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To Kickstart a New Behavior, Copy and Paste

College is an important time of social imprinting for students everywhere. Like many coeds, when she was a junior at Syracuse University, my friend Kassie Brabaw experienced this firsthand when she signed up to work as a resident adviser to save on expenses. Being an RA allowed her to live in a dorm for free, as long as she made herself available to freshmen in need of guidance on everything from managing classwork to roommate squabbles to living away from home for the first time. To become an RA, Kassie had to spend a week in all-day training sessions with a dozen other upperclassmen who would be responsible for their own flocks of incoming freshmen. As luck would have it, five of Kassie’s fellow RAs-to-be were vegetarians. She’d long been intrigued by the idea of a meatless lifestyle—it seemed healthy and virtuous. But she never really believed she could do it. Her family ate meat at every meal and rarely bought fresh vegetables. So even though vegetarianism sounded great, she had no idea what vegetarians actually ate. Was it just salads, salads, and more salads? That was what she imagined and it sounded boring.

But as the week went by, Kassie watched, amazed, as her vegetarian peers created delicious-looking meals at campus dining halls. Their diets were light on lettuce and heavy on variety—loaded veggie omelets every morning, black bean soup or vegetarian risotto for lunch. And when her RA group went out for a meal, she was delighted to discover that ordering at restaurants was a breeze. “All they had to ask was, ‘Is there chicken stock in this soup?’” she told me.

When training was over, Kassie realized she could easily emulate the strategies that had worked so well for the vegetarians in her RA cohort: eating tasty omelets for breakfast, soups and risottos for lunch, and so on. She decided to try a meatless life for a week. That week then turned into a month, which turned into four years. Although she didn’t have a name for it, Kassie had used a strategy I use myself when I want to master a new skill: “copy and paste.” She watched peers who had managed to achieve a goal she wanted to achieve and then deliberately imitated their methods.

Kassie had used a strategy I use myself when I want to master a new skill: “copy and paste.” She watched peers who had managed to achieve a goal she wanted to achieve and then deliberately imitated their methods.

My frequent collaborator, Angela Duckworth, and I often take the same approach. I’ve copied and pasted her strategy of handling work calls while she walks to the office, and she’s emulated my practice of drafting emails from preexisting templates.

In mentoring students, though, we’ve both been surprised by how often a simple suggestion—“Did you think about asking your friend who’s acing this class how she studies?”—leads to a blank stare. Of course, we know that some copying and pasting occurs naturally. Each year I do an exercise with my Wharton MBA students where 95 percent receive an email before class instructing them to clap when I show a picture of our dean, but 5 percent are left out for fun. Most students who were left off my e-list inevitably copy their clapping classmates. And when Kassie lived in close quarters with vegetarians, she realized she could and should imitate their approach if she wanted to change her diet. But Angela and I suspected that many people never wake up to the opportunity to deliberately emulate their peers. After all, while Kassie was thrown together with some vegetarians for a week and it changed her life, it had never previously occurred to her to go looking for them. This may well be thanks to something social psychologists Lee Ross, David Greene, and Pamela House first pointed out in 1977 in a now famous paper on what they dubbed the “false consensus effect.” The paper describes a general tendency humans have to incorrectly assume that other people see and react to the world the same way we do. If we think the latest juice cleanse being promoted on morning talk shows is inane, we assume most other people do, too; if we think urban life is ideal, we assume that like us, the majority of our fellow countrymen aspire to move to cities; and if we’re clueless about how to make tasty vegetarian meals, we assume other people (even vegetarians!) are equally uninformed. Of course, the real world is far more diverse than the world in our imaginations, and wide differences in beliefs, behaviors, and knowledge exist in objective reality.

A few years ago, Angela and I began to wonder if more people could reach their goals if they were encouraged to 1) seek out people with a wealth of knowledge they’d likely overlooked, and 2) deliberately copy and paste their life hacks. If we generally underappreciate how much we can learn from other people because we assume we already know everything they do, maybe we could use a little prompting to make better use of our social connections.

In two studies led by Wharton doctoral student Katie Mehr, we found that encouraging people to copy and paste one another’s best life hacks motivated both more exercise and better class preparation in adults who wanted to work out more and college students seeking to improve their grades, respectively. Score one small victory for the strategy.

When we’re unsure of ourselves, a powerful way the people around us can help boost our capacity and confidence is by showing us what’s possible.

Our next study was more ambitious, and more complicated. More than one thousand participants hoping to boost their exercise regimens were randomly assigned to one of three groups: a control group in which they were simply encouraged to plan how they would increase their activity, an experimental group in which they made plans but were also encouraged to use our “copy and paste” strategy, or a second experimental group in which they made plans and were given a workout hack to copy that was obtained by someone else (like “for every hour that you exercise, allow yourself fifteen minutes on social media”).

Consistent with our prior findings, we saw that having any new exercise-boosting technique to copy worked better than just making a plan, regardless of where the technique came from. But interestingly, it was more helpful if people found strategies to copy and paste themselves than if the strategies came from someone else.

When we dug into the data, we discovered that seeking out exercise hacks to copy and paste led people to find tips that best fit their own lifestyles. What’s more, taking a more active approach to information gathering increased the time participants spent with their role models, increasing their exposure to good habits. Together, these findings confirmed our suspicion about what people stand to gain from deliberately copying the successful strategies used by peers. So if you want to get fit, tip books will surely help, but if you can spend some time with fit peers and watch out for ideas, you’ll likely do even better.

When we’re unsure of ourselves, a powerful way the people around us can help boost our capacity and confidence is by showing us what’s possible. Often, in fact, we’re more influenced by observation than by advice. By watching her vegetarian peers create meals in the dining hall and order in restaurants, Kassie was able to pick up techniques that made vegetarianism work for her.

Happily, it’s easy to turn yourself into a deliberate copy-and-paster. The next time you’re falling short of a goal, look to high-achieving peers for answers. If you’d like to get more sleep, a well-rested friend with a similar lifestyle may be able to help. If you’d like to commute on public transit, don’t just look up the train schedules—talk to a neighbor who’s already abandoned her car. You’re likely to go further faster if you find the person who’s already achieving what you want to achieve and copy and paste their tactics than if you simply let social forces influence you through osmosis.

Adapted from How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be by Katy Milkman; foreword by Angela Duckworth, in agreement with Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Katherine L. Milkman, 2021.

Disclosure: Katy Milkman is the co-director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as an organizational donor in 2021. Organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.

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