In the late 1970s, researchers from Harvard and Yale published a study that helped explain why warnings backfire. When people go into nursing homes, often their health declines. Now part of this is because they're old to begin with, but part of it may be because their life changes a little bit. Before people go into a nursing home, they have a lot of choice. They can figure out where they want to drive, what they want to do on a particular day, and they make a number of different choices. They have control over their own life. But when someone goes into a nursing home, they often lose a lot of that sense of control. There's a certain time they have to go to dinner, they no longer have a car. A lot of their choice, their control, their freedom has been taken away. And so the researchers wondered if whether one of the reasons health declined was because people lost their freedoms. So working with a local nursing home called the Arden House, they conducted a very simple experiment. On one wing of the nursing home, they gave people more choice than they had usually. They said here, would you like a plant and what day would you like us to come water it? They said would you like to watch a movie? Which one would you like to see and what night would you like to choose it on? They gave residents a number of simple choices, opportunities to exert more freedom and control over their own life. In another wing of that exact same nursing home, they give people similar things without the choice. They said here's a plant, we're going to come by and water it on a particular day. They'll be a movie Thursday night, you can come see it or not. But they didn't give them as many choices. They gave them some opportunity to choose, but not as many. And then they compared how the health of the residents living in those different wings changed over time. The results were quite striking, residents who had been given more control, more and opportunity to choose, more autonomy over their own life were more cheerful, active and alert. But even more astonishing were the long-term effects, 18 months later researchers came back and they examined the mortality rates across the two groups. On the floor that had been given more freedom and control, more autonomy over their own lives, less than half as many residents had died. Feeling that they had more autonomy, more control over their own lives seemed to make people live longer. Now this is part of a broader principle, people very simply have a need for freedom and autonomy. A need for agency and control, to feel like their lives, their choices, their actions are driven by themselves. Rather than driven by randomness or subject to the whims of others, they get to choose. And consequently, people are loathe to give up agency. When we encourage people to do something, when we ask people to do something or even when we try to direct them in a particular way, it does something subtle. It impinges on their ability to see their own course of action as driven by themselves. If they were going to make a choice and they were going to do something in particular, sometimes if we shape that choice, they don't feel like they're driving it. Which makes them less interested in going along with what we suggested. When we tell people not to do something, it makes them more likely to do it in part because they don't want to be told what to do. Who are you to tell me whether I should or shouldn't do something? I'm going to do exactly what I want. But even when we ask them to do something sometimes they do the opposite, even if it was something they would be willing to do already. Think about a boss in a meeting for example that says hey guys, we need to be more innovative, we need to speak up more in meetings. That may have been something that the employees were already wanting to do, one employee already wanted to speak up in meetings. But because the boss suggested it, now speaking up feels like you're just going along with exactly what he or she suggested, which might make you less likely to do it. If they're telling me to do it, I don't want to do it because it impinges on my freedom and autonomy. In some sense, people have an anti-persuasion radar, almost like a missile defense system that shoots down incoming projectiles. When people feel like someone else is trying to convince them, impinging on their ability to make a decision, their radar goes up and they shoot down that incoming persuasion attempt. They might avoid or ignore what's going on. If someone sends them an email they might delete it. They might change the channel of a television show when the ads come on, or they might say no thank you when someone knocks on the door. But even worse than avoiding or ignoring your message, many times people counter argue. They sit there and they seem like they're listening but they're actually not just listening. They're sitting there, rather than thinking about what you're saying is right think about all the reasons why what you're saying is wrong. Why they don't want to do what you're suggesting, why what you're suggesting isn't likely to be true. They're counter-arguing against each piece of your message, just like someone on a high school debate team thinking about all the reasons why they can shoot your message down. And so in some sense when we tell people not to do something or to do something, it makes them do the exact opposite. So how can we overcome this? We can't push people, we can't try to persuade them. What we need to do is encourage people to persuade themselves. Very simply, we need to allow for agency. We need to make them feel like they have more control over the decision they're making. We need to guide, but not impose the path. And three ways to do that are providing a menu, ask don't tell and highlighting a gap.