5318665531_b62722f817Imagine walking into a busy mall when someone approaches you with an open hand. “Would you have some coins to take the bus, please?” he asks. But in this case, the person is not a panhandler. The beggar is a PhD.

As part of a French study, researchers wanted to know if they could influence how much money people handed to a total stranger using just a few specially encoded words. They discovered a technique so simple and effective it doubled the amount people gave.

The turn of phrase has been shown to not only increase how much bus fare people give, but was also effective in boosting charitable donations and participation in voluntary surveys. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 42 studies involving over 22,000 participants concluded that these few words, placed at the end of a request, are a highly-effective way to gain compliance, doubling the likelihood of people saying “yes.”

What were the magic words the researchers discovered? The phrase, “but you are free to accept or refuse.”

The “but you are free” technique demonstrates how we are more likely to be persuaded when our ability to choose is reaffirmed. The effect was observed not only during face-to-face interactions, but also over email. Though the research did not directly look at how products and services might use the technique, the study provides several practical insights for how companies can influence customer behavior.

Wanna and Hafta

Dr. Jesse Schell, of Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center, studies the psychology behind why people play. In addition to being CEO of his own gaming studio, Schell has poured over decades of research to try and explain why people spend countless hours entranced playing Angry Birds or World of Warcraft while at the same time dreading doing other things, like their day jobs or filing taxes.

At this year’s D.I.C.E Summit, Schell said the difference comes down to whether the behavior is a “wanna” versus a “hafta.” The difference between things we want to do and things you have to do is, according to Schell, is “the difference between work and play … slavery and freedom … efficiency and pleasure.”

Furthermore, Schell believes maintaining a sense of autonomy is critical to enjoying an experience. Schell points to the work or Edward Deci and Richard Ryan, whose Self-Determination Theory identifies a belief in one’s own freedom to choose as a key requirement for sustained motivation.

Unfortunately, too many well-intentioned products fail because they feel like “haftas,” things people are obligated to do, as opposed to things they “wanna” do. Schell points to neuroscience research showing “there are different channels in the brain for seeking positive consequences and avoiding negative consequences.”

When faced with “haftas,” our brains register them as punishments so we take shortcuts, cheat, skip-out, or in the case of many apps or websites, uninstall them or click away in order to escape the discomfort of feeling controlled.

Why Choice Works

So why does reminding people of their freedom to choose, as demonstrated in the French bus fare study, prove so effective?

The researchers believe the phrase “but you are free” disarms our instinctive rejection of being told what to do. If you have ever grumbled at your mother telling you to put on a coat or felt your blood pressure rise when your boss micro-manages you, you have experienced what psychologists call “reactance,” the hair-trigger response to threats to our autonomy.

However, when a request is coupled with an affirmation of the right to choose, reactance is kept at bay. It appears emancipating people from seeing a behavior as a “hafta,” opens them to viewing it as a “wanna.”

But can the principles of autonomy and reactance carry-over into the way products change behavior and form new habits? Here are two examples to make the case that they do, but of course, you are free to make up your mind for yourself.

Counting Calories

Take for example establishing the habit of better nutrition, a common goal for many Americans. Searching in the Apple App Store for the word “diet” returns 3,235 apps, all promising to help users shed extra pounds. The first app in the long list is MyFitnessPal, whose iOS app is rated by over 350,000 people.

When I decided I needed to lose a few pounds about a year ago, I installed the app and gave it a try. MyFitnessPal is simple enough to use. The app asks dieters to log what they eat and presents them with a calories score based on their weight loss goal.

For a few days, I stuck with the program and diligently input information about everything I ate. Had I been a person who logs food with pen and paper, MyFitnessPal would have been a welcomed improvement.

However, I was not a calorie tracker prior to using MyFitnessPal and though using the app was novel at first, it soon became a drag. Keeping a food diary was not part of my daily routine and was not something I came to the app wanting to do. I wanted to lose weight and the app was telling me how to do it with its strict method of tracking calories in and calories out. Unfortunately, I soon found that forgetting to enter a meal made it impossible to get back on the program – the rest of my day was a nutritional wash.

Soon, I began to feel obligated to confess my mealtime transgressions to my phone. MyFitnessPal became MyFitnessPain. Yes, I had chosen to install the app at first, but despite my best intentions, my motivation faded and using the app became a chore. Adopting a weird new behavior, calorie tracking in my case, felt like a “hafta” and my only choice was to either comply with what the app wanted me to do, or quit. So I quit.

Making Friends

On the other hand Fitocracy, another health app, approaches behavior change very differently. The goal of the app is similar to its competitors – to help people establish better diet and exercise routines. However, the app leverages familiar “wanna” behaviors instead of “haftas” to keep people on track.

At first, the Fitocracy experience is similar to other health apps, encouraging new members to track their food consumption and exercise. But where Fitocracy differentiates itself is in its recognition that most users will quickly fall off the wagon, just as I had with MyFitnessPal, unless the app taps into an existing behavior.

Before my reactance alarm went off, I started receiving kudos from other members of the site after entering-in my very first run. Curious to know who was sending the virtual encouragement, I logged-in. There, I immediately saw a question from “mrosplock5,” a woman looking for advice on what to do about knee pain from running. Having experienced similar trouble several years back, I left a quick reply. “Running barefoot (or with minimalist shoes) eliminated my knee pains. Strange but true!”

I haven’t used Fitocracy for long, but it’s easy to see how someone could get hooked. Fitocracy is first and foremost an online community. The app roped me in by closely mimicking real-world gym jabber among friends. The ritual of connecting with like-minded people existed long before Fitocracy and the company leverages this behavior by making sharing words of encouragement, exchanging advice, and receiving praise, easier and more rewarding. In fact, a recent study in the Netherlands found social factors were the most important reasons people used the service and recommended it to others.

Social acceptance is something we all crave and Fitocracy leverages the universal need for connection as an on-ramp to fitness, making new tools and features available to users as they develop new habits. The choice for the Fitocracy user is therefore between the old way of doing an existing behavior and the company’s tailored solution.


To be fair, MyFitnessPal does have social features intended to keep members engaged. However, as opposed to Fitocracy, the benefits of interacting with the community come much later, if ever.

Clearly, it is too early to tell who among the multitudes of health and wellness companies will emerge victorious, but the fact remains that the most successful consumer technology companies of our age, those which have altered the daily behaviors of hundreds of millions of people, are the ones nobody makes us use. Perhaps part of the appeal of sneaking in a few minutes on Facebook or checking scores on ESPN.com is access to a moment of pure autonomy – an escape from being told what to do by bosses and coworkers.

Unfortunately, too many companies build their products betting users will do what they should or have to do, instead of what they want to do. They fail to change behavior because they neglect to make their services enjoyable for its own sake, often asking users to learn new, unfamiliar actions instead of making old routines easier.

Instead, products that successfully change behavior present users with an implicit choice between their old way of doing things and the new, more convenient solution to existing needs. By maintaining the user’s freedom to choose, products can facilitate the adoption of new habits and change behavior for good.


– When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing the new behavior. Psychologists call this “reactance.”

– To change behavior, products must ensure the user feels in control. People must want to use the service, not feel they have to.

– Attempting to create entirely new behaviors is difficult because these actions often feel like “haftas.” For example, unless someone already has a habit of counting calories, a diet tracking app can feel alienating, telling the user what to do and neglect to provide opportunities to get back on track if they slip-up.

– However, by making an existing behavior easier to do, a product can imply a choice more likely to be accepted. By making the existing behavior simpler and more rewarding, products give users the choice between their old way of doing things or porting their habits to the better, new solution instead.

– By catering to existing routines, products stand a better chance of changing user behavior as they move people to increasingly complex actions and new habits over time.

Thank you to Steph HabifRyan HooverMax OglesJohn Solomon and Mark Williamson, for reading early versions of this essay.

Photo Credit: marfis75

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  • Great post, Nir. It goes back to the Motivation vs. Ability graph in your Hooked Workshop. Many of these apps try to increase motivation rather than ability, which always fails. Have seen this tons of times at LSM.

  • Garreth Dottin

    Really good article, I think this is why so many productivity and to-do list apps fail in the beginning. They often have great user interfaces but they frequently feel like a burden. I think this is one of the reasons Foursquare has been successful is because it has been able to make doing activities feel less burdensome and more “wanna” behaviors.

  • It’s worth pointing out “hafta” behaviors can be highly sticky if they come from a personal trainer. So maybe the real issue is that “hafta” behaviors equire more pressure than an app can deliver. Although GymPact may be an exception…

    So for low pressure contexts (like apps) it’s a better strategy to use “wanna” behaviors. I think that’s very insightful. BJ Fogg’s model would indicate these apps should also be trying to increase perceived ability to increase the chance of trigger success.

    Have you written about increasing percieved ability in behavior change design yet?

    • Interesting Alex. Do you mean “perceived ability” as opposed to actual ability? That’s fascinating. Do you have any resources or research on the topic? I’d love to write about it.

      • I don’t have any evidence or research to back that up – I just have the feeling that the perception of ability is what matters in Fogg’s model. Consider drunk people attempting to demonstrate their sobriety.

        Any given person perceives their ability to execute a task in two ways – too high or too low. If they are too high, encounters with reality should set them straight. If they are too low, they may never get that encounter with reality at all. So inflating the confidence of people who judge their own ability too low could be especially helpful.

        • Great topic! You should write a guest post on this Alex.

          • Rex Stock

            Relationships among college students’ self-reported goal orientation, perceived ability, cognitive engagement while studying, and course achievement were examined. Theoretically important intercorrelations that replicated previous research were found. Both perceived ability and learning goal scores were positively correlated with meaningful cognitive engagement (self-regulation and deep strategy use). Additionally, learning goals and perceived ability were positively correlated with each other. Performance goals were positively correlated with shallow cognitive engagement. A path analysis supported a causal model in which perceived ability and learning goals influenced meaningful cognitive engagement, which in turn influenced midterm achievement. Shallow processing, which was influenced by performance goals, negatively influenced midterm achievement. Additionally, a link from meaningful cognitive engagement to shallow cognitive engagement was found. The data suggested that meaningful cognitive engagement suppressed the negative effects of shallow engagement on achievement. Implications of these findings for theory and possible interventions are discussed.

            Copyright © 1996 Academic Press. All rights reserved.


          • Rex Stock

            Perceived ability is often the difference between “moving forward” and quitting. “I’m no good at math….” “I can’t write poetry”….

        • Hitesh Rastogi

          Hi Alex- Would perceived ability is what BJ would call “brain effort” or cognitive ability (as how he defines simplicity in terms of six elements)? I agree we all have perceived ability required of various behaviors and behave accordingly (e.g. flossing teeth, etc.). Interesting this is very personal and hence an effective solution needs to be aware of that to increase user’s perceived ability to facilitate behavior change.

      • Peter

        Hi Nir- There is some research out there that correlates increased self-efficacy (“perceived ability”) to behavior change.

  • Daniela

    Great article. I love how your work is able to tie itself together with previous articles. Part of the success of Fitocracy is the acceptance of the ‘tribe’ through its online community of weight watchers.

  • Rex Stock

    I hafta read Nir’s stuff because I wanna help people feel like they are free to improve their lives–their way–using the products my cohorts and I develop…

    Diabolical genius that Nir is, he uses scarcity as one of his tactics; but even that scarcity is somewhat an illusion, because he’s seems to be everywhere I look (Techcrunch, Blogs, Tweets, yikes!).

    But I am not saying Mr. Eyal is some trickster: nay, my observations are made in admiration. Any tool in the wrong hands can be dangerous…

    Nir is the demolition man when it comes to the myths and metrics that bind and confuse us, and I always feel safe(r) when he defuses the hype, the chaos of experts, the edicts of guru’s and false prophets (profits too?)… Wow, sorry: talk about being carried away… :0)

    There’s such a gentle nuance to settling into that sweet spot of people wanting to use the services and products I am developing and that’s the treasure I seek. I hear Nir has THE map buried in his backyard and tattooed to his body, but I can’t find his damn street address in Happytown on my stupid GPS system that came with my burn phone.

    Oh well, I guess I could go to one of his seminars or rob a bank and pay for a couple days of his consulting… It would be worth it. Unless I got caught.

    Great stuff, Nir. Thank you.

    • LOL Rex

      • Rex Stock

        Like all (good) comedy my comments are slathered in truth… Great post today on ‘being in the spotlight’. Rex

        Rex D Stock
        President, RDS Inc.
        Managing Partner, The Stock Answer

  • Michael Kampff

    I am fascinated by this topic, and this post really helps. Thanks Nir!

    One concept that really sparked my thinking was in the beginning – the acknowledgement that the person was “free to accept or refuse”. It seems like it’s not necessarily the existence of the freedom to choose that matters most, but the user’s perception that the system allows, facilitates, or even encourages the freedom to choose.

    A system that allows and even fosters the desired divergence (autonomy) from the system’s core method, but still encourages the behavior associated with the desired outcome, is a system that wins the user’s long-term commitment?

    However, in the example, it appears that the core concept is that Fitocracy simply did a better job of integrating the social component (“wanna”) into the process (the “hafta”). Both apps have the same intention (get healthier), but Fitocracy employs the wanna to drive the hafta. Is that right?

    So I’m trying to apply this to a common challenge in my industry – motivating adherence to a doctor’s prescription (usually perceived as a “hafta”). What would be an example of a way a company (or the industry) could use these concepts to motivate behavior in the patient’s own interest?

    • It’s hard to come up with one-size-fits-all solution and I’m still baking some ideas, but I think the answer to how to turn haftas into wantas has to do with:
      1 – Making the behavior itself satisfying
      2 – Changing identity
      Haven’t finished working out these ideas but looking forward to exploring this track.
      Happy to hear what you think!

      • Michael Kampff

        Would like to know specifically what you mean by “changing identity”. If you’re referring to a prior post, I’d be more than satisfied with a link.

  • mailhaim

    Nir, how’s building “hafta” product different from building products users ‘need’?

    The latter became basic investment criteria for new ventures…

    • People need lots of things, but that doesn’t mean they’ll continue to use them to form new behaviors. This article tries to explain why people don’t use the behavior change tools they say they “need” at first.

  • Hitesh Rastogi

    When our autonomy is threatened, we feel constrained by our lack of choices and often rebel against doing the new behavior. Psychologists call this “reactance.”
    Hi Nir,
    Is above true because user as not bought into the approach (offered by the product) and hence feels being dictated. There are always limited choices (in terms of interaction/usage/etc) in any product (for example home button on iPhone, even after 3 yrs of using it, I still feel the handicap of not being able to go back to previous app by click of a button).. just curious!!

    • I think reactance occurs when the fundamental behavior is seen as a hafta vs a wanta, limited choice isn’t the only factor.

  • meistermad

    Interesting read Nir, Thanks!

    I’m wondering if the comparison made really holds. You mentioned that MyFitnessPal is the most popular app, with the most reviews. I am thus guessing that it is the most useful app for dieters. Fitocracy hasn’t yet garnered such reviews.

    Even personally, I’ve known friends who use MyFitnessPal over Fitocracy as they find it simpler over the many features Fitocracy has (which seem to be cognitively taxing for them)!

    I’m not sure if your question really holds. I believe there are other factors which need to be considered.

  • rodstart

    Nir, I recently became aware of your website and I am pleased to say your content is really good. I look forward to many hours of insightful reading.

    Regarding this post and as someone that has tried to create many “healthy habits” I can attest to the important of “triggers” and “motivation” to borrow from BJ Fogg’s model.

    But I think the process of creating habits or altering behavior longer term is much more challenging in the healthcare space vs other applications. Why? For one, it’s easy to put off healthy behaviors because the extent of their negative impact (serious disease for example) is not immediately observable and occur over long(er) intervals of time.

    If our not exercising today resulted in 20 pounds of additional weight tomorrow, or serious disease tomorrow, I think the behavioral model would be readjusted.

  • Wolfgang

    article. I did the gamification course from Kevin Werbach at Wharton
    and he confirmed that meaningful choices, the social aspect and the self
    determination theory are behind the success of the good stuff. For me
    the most interesting question is “How could one integrate these elements
    into daily work processes to boost productivity and employee

  • This was so great! And particularly true when it comes to dropping bad habits. My hubz and I are trying to quit smoking — but not because we want to. We actually enjoy our smoke breaks together because we always step outside and chat, which is a really special and intimate time for us. But obviously smoking is rotten for our health {and boy are we starting to feel it now that 40 isn’t so far away!}, it’s a terrible example to set for our children {even tho we never smoke in the house or in our vehicles, they are merciless in their derision of our poor choice — as well they should be!}, and it sucks being addicted and therefore out of control. Still, we don’t want to quit. We WANT to want to quit, but are only doing so because we have to. And wants are always easier to answer to than needs. Feelings trump logic, any day. So now we step outside for “oxygen” breaks, so we still have our chats together, our break from the stresses of the day. And we eat Twizzlers so our hands are engaged. We still want to smoke, but more than that, we want our time together, and yummy treats, and hopefully better health.

  • Jeroen

    Great article – What do you think about this addition:
    “people like to be guided into the right direction”… but once they found that direction they want to be/feel free and have choices.

  • WhirDa FarkhArWie

    What is the exact publish date of this article?