Monday, June 7, 2010

Science of Sabha: It's the Situation

First off thanks for all the comments generated by last week's post on change. We can sum up what most of you said in a few words: people resist change. You are right. When it comes to making sabha sticky (or anything sticky) this seems true. However to quote the Heath brothers (verbatim):

But it's not quite that easy. Babies are born every day to parents who, inexplicably, welcome the change. Think about the sheer magnitude of that change! Would anyone agree to work for a boss who'd wake you up twice a night, screaming, for trivial administrative duties? (And what if, every time you wore a new piece of clothing, the boss spit up on it?) Yet people don't resist this massive change—they volunteer for it.

In our lives, we embrace lots of big changes—not only babies, but marriages and new homes and new technologies and new job duties. Meanwhile, other behaviors are maddeningly intractable. Smokers keep smoking and kids grow fatter and your husband can't ever seem to get his dirty shirts into a hamper.

The subtle point here is that there are hard changes and easy changes - what makes one different from the other? In their book Switch, the Dan and Chip argue that successful changes share a pattern. They require the leader to do three things at once. To change someone's behavior, you've got to: change that person's situation, win over their heart, win over their mind.

The problem is this: Often the heart and mind disagree. Fervently. Next week we will look at the battle between heart and mind. Today let's look at situation. To do this we need to think about popcorn.
One Saturday in 2000, some unsuspecting moviegoers showed up at a suburban theater in Chicago to catch a 1:05 p.m. matinee of Mel Gibson's action flick Payback. They were handed a soft drink and a free bucket of popcorn and were asked to stick around after the movie to answer a few questions about the concession stand. These movie fans were unwitting participants in a study of irrational eating behavior.

There was something unusual about the popcorn they received. It was wretched. In fact, it had been carefully engineered to be wretched. It had been popped five days earlier and was so stale that it squeaked when you ate it. One moviegoer later compared it to Styrofoam packing peanuts, and two others, forgetting that they'd received the popcorn for free, demanded their money back.

Some of them got their free popcorn in a medium-size bucket, and others got a large bucket—the sort of huge tub that looks like it might once have been an above-ground swimming pool. Every person got a bucket so there'd be no need to share. The researchers responsible for the study were interested in a simple question: Would the people with bigger buckets eat more?

Both buckets were so big that none of the moviegoers could finish their individual portions. So the actual research question was a bit more specific: Would somebody with a larger inexhaustible supply of popcorn eat more than someone with a smaller inexhaustible supply?

The sneaky researchers weighed the buckets before and after the movie, so they were able to measure precisely how much popcorn each person ate. The results were stunning: People with the large buckets ate 53 percent more popcorn than people with the medium size. That's the equivalent of 173 more calories and approximately 21 extra hand-dips into the bucket.

Brian Wansink, the author of the study, runs the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, and he described the results in his book Mindless Eating: "We've run other popcorn studies, and the results were always the same, however we tweaked the details. It didn't matter if our moviegoers were in Pennsylvania, Illinois, or Iowa, and it didn't matter what kind of movie was showing; all of our popcorn studies led to the same conclusion. People eat more when you give them a bigger container. Period."

No other theory explains the behavior. These people weren't eating for pleasure. (The popcorn was so stale it squeaked!) They weren't driven by a desire to finish their portion. (Both buckets were too big to finish.) It didn't matter whether they were hungry or full. The equation is unyielding: Bigger container = more eating.
Best of all, people refused to believe the results. After the movie, the researchers told the moviegoers about the two bucket sizes and the findings of their past research. The researchers asked, Do you think you ate more because of the larger size? The majority scoffed at the idea, saying, "Things like that don't trick me," or, "I'm pretty good at knowing when I'm full."


Imagine that someone showed you the data from the popcorn-eating study but didn't mention the bucket sizes. On your data summary, you could quickly scan the results and see how much popcorn different people ate—some people ate a little, some ate a lot, and some seemed to be testing the physical limits of the human stomach. Armed with a data set like that, you would find it easy to jump to conclusions. Some people are Reasonable Snackers, and others are Big Gluttons.

A public-health expert, studying that data alongside you, would likely get very worried about the Gluttons. We need to motivate these people to adopt healthier snacking behaviors! Let's find ways to show them the health hazards of eating so much!
But wait a second. If you want people to eat less popcorn, the solution is pretty simple: Give them smaller buckets. You don't have to worry about their knowledge or their attitudes.

You can see how easy it would be to turn an easy change problem (shrinking people's buckets) into a hard change problem (convincing people to think differently). And that's the first surprise about change: What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem.
Now this is interesting because many times we have caught ourselves getting frustrated with people when sabha does not go well. In fact this happened so often that after many sabhas we narrowed it down to three distinct groups: the flaker, the reader man, and debate dudes. We are sure you have encountered them as well but by way of introduction here are their bios.

The master flaker has it down to a science when to show up to the Mandir so that they do not have to do their assigned talk (which in many cases they volunteered to do). The tyro flaker will simply not show up at all on Sunday. However as he refines his skills he understands that showing up just as the person (usually sanchalak) who fills in for his absence STARTS to speak - he is safe. It is an art form and no easy task to accomplish this bit of serendipitous timing. The next part is to come up with a creative and convincing excuse as to why he was late, worthy of any Oscar winning screen play.

Next comes reader man. The good thing about reader man is that he shows up. The bad thing about reader man is that he shows up. Reader man as the name implies reads right off the paper - usually not well, getting words wrong in both English and Gujarati. As reader man hones his skill he may bring a laptop and read off of that, he may make note cards and read off of that. He may even start a talk by saying a prasang, giving you hope that change is possible, then start reading again. He is persistent. It is a quality.

Our personal favorite is debate dude. Basically this presenter will make everything a group discussion as follows: read the first paragraph, break the sabha into groups, say discuss this while he wanders off, then wraps up by saying each group pick someone to share their thoughts. Repeat for every talk. Not sticky in the guise of trying to be sticky. Genius really.

Every time we encountered such behaviors we kept thinking - what is wrong with these people!? Now we got to thinking maybe what looks like a people problem is really a situation problem. What is the popcorn bucket?

Honestly for the flaker we could not figure this out. We think we need to tap his elephant and rider (more on that next week). But reader man was a different story - we figure out his popcorn bucket and had the tools to do try and do something about.

Our tools: Sabha review and preview.
Reader Man's Popcorn Bucket: his notes.

In the past during preview we had requested reader man to say a prasang (not read it) and it would work pretty well. However in the stress of the moment he would revert to reading. So this time during preview we went after the popcorn bucket. We asked reader man to give his presentation sans notes. There was a look of panic on his face. But after some talking he agreed. The result. Mixed. He faltered and stammered in some parts, but when he said his prasangs, he said them - no reading. A victory in our books. The second step was sabha review. Many people gave reader man positive feedback about his prasang SAYing abilities. This reinforced his belief in saying and not reading. It is a long process, but reader man is on his way.

Lastly we tried to get debate dude to stop group discussing everything. Since his popcorn bucket was obviously group discussions, during preview we requested he try something else. There was again a look of panic. We assuaged that look by walking through several other "activities" he could do. It seemed like he had a misconception that he could not talk for 20 minutes and needed something to "fill the time." However by adding several prasangs (out side of the syllabus that he had himself read on the website) the time issue was gone. Again during review several people mentioned that it was a nice change of pace not to have group discussion. Success! Almost.

Two weeks later debate dude had the MC. For manan he decided it would be a great idea to have .... a group discussion. Fear not, we can use the elephant and rider to coax more change- more on that next week.

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