Jan 20

I am deeply attracted to the process of hacking – perhaps because I taught at MIT for a long time, or maybe because I tend to approach life with a similar problem-solving mindset.

Think about what hackers do. They start by looking at the flow of information in a system – let’s say a series of servers – and then try to identify weak points along the path.  Once they identify the weak points, they try out all kinds of ways to attack them, forcing the system as a whole to behave in certain ways (often toward not-so-desirable outcomes, at least from the perspective of the people who try to run the system).

I think social scientists often work in an analogous way, though (of course) with nobler intentions.  Let’s say that we social scientists want to look at a certain human behavior, such as overeating at the cafeteria: we would start by examining the different steps that people take as they go through the cafeteria – looking at where the customers stand, what they see, who they see, what tempts them, how they decide what to take, where and how they pay, and so on.  Next, we would try to identify possible points in the process that seem to encourage or enable overeating, and then try to come up with different ways to influence peoples’ decisions at these weak points.

For example, we might notice that people pass by the burger-and-fries station on the way to the salad bar. If the cafeteria is set up this way, it’s very hard for hungry people to resist temptation. So with this in mind, we might suggest to push the burger stand off into to the far corner and place the salad bar front and center. Alternatively, we might realize that people fill up their plates to their capacity, so we might recommend decreasing the plate size (a strategy that Brian Wansink shows to be effective in achieving weight loss).

By conducting this kind of  “hacking analysis” of the way people behave in a cafeteria “system,” we can discover the most promising ways to intervene in the process and improve behavior.

Another thing I like about the hacking analogy is that hackers are not necessarily looking for one absolute solution. Rather, they are looking for a simple approach, using available tools, in order to get the “job” done right now. This is not to say that we should come up with interventions in a slap-dash fashion, but the standard academic approach to exploring all the possible nuances of a topic for 30 years and understanding it in perfect detail before suggesting any intervention … well, I simply don’t have that kind of patience. I’m much more excited by cases of human behavior where we can learn something essential in a relatively short timeframe, test ways to change behavior for the better, improve the process, and continue learning and improving.

Enjoyable hacking to us all,

Dan