To make real impact in the world, I believe you need the support of a terrific organization. I feel fortunate to be affiliated with Stanford for almost 25 years -- since 1993. Along the way I've been inspired by peers, challenged by students, and guided by Stanford's ethos of making the world a better place.
My Stanford research lab is located in Ventura Hall and is affiliated with Stanford’s H-STAR Institute. My lab team includes 8 people from diverse backgrounds. We meet as a lab every Thursday afternoon. (More below.)
On the teaching side of things, I’m currently appointed in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education. Previously I taught my classes in the Department of Computer Science. At times I contribute at the d.School and the Symbolic Systems Program. No matter the department or program, I welcome students from across campus to join my courses and to do research in my lab. Most are graduate students, but I like working with smart and motivated undergrads as well.
Our Stanford Lab
I direct research at the Stanford Behavior Design Lab. In 2018 we are tackling an important problem we call the “Matching Challenge.” This is an extension of our earlier "Change Together" project.
Our general hypothesis is this: A person can change readily when (and only when) that person is matched with good behavior for him or her.
Why this matters . . .
Too often behavior change programs match people with a behavior they don’t want to do (“You should eat kale"). That approach doesn’t work. Or people are matched with a behavior they cannot do (“Hey, walk at work an hour each day”). That doesn’t work either.
In our research so far, we have found the best matches are always behaviors that the person (1) wants to do and (2) can do. Both matter. In Behavior Design terms — the language we use — we would say people have both the Motivation and the Ability for that Specific Behavior. In 2018 a recent study by the Gates Foundation also found these two components to be highly predictive of behavior performance.
But wait, there’s more.
A good behavior also needs one more quality: It needs to be effective. In other words, when you perform the behavior you progress toward the outcome you want. Here’s an example of a bad match: Some weight-loss programs will suggest people do behaviors that don’t actually lead to weight loss. That’s awful. People have faith in the program, they do the suggested behaviors, and then they don’t get results.
Matching people with the right behavior is hard to do, even for a human coach. As far as we know there is not yet a good automated solution. The potential for a breakthrough is one reason we are investigating this area.
To study the Matching Challenge, we are focusing on behaviors that help people manage their stress. As a lab team we could pick any topic we wanted as the research focus, and we picked stress because it is such a big and growing problem. Like many of our projects, we are studying an important concept or theory (in this case, the Matching Challenge) and we are doing our research in the context of an important real-world issue (in this case, stress).
At this point in our project, we invite people from all over the world to collaborate with us. You won’t be formally affiliated with Stanford. You will be a guest researcher and will work directly with my lab team helping us find insights and answers. More here: habits.stanford.edu.
At my lab’s former website you can find projects we’ve done over the last 17 years. This includes identifying what causes behavior, mapping the 15 different types of behavior change, and exploring the role of technology for good purposes, including conferences on Mobile Health. (Our current projects are not on our former website.)
For many years I taught my models and methods for Stanford's Department of Computer Science. More recently, my teaching appointment is in the Graduate School of Education.
Usually I keep my class sizes small, and students apply to join by doing a small project that shows their skills in judgment and communication. I try to admit a diverse group--from different majors, ages, ethnicities--because I believe this makes a better class for everyone. (And sorry: I don't allow auditors, though sometimes I will welcome a guest to join one or two classes.)
Each year I create a new course to teach -- something that has never been done before. My classes always relate to human behavior in some way, but I explore from different angles. The first day of class I tell students that my courses are like a start-up. We have a plan for now, but I'm quite sure that plan will change. And I don't know if we will succeed. Why? Because no one has ever explored this topic before, and no one has ever taught a class like this before. They need to be flexible; they need to help the class move forward in a good way. And then I invite them to drop the class by saying, "If this kind of class scares you, then you need to drop and find a class that is more traditional."
So what happens? Almost no one drops. Most students love the idea of a groundbreaking class. And I do too. For 10 weeks we get to explore an important new area together.
In Spring of 2018 my Stanford course will focus on helping students become world-class experts in the conceptual aspects of Behavior Design.
In previous years my students have become experts on design aspects (such as designing the first step in an experience) or specific topics (such as behavioral solutions for stress), all under the Behavior Design umbrella. But this year I want to do a deep dive conceptually -- it's all about using the lenses I've created in Behavior Design to understand and analyze behaviors, products, services, and more.
I'm excited about this focus. In some ways, I'm trying to give my students the thinking skills I've developed over the last 15 years. I'm cloning myself. At least that's my intention.
My vision for the 2018 course: By the end of Spring Terms, the students in my course will be the Top 10 Behavior Design Thinkers in the world. No one will be better. Really. I believe we can get there.
(If you're a Stanford student reading this, please email me for info on how to apply to my course.)
A Few Former Students
Below I highlight some of my former students and lab members. As a teacher for all, and a mentor for some, I am grateful for the opportunity. I always challenge my students to use what they've learned from me to make the world a better place.