I was reading a conversation between Sam Harris and Daniel Kahneman, in which Kahneman made the point that if you want people to do what you want, don’t push them to do it. Just make it easier for them to do it instead. If you push people, they will revolt. But if you make it easier for them to do it, you increase the likelihood that they actually do it.
I often catch myself thinking about this line again and again, finding connections with a great number of things around me. I will try and flesh out some aspects of this in this essay
If we take a look at entrepreneurial innovation over the last couple of centuries, almost all of them follow a common pattern- they make life easier for us, often in unexpected ways. We never really demanded these products. However, when we tried them out, we realized that they were easy to use, and provided us with tangible benefits.
Facebook is an obvious example. It made it so easy for us to stay connected with a larger group of friends. It is constantly throwing at us information about what our friends are doing, etc. Of course, it also offers us the aspirational motif of making our lives look the way that we want people to be seeing us. But apart from that, Facebook is popular because it makes life easy. The same goes for AirBnB (makes it easy to arrange cheap accommodation at almost any place in the world), Uber (makes it easy to rent cabs right from your couch), etc.
Of course, there are other entrepreneurial ventures as well that do not just seek to make our lives incrementally easier. Take Tesla and SpaceX, for instance. However, one can agree that a large fraction of new ventures aim to cash in on this idea that there is a lot of money in making our lives easier.
What other low hanging fruit is out there, waiting to be picked? Perhaps something that converts a novel into a movie? A coffee machine that automatically makes coffee at 7 every morning? Something that cooks for us?
It becomes almost obvious in retrospect that the biggest innovation in our daily lives will be an affordable robot that can do all our chores for us. However, creating such a robot has proved to be more difficult than previously thought. Another would be really cheap space travel. But that too seems to be much more difficult than previously thought.
And therein lies the true problem of entrepreneurial innovation. The obvious entrepreneurial ideas have proved too difficult to realistically solve in the near future. Hence, one has to think of new, non-obvious ideas of making our lives easier. For instance, I type around 80-85 wpm. I’ve never really felt the need or desire to type faster than that. However, it is clear to me that I think much faster than that. I usually form whole sentences instantaneously in my mind, which I then take 5-10 second to type out. What if there was a keyboard for less than $100, that helped me type 300 wpm? Would I buy it? Of course! And therein lies some potential for serious entrepreneurial innovation.
How the tech industry hacks this insight
I bought a New York Times subscription last year. I didn’t really wake up one morning and decide to buy one though. I would see really interesting New York Times articles being thrown my way on Facebook, Twitter, you name it. However, on clicking the article, I would find out that all of them were paywalled. And getting access was only one button away. After months of denying myself the information hidden behind the paywall, I finally broke down and got myself a subscription.
A few months later, I realized that I had free access to the articles through my university, and tried to unsubscribe. I couldn’t find the unsubscribe option at all! The only way to unsubscribe was to call them up at a Toll Free number and wait several minutes. Like any other human being, I balked at this idea, and kept paying $10 for several for months, until I finally managed to unsubscribe through a newly enabled internet chat bot.
This is par for the course for most online subscriptions (except, surprisingly, Netflix). Although unsubscribing is possible, it requires effort- much more effort than subscribing does. For instance, deactivating your Facebook profile is essentially a five minute-affair, which involves finding the right spot for de-activation (which Facebook keeps changing), re-entering your password, choosing a reason to de-activate, being sure that you want to de-activate your profile, etc. However, re-activating takes just two seconds. Go to the website, click the login button (I have my login information saved on my computer already), and you’re in!
I have often de-activated my facebook profile, only to re-active it the very next day. Because it is so easy. In fact, the only reason that I no longer have access to my facebook profile right now is that I went on facebook, changed my password to something I would have no hope of remembering, and then de-activating it. Now, in order to get on facebook again, I will have to use the Forgot Password feature, which will require a few additional steps. These steps have been sufficient to keep me off Facebook for about a week now- longer than I’ve ever gone off Facebook in the past!
The same goes for cellphone usage. Although addiction and boredom are surely reasons that I use my phone for 1/5th of my day, the fact that it is just so easy to use is also an equally contributing factor. One swipe, and I’m on. You take something that is really easy to do, and you attach some sort of small Pavlovian reward to it (the dopamine release when you get a Facebook notification, or an email, etc), and you get an unstoppable force pretty much running your life. How do we stop it? The trick that has worked for me the most is just switching off your phone. Although I am able to switch my phone back on when absolutely necessary, I now have to put in greater effort. And sometimes, I’m able to decide that the effort is not worth it. Hence, it is only when we make phone usage more difficult for ourselves that we might be able to de-addict ourselves.
India is infamous for its corrupt bureaucracy. People often have to resort to bribing to get small things done. Suppose you go to your nearest government office to get an important document. What will happen? Will you be asked for a bribe right away? No. It’s slightly more subtle than that. You will be told that the office responsible for this document is busy, and that you should return later. You do so the next day, and you’re again told the same thing. This keeps happening over multiple days, until you finally offer a small bribe, and then your work gets done instantaneously.
Essentially, bureaucrats offer you two ways of getting your work done. One is an impossibly hard way that requires way too much patience and work. Maybe on your 100th visit, you’ll get your important document. However, you’re loathe to put in so much time and effort, especially if you have an alternate way, which requires you to pay a small sum to get your work done instantaneously. Bureaucrats are effectively hacking that part of your brain that instantly goes for the easier route. They make bribing easy because they’re discreet about it, your work gets done instantaneously, and the alternatives, which are not getting the document at all or visiting the same place 100 times before your work is done, are too expensive. And this is why there is so much bribing in Indian bureaucracy.
Donations and volunteering
Donations and volunteering can also be boosted by making them “easier”. I work for a student organization that asks students to volunteer on weekends in order to raise money for charities at home. We often have a difficult time getting enough volunteers. However, we recently started offering car rides to volunteers to and from the venue, which has definitely helped in recruitment, although getting enough volunteers for our events or raising enough money is still a struggle.
On the other hand, I also donate some money every month to Effective Altruism. It is easy for me to do so, as it is literally just a click away. All my information has been saved already. I punch in my CVV number, click the “donate” button, and I’m done. In fact, they also have a “recurring donation” option, that would make it even easier for me to donate, although I don’t generally use that option as I like having more control over my financial transactions. Over in all, helping out Effective Altruism is much easier for me than on my own student run organization, as it is requires much less effort.
What are some lessons we can learn from this, and implement in our organization? Perhaps we could offer people an “easier” alternative to volunteering. Maybe, along with our weekend volunteering stints which are often tiring and a huge time commitment, we could also offer people the option to pay $5 every month instead? Or we could sell traditional Indian handicrafts door to door, in order to raise money? I’m not sure. However, the easier we make it for people to contribute to our organization, the greater their contributions will be.
Asymmetry of effort
Although I have advocated for making things “easier” for a certain group of people, I have ignored the plight of the group responsible for making it all happen. For instance, thinking up a new way to make our lives easier involves a lot of thinking, planning and work by entrepreneurs. Similarly, implementing all of the actions I describe above for my student group requires a lot of effort from the core members. While entrepreneurs are adequately incentivized to pursue ideas that could be worth a lot of money and power, members of a student group are not as incentivized to take away time from their studies and friends to pursue ideas that might slightly increase the overall funds we raise. Hence, along with making things easier for others, we cannot make them too difficult for ourselves. There’s a delicate optimization game to be played here