple. A study of over 94,000 cafeteria meal choices has found that doubling the vegetarian options—from one in four to two in four—reduced the proportion of meat-rich purchases by between 40-80% without affecting overall food sales. (Thanks André Gubbels for the tip)

#Choice_Architecture #nudging

nudging vegetarian

Smart Vegan framing

Our daughter loves chicken filet. We discovered this vegan option this week in the supermarket. I think it’s brilliant framing. By calling it “Chicken free slices”, you can’t help but thinking about the fact that it’s meant to be a chicken replacement. This is a beautiful illustration of “don’t think of an elephant”. This brand did a brilliant job in making you think of vegan chicken filet by calling it “chicken free”


Book a 60-minutes with SUE

Do you consider hiring SUE to learn how we could help you to imrpove your product, service or marketing through behavioural psychology? Book 60-minutes with SUE. Get a Behavioural Design perspective on your challenge. Who knows where it could lead to…

Me and my first big catch #fuckitletsdoit

How to make New Years Resolutions that stick?

By | Self Improvement

Build new habits, experience adventures and
improve your happiness in 2020
through Dehavioural Design

Good Luck with your new year resolution

Every year we humans engage in this collective ritual called New Years Resolutions. We somehow seem to believe in the illusion that the symbolic crossing of December 31st to January 1st unlocks a new door to untapped willpower and ability to change our behaviours and habits.

The beauty of a ritual is that it gives hope. The problem with rituals is that they don’t work. Bad habits are just too strong to change. Willpower dips fairly quickly. Temptation to give in to instant gratification is everywhere. Our lives play out in a choice architecture in which the most convenient option is to keep doing what we’re doing.

And yet, this time of the year is the perfect time to make some changes. So why not do it properly? New Years’ Resolutions are all about changing behaviours and building new habits. So let’s apply some behavioural design thinking to the problem.

Step 1: Always start with the Job-to-be-done behind your desired behaviour

A core concept of Behavioural Design is outside-in thinking. When we think about changing behaviour, we pay much more attention to the deeper goals and dreams behind the behaviour. To use the famous meme by Clayton Christensen: “We hire certain behaviours to achieve our jobs-to-be-done”. We go to the gym, because we want to lose weight, which is a functional job-to-be-done. We might want to lose weight to boost our confidence, which is an emotional job-to-be-done. And both goals might be instrumental to even a deeper social Job-to-be-done: To be seen as attractive by others.

When you apply Job-to-be-done thinking to New Years’ Resolutions, it’s pretty evident that the real job-to-be-done behind those vows and pledges is to increase your overall happiness. So before you choose a behaviour you would like to change, you should first have a clear understanding of the behavioural drivers behind happiness. Astrid did a keynote on this topic on Behavioural Design Fest 2018 (in Dutch). In this talk she referred to the work of Prof. Todd Kashban on happiness. His argument is that the number one driver to live a happy life is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people perform behaviours that lead to happy outcomes: They experience achievements, they learn and master new things, they get to meet new people, they experience flow, etc. Happiness is not something you can find, it’s something you stumble upon.

So the big question for your new year’s resolution should be: What can I do to pursue my curiosity?

To answer this question, you’ll have to ask yourself a couple of related questions:

  • Which obstacles should I take away?
  • What prevents me from pursuing my curiosity?
  • What are bad habits and beliefs that keep me getting stuck in the same patterns?

The easiest way to find answers to this question is to use a second key principle of behavioural design thinking: look for past behaviour for cues.

Behavioural Design is the missing layer

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and learn how to positively influence minds and shape behaviour

Step 2: Past behaviour never lies: look at past behaviour for cues. 

A powerful behavioural design principle is that past behaviour never lies. If I’d ask you how many times you want to go to the gym, you’d probably say three times per week. If I would ask you how often you go to the gym, you might still answer: “at least once a week”. However, if I’d ask you if you could walk me through the last two times you went to the gym, you will give me all the reasons and excuses why you didn’t make it to the gym in the last couple of weeks. And those are interesting, because they can give us all kinds of clues of the bad habits and other behavioural patterns that stood in the way of performing your desired behaviour.

Past behaviour never lies. So instead of making New Years Resolutions, it’s way more interesting to look at what happened last year. What made you happy? What sucked the energy out of you? What gave you a proud feeling of achievement? What gave you a sense of purpose and meaning? Which friends made you feel great? Which habits prevented you from doing the things you love? Which activities got you entirely in the zone?

Tim Ferris suggests to take some time to look at your calendar and spot the bright spots and dark spots. But go deeper than that. Most meaningful interactions or bad habits can’t be traced down to specific events. They’re part of your daily patterns.

Every quarter, my co-founder (and wife) Astrid and I start our two-day Quarterly Meeting with taking a whole morning to answer four questions. The answers to these four questions form the basis for the interventions we plan for the next quarter at SUE. Our principle is: Happiness first, the rest will follow. The questions we ask ourselves are:

  • Did you experience flow in the previous months? Can you give examples?
  • Did you experience personal success? Can you give examples?
  • Did you learn something new? What did you learn that excited you?
  • Were you able to contribute to the success of others?

By asking these questions, we immediately get an insight into the most critical drivers of our happiness. Sometimes we suck on one of these dimensions, and sometimes we feel we suck at all of them. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we come up with behavioural interventions to tackle them. The principle is exactly the same for making New Years Resolutions.

Me and my first big catch #fuckitletsdoit

Step 3: Prototype your New Years Resolutions

A third fundamental Behavioral Design Principle is prototyping: Whatever you think the solution is: prototype it first. Find a minimal version to test your desired behaviour and figure out if it works and under which conditions it works. Two things bothered me last year: Bad weather was depressing me, and I get miserable if I don’t have time to think, read and write. So we prototyped the idea of study weeks abroad. Our first prototype was fun, but it didn’t work. We spend a week in January in Morocco with our two year old daughter. Let’s say she had different ideas about family fun. A second prototype was that Astrid and I would do a monthly reading and writing retreat of four days, in turns. That worked incredibly well. We both got in deep work mode every time, and while the other was away, it was great fun to spend a couple of days as a single parent taking care of the little one. Our next prototype next year will be to spend two months in Thailand working as digital nomads.

I also prototyped things like:

  • Wim Hoff Ice Men Method: Loved it. Doing the breathing exercise and cold showers 3x week
  • Fishing: I asked a couple of people to teach my son and me to fish for pike and zander. I posted a #deartoask on facebook, and more than ten people offered to help me to learn the techniques. The picture above was our first zander last summer.
  • Set an epic goal: Climbing the Mont Ventoux by racebike is a dream, but I couldn’t get myself to turn this goal into manageable actions. This year I’ll make a new attempt.

It doesn’t matter if things don’t work. The fun thing is that you’re following your curiosity to see if it could work for you. That’s already incredibly powerful in itself.

Note: In 2019 we developed a program to turn desires into experiments, and coined it Fuck It, Let’s Do It. Look at Astrid’s keynote at Behavioural Design Fest to learn more about it (in Dutch, working on subtitles, sorry). We did several workshops with entrepreneurs and it actually transformed some people’s life. If you’re interest in doing a half-day workshop for your team, contact Susan for more details.


Step 4: Tiny Habits 

A last Behavioural Design puzzle piece is “tiny habits”: If you want to change habits: make them tiny. I can’t recommend enough the new book “Tiny Habits” by our intellectual hero BJ Fogg at Stanford. I am currently doing a 21 day plank challenge. It only requires me to try to do a plank once a day. After two weeks I already improved from 1.15 minutes to 2.50 minutes. The idea behind tiny habits is that when you turn your goals into tiny achievable actions that don’t require much willpower to perform, you will gradually expand your effort.

I put up a sheet with 21 boxes and put it up to our front door (BJ Fogg would call it a trigger), so I would always get a reminder that I must not forget to do my daily plank.

trigger for the 21 day challenge


What I tried to argue is that you can take your New Years Resolutions to the next level with Behavioural Design Thinking. If you’re committed to changing your behaviour and habits this year, ask yourself four questions:

  1. What are my deeper goals, desires and Jobs-to-be-done behind the behaviour I want to change?
  2. How does this contribute to improving my happiness levels?
  3. What behaviours and habits stood in the way of the pursuit of curiosity last year?
  4. Which experiments do I want to set up to figure out what works for me?
  5. How can I make the desired behaviour tiny?

Happy 2020!


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elderly Couple

The Behavioural Design of Love and Desire

By | Self Improvement

The wicked design problem of love
and desire in long term relationships

The Behavioural Design of Love and Desire in long term relationships

A long-term relationship is a classic behavioural design challenge. How do you keep being in love? And how do you keep the desire burning? What are the specific behaviours that add up to the more abstract goals of love and desire or passion? Let’s approach the problem with a behavioural design lens.

The tension between love and desire

What is the secret of desire in a long term relationship? Esther Perel did a brilliant Ted talk on that subject back in 2013. She opens her talk with the following riddles:

“So, why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever? And why does good intimacy not guarantee good sex, contrary to popular belief? Or, the next question would be, can we want what we already have? That’s the million-dollar question, right? And why is the forbidden so erotic? What is it about transgression that makes desire so potent? And why does sex make babies, and babies spell erotic disaster in couples?”

In her talk, she argues that our desire for love and our desire for adventure are in deep conflict. On the one hand, we want to feel safe, secure, nurtured, and respected by the other, and the thought of being rejected is profoundly terrifying. On the other hand, our desire to be loved is killing for passion and lust. Because lust needs play. Passion thrives on transgression, which can be translated literally as the act of crossing a line. Lust thrives on fantasy and on being able to act out on that fantasy.

The big drama with developing a loving relationship is that it’s killing for desire. And desire fuels lust. There’s no line to cross, no curiosity to explore, no space for excitement and fantasy. Romeo and Julia would end up as an average bored couple if it weren’t for the barrier in between them that worked like an aphrodisiac for their desire.

The feminist philosopher Camille Paglia wrote in her first bestseller “Sexual Personae” a brilliant line on this tension between love and desire.

Love is the endless cycle of pursuit, triumph and ennui (boredom).

What I love about this quote is that Paglia proposes a simple solution to the paradox of love and desire: turn it into an endless cycle.

Behavioural Design is the missing layer

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and learn how to positively influence minds and shape behaviour

A long term relationship is a behavioural design.

When you’re in a longterm relationship, your identity is the compound effect of all the tiny interactions you had with each other. Over an extended period, the daily little rejections, insults, not being nice to each other, eventually shapes your identity. You have learned to stop expecting more, and to avoid conflict. You try to tell yourself stories that this is how it’s supposed to be, and that you should be happy with what you have. There really is no limit to the capability of people to convince themselves that they should be happy and grateful, even if they don’t feel anything anymore.

It’s not that difficult to think of a long term relationship as a behavioural design. Behaviour that gets rewarded or suppressed over a long period eventually becomes a habit. And your habits define who you are.

You are what you repeatedly do. But what you repeatedly do is triggered by the context you are locked in.

When you think about it, you can think of every deviant behaviour as a perfectly understandable reaction to the environment: Is a depressed partner a sick person, or does he suffer from the feeling that he’s useless and that he’s not wanted or relevant to others anymore? Is a cynic partner born as a cynic, or has she learned that there’s no point in protesting?

How to maintain love AND desire? Let’s explore the behavioural design rules that can keep you in love for the rest of your life and the rules that will prevent your desire from fading out or switching object.

The behavioural design of love

There’s a big philosophical discussion about the difference between feeling in love and love. I love my kids, but I don’t experience the emotion of being in love. However, I do experience that emotion with my partner. So when I’m talking about the behavioural design of love, I am talking about that emotion of still feeling in love with someone.

The simple answer, IMHO is that there’s no such thing as Romantic Love with a capital L. That love only exists in movies, or when there’s a barrier that stands in between the lovers. It’s precisely that barrier that is essential for the emerging of passion. Everyone who was once in a relationship with a married person knows what I’m talking about. To paraphrase Camille Paglia: Romantic love fades into ennui once the pursuit leads to triumph.

Long term love is the compound interest you reap from daily behaviours. My wife Astrid and I agreed at the start of our relationship that we will never be unkind to each other, that we’re always going to do our best for each other and that we’re never going to take each other for granted. This might sound big and abstract, but we bring these commitments to life in small daily behaviours, from complimenting for dinner, touching each other when we cross, bringing a cup of tea without having to ask for it, bringing little treats from the shop, putting on some candles when the other is about to come home,…

These things sound trivial, but what they do is they provide little daily signals that remind the both of us of how special the other still is. And the compound effect of those daily affirmations pile up, even after 10 years.

The behavioural design of passion, desire and lust

Esther Perel talks about the simple behavioural design rules that fuel desire: Allow the creation of some distance. Find ways to maintain a bit of mystery around each other. Keep surprising each other. Find ways to be able to look up to each other. Try to be a fanboy and fangirl as long as you live. And try to maintain a level of independence. Nothing is more killing for desire than neediness. To quote Perel:

“I have yet to see somebody who is so turned on by somebody who needs them. Wanting them is one thing. Needing them is a shot down and women have known that forever, because anything that will bring up parenthood will usually decrease the erotic charge”.

The best couples have found ways to cultivate desire. But when desire is gone, lust will fade away,… or look for new objects of desire.

Love and desire are wicked design problems.

The design of a fulfilling long term relationship is as much a wicked design problem as the challenge to get people to recycle, eat healthily, get fitter, take climate action, etc. Just like with every wicked design problem, the real challenge is to design specific behaviours that eventually turn into habits. Habits change attitudes and attitudes transform identities. Love and desire are nothing more than the compound interest a series of tiny practices.

Learn more about the mental model of Compound Interest on the Farnam Street Blog: Why Small Habits make a Big Difference.

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Learn how to make the science of influence work for you

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and master the skills to shape minds and influence behaviour. We trained people over 30+ countries and have a 9,2 satisfaction rate. Check out our free brochure. Don’t miss out on making your growth a success.

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We Want You - Uncle Sam

The Behavioural Design of Applying for a Job

By | All, Self Improvement, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals

How do you apply for a job?

From a Behavioural Design point of view, this is a fascinating question. When you are applying for a job, there are several challenges you need to overcome. It’s a multi-level game in which you need to figure out how to reach level 3 or 4 with one single run.

  1. Trigger attention and curiosity
  2. Get invited
  3. Persuade that you are the one

A context of fierce competition for attention

First of all you have to be aware that most companies like ours get about 2-5 applications per day. In addition, those applications have to compete with about 50 other e-mails we have to try to process per day. That means you only get about 10-20 seconds to trigger my curiosity to invest more time in learning more about you. Don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with being an asshole. It has everything to do with having to figure out how to process the flood of information  – in my inbox alone – that is competing for my attention every single day. Add to this the daily requests by vendors who approach us by phone or e-mail to “have a coffee” and you must realize that time is incredibly scarce and valuable.

Applying for a job is a classic choice problem: With a very limited amount of information and a limited amount of time, we need to make a judgement of whether we want to invest more time in getting to know you.

How to trigger curiosity?

The best way to help us to make a decision is to offer us system 1 shortcuts. One of the core principles of the Behavioural Design Method, that we train at the Behavioural Design Academy is “Help people to make a decision without having to think”. What this means is that the more we have to use our rational brain to figure something out, the more we end up with not making a decision at all. Here are a couple of tips to create shortcuts when you’re applying for a job:

  1. Get introduced by someone we know and trust. If you can get someone to vouch for you, you make it a lot easier for us to get curious
  2. Never pull a stunt to grab our attention. Applying for a job is a delicate seduction process. You wouldn’t set up a surprise act on your first Tinder date, won’t you?
  3. Be intriguing: what are surprising things you’ve done in the past, both in your personal, as well as your private life, that proofs to us that you’re an interesting person? Past behaviour never lies.
  4. Signaling: There’s a lot of value that you communicate in the effort you put into reaching us. We once got a hand written love letter in which the candidate wrote why and when she fell in love with SUE. We hired her on the spot. She still works at SUE.
  5. Study the people to whom you are writing your application. It’s not that hard to find the founders on Twitter, Linkedin and Google. Try to find out what they write about and try to contribute something to the things they are passionate about.

Summary: Think outside-in

An application is like professional flirting. It might take a little more effort to go from Awareness to Interest to Desire and Action. Sometimes it even takes a couple of years. But just like with every every challenge to influence someones behaviour, you have to think outside-in: Try to figure out what the Job-to-be-Done is of the person you try to persuade, then take away their anxieties, then present yourself als the best solution to their pains and make them understand how hiring you would offer them gains that are incredibly valuable.
One more thing: At SUE we prefer to recruit within our network of Behavioural Design Academy alumni,or people who participated in one of our Behavioural Design Sprints.  The simple reason is that are already familiar with the Behavioral Design Method.
I hope this post inspired you to rethink the way you design your application process approach. Good luck!
A cliche image of coaching

Personal coaching is pointless: four reasons

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Self Improvement

The lie at the heart of the coaching and Leadership-Industry

I’m fully aware that I will probably get hate-mail for this. But I honestly think personal coaching is a gigantic waste of time and money. Personal coaching is based on the assumption that changing the individual will lead to a change in the behaviour of the group and will benefit the company. A multi-billion dollar leadership-industry even emerged around this assumption. “If only I would become a better leader, my company would grow and my team would flourish”.

I think this assumption is complete nonsense, because of these four reasons

1. There’s a very weak relationship between knowledge and habits.

Most smokers know smoking is bad for them. Most smokers know they should quit. But with every crave for relaxation or fighting boredom, they can’t help themselves and light up a cigarette.

The same goes for coaching. Learning a lot about yourself is one thing. Being able to break your automatic interaction patterns with your environment is a whole different subject. You and your environment can’t help but repeating the same patterns over and over again. And the moment you try to change, your environment will push back hard to get you in line with what they expect you to be.

2. Individuals are overrated when it comes to making a difference

Only collaborations create breakthrough innovations. The central storyline of Michael Lewis biography of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky is how these two Isreali psychologists, basically re-wrote the rules of psychology through their collaboration. which had all the characteristics of a creative-intellectual love affair. They could never tell who initiated a breakthrough insight or idea. It was the creative-intellectual tango between both of them, that generated idea after idea. Interestingly, their intellectual productivity dried up, when they got separated in the eighties.

By the same standards: There would be no Steve Jobs, without Steve Wozniak or Johny Ive. No Warren Buffet without Charlie Munger. Even the archetype of the lone genius, Albert Einstein, turned out to rely heavily on the genie of his wife Mileva Maric. I think it was Aristotle who said: “knowledge is dialogue”. So instead of looking inside for “unlocking hidden truths about yourself”, find yourself a creative partner and start playing.

In his new book “Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell”, Google’s former chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt brings a homage to Bill Campbell, who both coached the Apple and Google Board at the same moment. Bill was famous for coaching the team, not the individuals of the team. As Schmidt puts it:

“You hear all the day that “I need a mentor.” Well, by the way, you need a mentor and I need a mentor; mentors are great. That’s not what Bill was. Bill was a coach and more importantly, he was the best coach of teams ever. And why do you need a team? Because a company is not an individual, it’s a team of individuals who need coaching to achieve their objective”.


3. You are the average of the five people you hang around with.

This is what Tim Ferris would write, if he would be given the chance to write copy on a public billboard.

The answer to becoming a better person is by surrounding yourself in your daily life with people better than yourself in different ways. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t have a mentor. But I do think that most of your uncertainties, flaws, ego-problems, bad habits and lack of energy can be attributed to the simple fact that you’re not surrounded by enough people, who push you to become the best possible version of yourself.

4. Change is about behaviour

Most of our limitations are the effect of the ecosystem we’re part of. As entrepreneurs, there was a time we worked day and night and frustrated our team because we couldn’t let go. The only way to solve this problem was to step out of this ecosystem for a while. This forced everyone in our team to step up and it provided an amazing opportunity for personal growth, and this includes Astrid and I. What changed us was an intervention that liberated everyone from a pattern we got locked into. No personal coaching could have solved this problem.


The Behavioural Design of Personal Growth

How does this relate to Behavioural Design? At SUE we think of Behavioral Design as a set of methods and principles to change behaviour, through the design of interventions that nudge people’s choices in a desired way. The more we work on big themes like happiness, excitement, creativity, productivity, etc… the more we discover that you can’t search for those values within yourself. They are the effect of the behaviour you are nudged into.

By the same standard we think of professional growth as just another Behavioural Design Briefing. If you want to grow as a person, simply create a context in which you are triggered into behaviors that lead to growth. The best way to achieve this is to come up with interventions that force a group to give more feedback. to engage in continuous learning and to experiment aggressively. Our Behavioural Design Sprintis an example of how the design of the process forces the group into these positive behaviours.

Want to learn more?

If you want to master the science of influence yourself, you could consider enrolling in our two-day course Behavioural Design at our SUE | Behavioural Design Academy. You can download the Academy brochure.

Or maybe you currently have a challenge in which you want to influence choice or change behaviour. Please, take a look at our Behavioural Design Sprint. It might be the answer you’re looking for.

Or could be you just would like to get to know us a little better. We happily introduce ourselves here.