Can an app change human behaviour? This behavioural economics professor is banking on it

Whether personal or professional, change is hard. And the cumulative data is not on our side.

Take something obviously detrimental, like smoking. A mere 4 per cent to 7 per cent of people successfully quit without the aid of medication or outside help.

Even experiencing a traumatic event - like the death of a loved one or being diagnosed with cancer - only leads to a 20 per cent success rate.

Not to be a killjoy, but as the Washington Post found, roughly 25 per cent of New Year resolutions fall apart within the first two weeks.

And even when it comes to our work - where money's on the line - "70 per cent of [management-led] transformation efforts fail."

So why is change such a struggle?

Dan Ariely, best-selling author of Predictably Irrational and professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, explains it like this:

"Usually when people approach solving problems, they think, 'Let's just give people some information and then they'll make the right decision,'" he said.

As natural as this educational approach feels, it doesn't work. For example, posting caloric facts on the side of a Snickers bar does little to deter us when it's 10 pm and the craving hits. Equally fruitless are traditional applications of so-called willpower.

"Change," in Ariely's words, "comes not from the inside, but the outside. If you want people to lose weight, give them a smaller plate. You have to change the environment."

Today, our dominant environment is digital, which is why Ariely's foundation - The Center for Advanced Hindsight - teamed up with Chris Ferguson, CEO of the Ontario-based design firm Bridgeable, and convened a three-day workshop last October with thirty different financial institutions from all parts of North America.

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