TOPICS > Economy > Making Sen$e

If Santa’s workshop was run by behavioral economists

December 24, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
A pebble that reminds your daughter to take a shorter shower. A device to remind your dad to get up off the couch. Economics correspondent Paul Solman revisits ideas42, a behavioral economics consultancy, to get more gift ideas that could help your loved ones adopt better habits in the new year.

GWEN IFILL: Now for a little holiday spirit.

We start with a look at a few gifts, apps and tech toys that can nudge you and others toward better living.

Economics correspondent Paul Solman has the story as part of his weekly take, Making Sense, which airs every Thursday on the NewsHour.

PAUL SOLMAN: Demoing a favorite gadget coming out of Santa’s workshop in recent years, an ideal gift for the hard-to-rouse, a behavioral economics alarm clock.

Clocky is among numerous products based on insights from one of the newest and fastest growing branches of economics.

Harvard’s Sendhil Mullainathan is a pioneer.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN, Harvard University: We’re used to biological science or semiconductors leading to new inventions. But now we’re starting to see how behavioral science, just not new technologies, but new understandings of the human mind, are leading to new inventions.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, last holiday season, we asked Mullainathan and his team at ideas42, a New York-based behavioral economics consultancy, to suggest some holiday gifts already on the market.

The first was a simple new take on an old invention: for the overeaters among us, a smaller plate.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: This plate is actually the size of plates from the 1960s. So it’s not just our waistlines that have gotten bigger. It’s our plates that have gotten bigger.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, smaller plates and more helpful ones.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: This is a product that basically measures out and tells you, this is how much vegetables and fruit, this is how much starch, this is your proteins.

And then once we have got it all loaded up, voila. Now, that’s portion control.

PAUL SOLMAN: But for those of us who really can’t resist seconds, fourths, ninths, there was the kitchen safe.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: You see what’s on here? There’s a timer.


SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: You set it. This is set for 11 minutes. I have had my one Hershey’s Kiss.

PAUL SOLMAN: Right. That’s all we should have.

SENDHIL MULLAINATHAN: And then you hear the lock, and now you can’t get anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: Me and almonds, this would be life-changing.

It’s now a year later and I can offer a verbal affidavit: The kitchen safe works. My almond consumption has gone from promiscuous to measured. So we returned to ideas42 to see what’s new.

This year’s interlocutor, ideas42 scientific director Eldar Shafir, who took me first to the bathroom.

ELDAR SHAFIR, Scientific Director, ideas42: This is sort of a cute device, the water pebble.

PAUL SOLMAN: The Water Pebble.

ELDAR SHAFIR: The Water Pebble. It almost looks like a pebble. It’s intended to help you save water and energy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Though the Water Pebble is meant for the shower, modesty required we make do with a sink to demo the device, which trains you to take shorter showers, the green light giving way to yellow, meaning time to wrap it up, and then red, meaning turn off the spigot.

ELDAR SHAFIR: One of the big issues in behavioral research is that we have a lot of intentions, and then the problem is acting on them.


ELDAR SHAFIR: So, you got the red light, you stopped, you leave the shower, and you did something good and you feel good about it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Having done your part to reduce some of the 1.2 trillion gallons of water Americans use, and often waste, at home each year.

And speaking of going down the drain, how about all the time and energy we waste looking for lost stuff? Turns out there’s a new product, and an app, for that.

MAN: This is Tile. Tile helps you buy things, anything.

PAUL SOLMAN: Tile is a Bluetooth tracking device that you pair with your phone. Then you name it for and attach it to whatever it is you tend to lose track of, like my computer bag.

ELDAR SHAFIR: You lost a bag?

PAUL SOLMAN: So you go to bag, hit find.


PAUL SOLMAN: All right.

ELDAR SHAFIR: Oh, I hear something.


ELDAR SHAFIR: Do you hear that?


ELDAR SHAFIR: You hear it? Oh, in the closet. Fabulous. Fabulous.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fantastic.

But, wait, there’s more.

ELDAR SHAFIR: It used to be the case that you needed your phone to find the Tile. And it was a problem, because sometimes you couldn’t find your phone. Now you can use the Tile, the one that was in your bag, to find the phone. So it goes both ways.

PAUL SOLMAN: All right, I’m going to test that. We haven’t set that up, I don’t think, but you have a phone booth, I see.

ELDAR SHAFIR: An old phone booth.

PAUL SOLMAN: All right, so I will put my phone in the old-fashioned phone booth.


PAUL SOLMAN: Now, hmm, where did I put that phone?

MAN: Simply double-press Tile to ring your phone, even if it’s on silent

PAUL SOLMAN: And there.

ELDAR SHAFIR: You hear it?

PAUL SOLMAN: Yes. Yes. Yes.

ELDAR SHAFIR: There it is, in the old phone booth.

PAUL SOLMAN: And the Tile has found my phone, like the phone found the Tile. No, this is amazing, because this is the best gift that I’m ever going to steal from a shoot.


PAUL SOLMAN: Well, I guess I have earned it or something.

But behavioral scientist Shafir wasn’t as happy as its new owner with the behavioral economics of Tile.

ELDAR SHAFIR: It’s a nice product, in the sense that it recognizes behavioral failure, namely, forgetfulness, and helps you deal with it. It’s not behaviorally sophisticated, in the sense that it doesn’t induce better behavior. It doesn’t help you remember things better. It just allows you to forget them, maybe even more than before, but to quickly recover.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the folks here at ideas42 aren’t simply thinking about gifts that improve your life.

Hannah Spring says they’re always trying to improve the world, one behavioral nudge at a time.

HANNAH SPRING, ideas42: We’re working on over 50 projects in more than 20 countries. We’re working in Mexico, helping to apply behavioral science to get more people to save for retirement. We’re also working with low-income Americans who are currently not in the formal banking system, helping them to get access to that.

PAUL SOLMAN: And helping students manage their debt, for example, with a simple aid to filling out the student loan form.

But since our project is a behavioral economics holiday gift guide, let’s get back to it with a couple of watch-like devices, the Vivofit 2, an activity monitor that reminds you with audible alerts and a red bar to get up and move around after an hour of inactivity.

Though, in the short time allotted, my ping-pong game, however vigorous, couldn’t get rid of the red line. So the red line is still here.

ELDAR SHAFIR: In theory, you should be getting a calorie count in addition to the red line disappearing.

PAUL SOLMAN: And then there’s the Tikker, billed as the happiness watch.

MAN: I would like to talk to you about the day you’re going to die.

PAUL SOLMAN: With one of the most depressing promotional videos ever.

MAN: Tikker, the death watch that counts down your life, just so you can make every second count.

PAUL SOLMAN: In my case…

ELDAR SHAFIR: Eighteen years, one month, 13 days, eight hours, 59 minutes and 51, 50, 49 seconds, life expectancy.

PAUL SOLMAN: So, I can wear this as, oh, my God, the sands of time running out in the hourglass of my life, or, what a lucky son of a gun I am that I have…

ELDAR SHAFIR: This fantastic gift.

PAUL SOLMAN: And that much time left.

Time for carpe diem or an 18-year funk. But for behavioral economic effect, Shafir thinks Tikker should be tinkered with.

ELDAR SHAFIR: So, you could imagine actually being motivated to alter small behaviors that would actually increase the expectancy you have counting on this, on this gadget, on this Tikker, as opposed to being stable.

PAUL SOLMAN: But perhaps the way to maximize Tikker is with headspace.

MAN: Think of it like a gym membership for the mind.

PAUL SOLMAN: A guided meditation app that I now use every day.

MAN: And with the next out breath, just gently closing the eyelids, and again just feeling the weight of the body.

PAUL SOLMAN: And it can be given as a gift, monthly, yearly, forever, which in my case seems to be about 18 years, one month and a week from today.

But, in the end, my favorite new gift was the behaviorally incorrect one, Tile, one of which I put in an item I’m forever misplacing. It’s in my hat. Done.

Paul Solman, economics correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour,” reporting from ideas42 in New York.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By the way, we think he is going to live a lot longer than 18 years.

GWEN IFILL: And lose his hat.