EPISODE 024
Start At The End
Matt Wallaert, author of Start At The End, is an expert on changing human behavior. He believes that the world gets better when we collectively get better at making it that way.
settings
Read It
Would you prefer to read it rather than listen to it? No problem. 

Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

People tend to overweight things like face validity when it comes to people. This person dresses like a millionaire. They talk like what I expect a millionaire to sound like. And so those are based on biases, right? And so they replicate biases. We talked about the rich white man syndrome. We expect rich people to be white and so when a white guy presents himself as that, you're like, “Oh, that's congruent with the bias that I have.” So I'll give you an interesting example. And I try to fight this all the time. My book has a ton of cursing in it which is unusual for a book in its segment. And when the American Library Association reviewed it, they said it was needlessly vulgar. And what I replied was, “No, it is needfully vulgar. I am trying very specifically to show that you can curse a lot, and still be a scientist. And you can curse a lot and still be very smart. And you can curse a lot and be someone who people listen to.”


Host - Monique Mills:   

[00:58]          Hi, everyone, welcome back to the Unpolished MBA podcast. In this episode, Matt Wallaert, an expert on changing human behavior, talks about being “needfully vulgar” at times while still being a respected scientist, author, and entrepreneur. Now, I know you've probably just done a double-take at what I just said but keep listening. It's all explained in the episode.


(music)


Host - Monique Mills:          

[01:30]       So I want you to explain a little bit to the audience about your work in the behavioral sciences because I know you have expertise in that. So you mind explaining?


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[01:41]        Yeah, for sure. So by training, I'm a social psychologist. And so if you think about psychology, there are clinical psychologists who are off doing therapy and studying sort of individual behavior. I do social psychology. So what are the underlying principles that affect all of our behavior, make behaviors globally more likely or unlikely? Now, that can be narrowed. So I'm not interested in changing Monique's behavior but I might be interested in changing professional women's behavior. So there's a class in which Monique sets that I'm not concerned about each individual person in that, but as a group, I might want to make-- Let's say 50% of professional women ask for a raise, I want to get it to 60% of professional women.


[02:30]       And so what I do as an applied behavioral scientist, so I left academia, was “How do we use what we know about human behavior and the scientific process to change people's behavior?” And so in particular, what I focus on is getting-- Early in my career, I did that directly. I built products and services that change people's behavior. And in the latter half of my career, I spend more of my time helping others do that. So meaning, how do I get people to think through this lens and see themselves as two really specific things? One, everything we do is about changing behavior. Even this podcast is about changing behavior. You have things you want your listeners to do. And you are booking guests, having conversations, asking questions that hopefully move them in the direction of that behavior. The point of a chair is to get people to sit. The point of a Windows to get people to look out it. There are behaviors that we want from the things that we build.


[03:25]       And then the second half of that is, given that we've established that we want a behavior, how do we use science to get there? So how do we go through a process of experimentation that doesn't say, “Well, I know what will get people to sit.” We've all heard this from the sort of oldest, whitest guy in the room, right? “I know what the answer is,” and then you have to build this answer. No, no, no, that's not how it works. What we want is a playing field where we harvest potential interventions from everyone, including the janitor, and we test those in a rigorous way that says, “Oh, no, chair A is actually better than chair B. And it's not better because some old white guy said it was better, it's better because we've defined a behavioral outcome. We said, ‘Better is defined by getting people to sit more often and the janitor derived chair is the one that gets people to sit more often.’” That's what we want. And so it's systematic ways of generating insights, understanding essentially, why do people behave the way they do today, and how do we get them to behave the way we want them to tomorrow? So I'm a sci-fi guy, right? There's a world we have, there's a world that we want, I build bridges between the two worlds.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:37]          That makes life really interesting for you.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[04:40]        Yes, it does.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[04:42]          And I know a little bit that you have quite a bit of entrepreneurial experience. And so I'm wondering if your experience in really understanding human behavior and helping to drive it has been crucial in your entrepreneurial journey.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[05:00]        Yeah, I mean, I think behavioral science can be applied at every scale. I don't think it's limited to startups. But one of the reasons it's particularly helpful in startups is you have a limited-- Startups, as compared to big companies, have fewer bullets in the gun and so you just have to aim more carefully. And I think what science does by helping us validate our assumptions, it helps us aim more carefully. And when you have a limited number of chances, it can be much better. I'm disproportionately interested in sort of the bottom half of the socioeconomic spectrum. It's the half of the socioeconomic spectrum I came from, it's the one that I care the most about. Rich people will kind of take care of themselves. But one way of thinking about that is rich people just have more bullets in the gun. They don't have to be righter, but the consequences for being wrong are smaller.


[05:48]       Actually, I have a great example that I live through today. I'm in a dispute with a company about a bill. And so they're trying to put it in collections and put it on my credit score, which makes my credit score go down, but it went down from like an 800, to a 790 or something. You know what I mean? Because it was at the top, one problem won't break me. But if you were at the bottom end of the spectrum, and you had one delinquency, you're screwed, you just tanked everything. And so aiming is good. Aiming is always good. But aiming as a startup, you just have fewer chances to be wrong. And so aiming as a person who didn't grow up with material means, you just have fewer chances to be wrong. Aiming as a person who is of a racial or ethnic background that is penalized in the United States, or as a woman or any of the things that can be barriers for people, aiming well has disproportionately large returns. And so that's, I think, why I've focused my career around sort of how do we systematically aim well, because it's good for everybody, but it's differentially good for the people I care about.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[06:53]          Right. So it's interesting, you said, “Rich people will take care of themselves.” And before that, it was like, yeah, the older white rich guy, whatever it is, this is his solution he comes up with. And why do you believe, since you understand this more than the average person, everyone listens to the people because they have money, like it all of a sudden makes them right? It makes them smarter? No. So I'm trying to understand. This is something that I'm also studying as well, is really trying to understand human behavior more often, especially with the insertion of social media. And if we even look at Clubhouse, how you have a lot of grifters in rooms and hundreds of people like, “Wow.” And it's like this person has zero credibility but speaking with a certain confidence or saying that they're a millionaire gets people to listen and believe what they're saying. Where is that coming from?


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[07:50]        Yeah, I mean, so there's a lot of research on the things that make us believe someone. The things that make people persuasive. And we often forget being handsome helps.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[08:01]          Oh, yeah.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[08:02]        Right? A hundred percent.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[08:04]          Being tall.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[08:05]        Right. Being tall.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[08:06]          All of these physical things. Yeah.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[08:08]        Yeah. All these physical things. Being socially fluent, right? There are a lot of very smart people who are not socially fluent. And so they don't have what we in psychology sometimes call face validity. So face validity is when you evaluate an experiment, and you say something is face valid, what you're saying is, “Yeah, it kind of makes sense.” The things go together in a way that wouldn't make me surprised in the sort of world at large. And so people tend to overweight things like face validity when it comes to people. “This person dresses like a millionaire.” “They talk like what I expect a millionaire to sound like.” And so those are based on biases, right? And so they replicate biases. We talked about the rich white man syndrome. We expect rich people to be white. And so when a white guy presents himself as that, you're like, “Oh, that's congruent with the bias that I have.”

So I'll give you an interesting example. And I try and fight this all the time. My book has a ton of cursing in it which is unusual for a book in its segment. And when the American Library Association reviewed it, they said it was needlessly vulgar. And what I replied was, “No, it is needfully vulgar. I am trying very specifically to show that you can curse a lot, and still be a scientist. And you can curse a lot and still be very smart. And you can curse a lot and be someone who people listen to.” You can say axed instead of asked and still be valuable. And I think consciously disrupting the narrative that truth has to come from a particular place and look like a particular thing.

As an example, let's take those grifters. How many of those grifters are men on Clubhouse?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[09:46]          The majority.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[09:47]        That's right. How often do you see a woman being like, “This is how you make a million dollars in a year”, right? We wouldn't see that as face valid. We'd be like, "Meh. That seems weird." That doesn't fit with my idea of how you do that.” And so, people hold credibility, interestingly it's choice. And if you go in one of those rooms, which I often do to sort of listen to the people because it's fascinating to me, they are socially fluent in a particular kind of way. They don't stutter. They sound like a particular kind of person. And their profile pictures look the same. Like if it was them playing with their daughters-- It's never a picture of them playing with their daughters, right? It's some dude in a suit, fitting my expectation of what I think this sort of millionaire kind of person is going to look like.


[10:36]       One of the things I actually really like about… God, what's the guy from the Dallas Mavericks that was on Shark Tank?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[10:45]          Mark Cuban?


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[10:46]        Mark Cuban. One of the things I like about Mark Cuban is he doesn't look like Daymond John. His suit doesn't quite fit right. You know what I mean? There's plenty of pictures. And so sorry, if he hears this interview, I apologize. I'm not making fun of your decisions. But he wears kind of baggy, ill-fitting jeans at times, right? It’s you're just sort of like he doesn't look exactly what you would sort of expect a billionaire to kind of look like. And I think that's actually really good. We need these people who disrupt the notion of what a thing can look like.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[11:21]          Right. You mentioned your book. And you didn't tell us the title of it, although I know, but I want you to share a little bit more about your book and what it's about.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[11:30]        Sure. So the book is called Start at the End. I don't know the subtitle. How to Build Products That Create Change? That sounds right. How to Build Products That Create Change. I don't know the subtitle of my own book.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[11:39]          Yeah, that is. It’s How to Build Products That Create Change.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[11:42]        Look at that, I occasionally know what I'm doing. So Start at the End is about the thing we just talked about. It's about how do you sort of articulate a behavioral outcome? And then how do you go create that outcome in the world through a sort of rigorous, method-based, sort of 10-week sprint? It is certainly, as written, meant to be a book for sort of product people and designers and other kinds of business people and that kind of thing. That isn't how everyone reads it. And I don't think you have to read it that way. So it's funny, it came out and there was a landscape designer, and she wrote me a note and she was like, “I'm basically just IDP-ing my--" IDP is the intervention design process, the sort of 10-week process we put up. She’s like, “I'm just IDP-ing my life.” She's like, “Every day, I wrote down a behavioral goal that I want for that day, and then I go through a process to try and create that behavioral goal.” And I'm like, “Great. It's not really how I intended the book, but it's a totally valid application of it.”

[12:36]       Sometimes when I interview people to join my team, what I want to know is how did they change behavior, and show me that you did it in a systematic way. And sometimes people feel like they have to do these really formal examples of like, “Here's how I built a product that does this.” One of my favorite examples that stick out in my mind is a young woman, who was like, “It really annoyed me that my roommates kept drinking wine, and then not washing out the wine glasses. And once it dries on the bottom, it's a giant pain to get that shit out. And here's what I did to systematically change their behavior.” And I was like, “That's a great answer. It's not a product. It's not this formal thing. But you went through a very, you know, I tried X, I measured how it worked. I tried Y, I measured how it worked.” It was a systematic approach to behavior change. That's all I want. That's all I care about. You don't have to have done that at a big company, you can just do that with your roommates. That's also fine.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[13:23]          Exactly. So I mean, it's the same steps in building a startup, and building a company - iterating, you have a hypothesis, you experiment, you test, you get an outcome, you learn from it, and you relaunch and you just keep going through it until you get the outcome you're looking for.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[13:38]        That's right. I think that to me, that is the sign of a good framework is that it scales up and down. It should work small and it should work big. And if it doesn't, I worry about its veracity. It's more of an analogy than tapping into-- When you think about something that's based on a true root thing in our human psychology, a true way that we work, it should always be true. It should be true broadly across circumstances. And so if you're like, “Well, it only works in these circumstances,” I'm like, “Well, then how core is it really?”


Host - Monique Mills:   

[14:09]          Right. So I know a little bit about your education, you did your Bachelor's in Psychology, and then you went on to the PhD.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[14:18]        And then I left.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[14:19]          So what was that all about?  I just want to say, just from things that I've read and following you online and things you've even said right now, I think you're a PhD in the world.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[14:33]        I have super respect for PhDs. What I said was, “This might not be for me.” And what I sort of figured out was the following.


Host - Monique Mills:

[14:41]            Okay.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[14:42]        I think, looking at what people are rewarded for in a field is always important, right?


Host - Monique Mills:   

[14:46]          Yes!


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[14:50]        PhDs are essentially Gnostic. So meaning the measure of outcome is knowledge produced, not impact had. And that's a subtle difference, the impact of that knowledge and the knowledge itself. We do need knowledge, knowledge is incredibly important. But it isn't actually the thing that I want to do. I am knowledge second, impact first.

And so there's actually a question that I use sometimes to help people who are joining my team figure out if they should be on my team or be in academia, and which is the following. “If you could snap your fingers and cure cancer, would you do it?” And academics are like, “No, because--" I mean, obviously they would, because they're great humanitarian, lovely people, but they're like, “No, I want to know how we cure cancer. That doesn't tell me anything about how curing cancer works. You just made it true. It's magic. And I'm not interested in magic. I'm interested in knowledge.”

In applied behavioral science, applied work like I do, I would do it in a heartbeat. I like knowledge, knowledge is great. But it's only great to the extent that it allows me to accomplish the applied outcome that I care about.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[15:50]          Right, to have impact.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[15:52]        That's right. So for me, that is why I ended up not choosing to continue in an academic path. And the thing I miss the most teaching. I thought that was really fun in academia, but the Gnostic part just doesn't, it doesn't--


Host - Monique Mills:   

[16:04]          Right. That's interesting. A lot of people that listen to this are on the fence of whether or not to pursue education, so I really appreciate you sharing that.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[16:15]        And I just want to clear. I think education is great. It's not an anti-education statement. It's just, very rarely will you hear me say, “this is good, that is bad,” sort of version of behavior. Instead, it's about intentionality. Know what education does for you, talk to people who got education, talk to people who didn't, talk to people who tried it and left, talk to people who didn't do it, and then came to it later, and understand why that is.

So if let's say, you want to decide, “Should I go to an MBA?”, you want to talk to four kinds of people - people who always knew they were going to do an MBA, people who were like, “I'm never doing an MBA,” people who thought they weren't going to and then did later, and then people who started and then stop and said, “Nevermind, this is not right.” Those are the four quadrants of people. And so I am a representative of the “I started a PhD program, and I left.” That's a quadrant but there's also, “I never had any intention of doing a PhD,” “I always had the intention to do a PhD, and I finished one,” “I didn't really mean to do a PhD, but then I kind of came to one later in life.” Those are the four people you want to talk to because those are the people who can give you different perspectives, then you can decide, “Hey, am I going into this for the right reasons?”


Host - Monique Mills:   

[17:24]          Wow. Well said, Matt. Thank you so much for sharing that with the audience today.


Guest - Matt Wallaert:   

[17:30]        And thanks so much for having me. This was super fun. Hopefully, we get to do it again. We'll do another episode.


Host - Monique Mills:   

[17:38]          Well, that's it. So what did you think? Matt is high up on my list as one of the most interesting people I've ever met. I appreciate his perspectives and how he lives by what he believes in so much that he changed the trajectory of his career to back it up. Now, not many people can say that they've done that. Like Matt says, start at the end. In other words, what change are you expecting at the end? And make sure your behaviors align with that. So I hope this episode brought you some encouragement to maybe step outside of your comfort zone and be open to changing direction.

Thank you for listening to the Unpolished MBA podcast. To hear more episodes or to request to become a guest, please visit unpolishedmba.com.

settings
GET IN TOUCH
Connect With Us

                                   Unpolished MBA © Copyright 2021, All Rights Reserved.                                                                                                                               

[bot_catcher]