The Power of Fifty Bits

Summary Written by John Petrone
“Today’s world demands deeper attention and more frequent decision making, but our brains are instead wired for inattention and inertia. These limitations lead to a persistent gap between our internal intentions and our outward actions.”

- The Power of Fifty Bits, page 156

The Big Idea

Guard Those Fifty Bits

"The fact of the matter is that we tend to focus our attention on things that are either pressing or pleasurable."- The Power of Fifty Bits, page 3

Why do humans have such a short attention span? According to Nease, our brains process an average of ten million bits of information per second, but the conscious section of our brains can only handle fifty bits per second. So, if we can only focus on fifty bits at a time, then we naturally concentrate on the most pressing and pleasurable aspects. As the most energy-intensive organ, the brain depends on shortcuts to save energy and to “get the job done as efficiently as possible without engaging our scarce fifty bits.”

The author also discusses several shortcuts that are part of our natural inclinations and help explain our predisposition to only paying attention to whatever is in front of us. The first shortcut, loss aversion, states that humans are wired to avoid losses. Therefore, we will put in more effort to avoid losses than to pursue gains.

The pursuit of instant gratification is a second mental shortcut that Nease believes is built-into into our consciousness. Known as hyperbolic discounting, the main premise is that people are less willing to wait for gains in the future vs. the present. In other words, “actions that lead to future benefits but have up-front costs will seem attractive when we plan to engage in them, but less attractive when it comes time to implement them.” Exercise is the perfect example of an activity requiring effort now but the benefits occur in the future.

So how does all this insight into our internal mapping help us in directing our behavior towards the actions we want to take? We can begin by improving the ease of following through on a preferred action.

Insight #1

Make It Easy If You Want It Done

"Most good behaviors that are difficult involve an upfront cost for a future benefit."- The Power of Fifty Bits, page 135

Given that humans are wired for impatience, removing any obstacle to a desired behavior greatly increases the chances of following through. Nease refers to these obstacles as the “here and now hassles” associated with a particular behavior and uses the example of a company streamlining their 401(k) participation rate. All the employees had to do to sign up was check a box on a postcard and return it. That simple, seamless step increased participation rates by 15 percent.

Another tactic to increase the ease and likelihood of doing something is the use of fluency. Fluency refers to the “ease with which our brains process incoming information.” If a statement is seen as fluent, we are more likely to agree with it, like it and consider it easier to do. The less fluency people have to use to process a piece of information, the fewer of their fifty bits they engage.

How do we increase fluency? One way is to use easier-to-read fonts. The names we give to things can also affect fluency. Nease illustrates this principle with the following example: companies with easy-to-pronounce names perform better on their first day as a public company than companies with names that are difficult to pronounce.

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Insight #2

Reframing Choices Using Loss Aversion

"Reframing can be a very effective and powerful method for increasing the rate at which people engage in desirable behaviors and make choices that will serve them well over the longer term."- The Power of Fifty Bits, page 117

Framing your message in a way that gets your point across can be the key difference in someone following through or not on something you want them to do. Nease believes that frames are effective precisely because they “provide cues to help us know what to pay attention to and what to ignore.”

He gives an example of this from his experience at Express Scripts, combining people’s aversion for losses with the strategic use of framing. Patients were convinced to switch to lower-cost generic medication from more expensive brands. This was done by focusing the communication on how much money they were losing when more expensive brands were purchased and used the term “burning money” to highlight the losses incurred. Frames make some conclusions easier or more attractive than others.

Another aspect of framing that is deemed helpful is bundling vs. enumerating. This is especially helpful with financial costs and incentives. When dealing with losses, it is often better to group or bundle the loss in one large amount. Gains on the other hand, are often undervalued and when enumerated or itemized, emphasize the specific benefits.

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Bob Nease

Dr. Bob Nease recently retired as the Chief Scientist at Express Scripts, a Fortune 25 healthcare company dedicated to making the use of prescription medications safer and more affordable. Over the past several years, Bob has emerged as the nation’s expert on the application of behavioral sciences to health care. He has now turned his attention to equipping others to make practical use of those insights in applications beyond health care — at work, at home, and in the community.

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