“Activation Energy” Mental Model

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Executive Summary Of Activation Energy

If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the activation energy mental model.

In “The Happiness Advantage” (THA review + notes), psychologist Shawn Achor recommends making undesirable behaviors harder and desirable behaviors easier. If you want to watch less TV, remove the batteries from your remote and store them tediously far away – maybe at the back of a cabinet that you have to get a step-stool to reach. Similarly, if you want to encourage healthy eating, many nutritionists recommend placing healthy snacks at eye-level and hiding (or not buying) junk food… thereby reducing the “activation energy” for eating healthy, and increasing it for eating junk.  This works for kids and adults alike!

The concept in one sentence: “activation energy” in chemistry (or “static friction” in physics) refers to the fact that it takes a lot more energy to get something going than to keep it going; human behavior works much the same way.

Key takeaways/applications: research indicates moderate increases or decreases in the ease or difficulty of accomplishing something can yield “dramatic” payoffs.

Two brief examples of the activation energy mental model:

Passivity is one of humanity’s greatest skills.  Many business models take advantage of activation energy combined with status quo bias: I once had a credit card with a modest annual fee that I never used; I had intended to cancel it for two years but was always too lazy to do so because there was no online cancellation option, and every time I thought about canceling, I imagined the gruesome horrors of staying on hold and dealing with a pushy customer service rep.  That sounded like a lot of effort.

Similarly, businesses that offer their customers easier payment options often see boosted sales: home-security giant ADT saw a meaningful decrease in subscriber attrition as it enrolled more of its customers in auto-pay options (vs. having to manually cut a check), while vending machine operators that install credit-card readers tend to see meaningful increases in customer transaction count and amount.  (Note that this is also a function of salience / vividness bias.)

This explains why I can never find my socks.  Shawn Achor’s approach to behavioral modification (mentioned in the caption) is mirrored by Japanese organizer Marie Kondo.  

She posits on pages 141 – 142 of her interesting / occasionally kooky bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Upthat clutter is a result of focusing on the wrong activation energy:

“A common mistake many people make is to decide where to store things on the basis of where it’s easiest to take them out […] clutter is caused by a failure to return things to where they belong.  Therefore, storage should reduce the effort needed to put things away, not the effort needed to get them out.”

Yes, you’re allowed to make fun of me for having read that book… and yes, I’m still totally messy and happy that way.  😛

If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.

However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries!  There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeys, our discussion of the names vs. meaning, association bias, or power laws mental model, or our reviews of great books like “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (TMAB review + notes), “The Vaccine Race” (TVR review + notes), or “The Frackers” (FRK review + notes).

A Deeper Look At The Activation Energy Mental Model:

“One study tested […] a simplified enrollment form.  New employees were handed enrollment cards […] with a ‘yes’ box for joining the plan […] employees did not have to spend time choosing a savings rate and asset allocation; they could just check the “yes” box for participation.

As a result, participation rates during the first four months of employment jumped from 9 percent to 34 percent […] if you dig a channel for [people] to slide down that removes the seemingly tiny barriers that are getting in their way, the results can be quite dramatic.”

That quote, from Cass Sunstein + Richard Thaler on page 112 of “Nudge” (NDGE review + notes), helps explain why  I adore Nudge (and also Richard Thaler).  Sunstein/Thaler, of course, didn’t invent the theory of activation energy, but they sure put it to good use.  

They cite decades-old research by psychologist Kurt Lewin on “channel factors” (a version of the same thing.)  A follow-up study on Lewin’s ideas by some other researchers yielded fascinating results: some Yale seniors were educated as to the benefits of a tetanus vaccination, and most were convinced enough to agree to go get it.  However, only 3% of the control group actually ended up doing so.

Conversely, among students who were asked (at the end of the presentation) to decide on a specific time, and provided with a map with the health building circled (even though they already knew where it was), the vaccination rate jumped to 28% – nine times as high.

Throughout Nudge, Sunstein and Thaler demonstrate how seemingly trivial inconveniences can prevent people from engaging in desired behaviors; similarly, in The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes), Shawn Achor provides examples of how increasing the activation energy of checking stock prices – or your email – can dramatically reduce your propensity to do so.  I won’t belabor every example; go read the book(s)!

A final example derives from Dr. Paul Offit’s Deadly Choices (VAX review + notes), wherein Offit notes the following interesting stat:

“Children in states with easy-to-obtain [vaccine] exemptions (granted by the simple signing of a form) were almost twice as likely to suffer outbreaks of whooping cough.”

Offit’s book is a wonderful clinic on disaggregation,   correlation vs. causation, and  salience, exploring the psychological mechanisms that lead well-intentioned but deluded anti-vaxxer parents to believe wildly unsupported conspiracy theories about the safety of vaccines.

Short of outlawing non-medically-necessary vaccine exemptions (likely a political challenge), states could meaningfully improve vaccination rates by merely making the exemption process more time-consuming and difficult.

As with many mental models in the latticework, I don’t think the point is terribly difficult to grasp, so let’s move right along to some of the interactions, each of which are pretty short.

Activation Energy x Inversion x Memory = Structural Problem Solving + Margin of Safety

As discussed in the memory mental model, our memories are notoriously limited, leading us to make plenty of unintended mistakes.  Most of the time these mistakes aren’t critical, but in some situations – say, a nuclear power plant, the cockpit of an airplane, or a surgery operating theater in a hospital – mistakes are no bueno.

I never get tired of citing Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things (DOET review + notes), a masterful book in which Norman elucidates the topics of memory and “human-centered design” – or, what I call structural problem solving.   Activation energy is one of the problem-solving techniques Norman invokes via inversion: by making it harder for us to forget things, “forcing functions” are an example of good design that transforms activation energy into a margin of safety, reducing the likelihood that we engage in an undesired behavior.

What is a forcing function?  It’s an annoyance of sorts, an extra step or a constraint that forces you to do things in a certain way.  Norman cites the ubiquitous “don’t you want to save your changes?” screen in Microsoft Office as an example.  We’ve all seen this:

Spreadsheet copyrighted by Initech… or Initrode… oh, and: HipChat wins all the ad awards.  All of them, I tell you.

I’m sure you can come up with plenty of other examples: putting a book in front of the door (with your car key underneath it) so you don’t forget it on your way out; putting important appointments into your calendar.  All of these actions are “forcing functions” that meaningfully raise the “activation energy” of forgetting – you can still forget to save your work, but now you have to try!

In higher-stakes situations, the stress of an equipment failure on a plane or a high-stakes surgery can cause even the most talented, highly trained operators to forget things – Laurence Gonzales provides an excellent overview of the underlying neuroscience in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes).  While Norman touches on checklists, the definitive book – popular among investors – is Atul Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto” (TCM review + notes).   See the sidebar in the next section for more details.

Application/impact: tactically increasing the activation energy of forgetting, and decreasing the activation energy of remembering, can mitigate biological, structurally persistent shortages of working memory.

Activation Energy x Selective Perception

Gawande’s “The Checklist Manifesto” (TCM review + notes) is a thoughtful and nuanced book that is too-often oversimplified and overinterpreted (I was guilty of this the first go around, frankly.) Checklists are a specific solution to a specific problem, and the book also touches on issues of culture and authority bias. Read it carefully, and consider comparing/contrasting with Groopman’s wonderful “How Doctors Think” (HDT review + notes).

Many PAA readers may be familiar with the concept of

schema, or selective perception: the idea that our brains are physically incapable of processing all the stimuli that the world throws at as, resulting in our utilization of pattern recognizing heuristics and selective focus to filter out irrelevant information.

The net result of this is some cognitive quirks like contrast bias(our tendency to focus on changes), but like any adaptive trait, these are neither inherently “good” or “bad” – they’re circumstance-dependent.

When it comes to activation energy, the upside of our non-omniscience is that we don’t even have to make things harder or easier to increase or reduce activation energy: we just have to make them look harder or easier.  Sometimes it might be inconvenient or costly to make a “real” change, and much easier to make a “seeming” change (that doesn’t actually exist).

Don Norman provides an example of this on page 19 of DOET, discussing some rubber poles that look like they’re metal, discouraging visitors from driving down a certain path but still easily allowing service/maintenance vehicles through.

Similarly, Sunstein/Thaler provide an example on pages 37 – 39 ofNudge of “fake” speedbumps on a dangerous curve of Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.  If you (shamefully) don’t have a copy of Nudge yet, check out a satellite image from Google Maps at these GPS coordinates.  Or, for a more interactive take, check out Street View here and ask yourself how you’d respond if you were driving.  Or, if you’re really too lazy to click those links…

Achor cites some similar research on loyalty cards on pages 117 – 120 of Before Happiness (BH review + notes).  If you give shoppers a “head start” on achieving loyalty rewards without any actual free points given away – for example, if you theoretically gave them an 8-stamp card with two free stars, rather than a 6-stamp card with no free stars – they’ll go faster.

We respond to the perceived difficulty of tasks, not the actual difficulty, so the activation energy required to sequentially tackle a set of small chunk is far less than the activation energy required to tackle a huge undertaking – even if the total effort is actually the same!

Application/Impact: Even if it’s impractical to actually change the activation energy, simply making it look like there’s a higher or lower effort required to achieve something can have big impacts.

Activation Energy Habit

Finally, it bears noting that the ultimate way to reduce activation energy for any desired behavior is to make it a habit

While my metaphor is not neuroscientifically accurate, habits can be visualized as literal paths.  Recall that Sunstein/Thaler used the metaphor of a channel you slide down; I prefer the visualization of blazing a trail through a forest: it can be difficult at first, but once the trail’s there, you can’t help but follow it because it’s easiest to go down the beaten path rather than rampaging off and creating a new one.

There are modern books that cover this topic in quite some detail, ranging from classics like Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes) to Duhigg’s The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes), but the idea goes all the way back to “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (ABF review + notes), in which Franklin describes his process of creating virtuous habits.

Application/impact: repetition reduces the activation energy of behaviors, so think carefully about what you do (and don’t) make a habit of!

Further Reading on Activation Energy

The two best books to read on activation energy are The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes) by Shawn Achor and Nudge (ndge review + notes) by Sunstein/Thaler.

THA covers activation energy in more of a personal context – making it easier for yourself to go to the gym, etc – whereas Nudge covers it more in a public or corporate policy context – making it easier to save for retirement, for example.

Also consider checking out the  structural problem solving model for an exploration of how Thaler used activation energy – as well as  status quo bias loss aversion, and  hyperbolic discounting.