Action Design Radio

Action Design Radio explores a variety of topics through the lens of behavioral science and psychology. Hosts Erik Johnson and Zarak Khan interview experts and practitioners to learn about cutting edge behavioral research, and how to practically apply it to fields like public policy and consumer products. The podcast is supported by the Action Design Network, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization founded in 2012 to promote the use of behavioral economics and psychology with over 10,000 members across the US and Canada.
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Sep 10, 2020

The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) generates and applies behavioral insights to inform policy, improve public services, and deliver results for citizens and society. Over the last decade, BIT has grown from a seven-person unit in the U.K. government to a global social purpose company with offices around the world. Their work in areas like healthcare, humanitarian aid, and economic growth spanned 31 countries just last year.


Michael Hallsworth is the current Managing Director of BIT North America, and Elspeth Kirkman is the previous Managing Director of that unit and current London office Director. They carry a combined 15 years of experience with BIT, and just co-authored a book, “Behavioral Insights,” which was published earlier this month.


Zarak and Erik welcome them both to the show! They discuss the application of behavioral insights and scientific method to real-world problems. This can range from an individual level to help people achieve personal goals, to a grander scale to help affect positive change for entire populations and societies. Other topics include behavioral science concepts that originated in the Enlightenment, and how important it is to constantly test and evaluate the effectiveness of interventions, measure the impact wherever possible, and always remain skeptical. 

Sep 3, 2020

In today's episode we welcome back to the program Kelly Leonard, Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works and host of the "Getting to Yes, And" podcast.


Zarak and Erik chat with Kelly about how they have pivoted their business, which is based on in-person experiences, to digital events. We cover how Second City has had to experiment to produce virtual classes and shows in the Year of COVID-19. Kelly says that improv comedy traits like resilience and change readiness have helped them pivot, and that the application of improv skills has never been more relevant. 


Since this is Action Design Radio, and our guest is an improv guru, we cover a lot of ground with Kelly, including why we should go off-camera more when using video conferencing platforms like Zoom, and how during this time we're all dealing with the trauma and loss of things in our lives (both big and small) that used to be cornerstones of our humanity. Oh, and the quest for the best Italian beef in all of Chicagoland.

Jul 30, 2020

Don’t look now – it’s a crossover episode! No, not Alf meets Gilligan’s Island, or The Simpsons meets Family Guy. It’s Behavioral Grooves meets Action Design Radio!


Kurt Nelson is the founder of The Lantern Group, a behavioral design and communication agency, and Tim Houlihan is the founder of the BehaviorAlchemy consultancy. Together, they also team up to host the Behavioral Grooves podcast, where they interview top practitioners and researchers in the various fields of behavioral science, and mix things up with their passion for music. 


In today’s episode, they discuss with Erik and Zarak their origin story for how Behavioral Grooves was born, favorite episodes, the evolution of behavioral science in general over the 20+ years they’ve both been working in the field, and its infinite applications. The endless quest for knowledge and a passion for satisfying their curiosity is what keeps them coming back with such enthusiasm for these topics after so many years and 160 episodes across their two podcasts.


Other topics include:

  • "Accidental" behavioral scientists – the bicycle store owner who implements choice architecture, or the manager of a nonprofit organization in Africa who uses social proof to improve public health
    • They may not have sophisticated data or use behavioral language, but they’re running experiments and putting the right tools into action just like behavioral scientists would
  • Understanding failures and how to learn from them
  • Replication issues
  • Yet another plug for Zarak’s favorite beard product, Cowboy Magic – official sponsorship here we come?
  • And of course, what music everyone is groovin’ on these days
Jun 15, 2020

Stephen Wendel is the Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar, a leading provider of independent investment research. He and his team of behavioral scientists and practitioners specialize in savings and investing behavior, as well as digital products that help individuals manage their money more effectively. He founded the Action Design Network in 2012 and has authored several books, the most recent of which is titled “Designing for Behavior Change: Applying Psychology and Behavioral Economics – Second Edition.” The book is currently available for purchase on Kindle, and can be pre-ordered in print. You can download the free workbook at


Steve joins Zarak and Erik to discuss his latest book, which describes how people can apply behavioral science in products and communications, and to help people change behavior in intentional and beneficial ways. In conjunction with the Action Design Network and the Behavioral Science & Policy Association, Steve and his team just ran the most comprehensive survey to date of applied behavioral teams across the globe. The diversity in the field has exploded; organizations with applied behavioral teams ranging from Kosovo to Peru participated in this survey, and the results are detailed in Steve's new book, as well as this episode.

May 28, 2020

Michelle Niedziela is the Scientific Director and VP of Innovation at HCD Research, a marketing and consumer sciences company that applies neuroscience tools along with traditional market research methods to help their clients create better products, packaging, and communications for consumers. She also worked as a senior scientist at Johnson & Johnson, and still regularly contributes as a columnist on consumer perspectives to various publications.


What are some things behavioral scientists should know more about neuroscience? When should they work together to enhance what they both do? Zarak, Erik, and Michelle tackle questions like these in today’s episode. As Michelle explains, there are a lot of misconceptions about neuroscience. When you conduct “fancy” neuroscience research, it doesn’t mean giving up good, old-fashioned surveys or qual and quant research methods. They must all be combined to better understand how the consumer experiences a product. “Measuring brain activity doesn’t really tell you anything unless you put it in context, and I feel like the behavioral science gives you that context,” she says.


Other topics include cognitive flow, using neuroscience to increase the effectiveness of OTC (over-the-counter) drugs, and Zarak’s beard care product of choice. Spoiler Alert: it’s called Cowboy Magic.

Apr 9, 2020
Matthew Darling is a Vice President at ideas42, a nonprofit organization that uses behavioral science to improve lives, build better systems and policies, and drive social change. They have applied behavioral insights in more than 100 projects across 35 countries and 6 continents, helping people act on choices that affect their lives and communities. Matt also contributes as a columnist for The Behavioral Scientist.
He joins Erik and Zarak to discuss the economic and behavioral challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. They explore issues such as the United States' outdated unemployment verification process; leveraging identities (such as being a responsible citizen doing their part); and how BeSci can help eligible taxpayers spend their CARES Act* stimulus funds in ways that are most helpful to them.
* Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act
Mar 27, 2020

Dan Egan, Director of Behavioral Finance and Investing at Betterment, joins our hosts Erik and Zarak to discuss financial and investment behavior during times of crisis. What does today’s coronavirus pandemic have in common with previous crises that negatively impacted the economy and financial markets? What is unique to this particular situation? How have most investors responded so far? What roles do fear, control, and adaptability play? How can we better leverage basic behavioral science concepts such as nudging and mental accounting? What is the relationship between physical health, mental stress, and financial decision-making? What are some things we can be doing from home to help ourselves and others during this time?

These questions and more are answered in this latest episode. Take a deep breath, try to relax (maybe turn off the news and social media notifications for a few minutes), and enjoy!

Mar 18, 2020

Stephen Wendel is the Head of Behavioral Science at Morningstar, a leading provider of independent investment research. He and his team of behavioral scientists and practitioners specialize in savings and investing behavior, as well as digital products that help individuals manage their money more effectively. He founded the Action Design Network in 2012 and has authored three books, the most recent of which is titled “Spiritual Design: Enrich Your Spiritual Practice with Lessons from Behavioral Science.” He has graciously made free download of this book available at


Steve joins our hosts Zarak and Erik to discuss the unique application of behavioral science to spirituality and religion. Many individuals have certain values they want to live by, but fall into the classic trap of "All or Nothing." This happens when we think we need to go to the gym every day if we’re fit; save or invest every penny if we’re financially responsible; or constantly go to houses of worship and give to charity if we value certain beliefs. Since this approach usually isn’t sustainable for most people, Steve explains techniques to design environments for ourselves that are more conducive to following our beliefs and expressing our faith in ways that are doable and fulfilling. 

Jan 16, 2020

Happy New Year! In the first installment of Action Design Radio in 2020, our hosts Zarak and Erik are joined by behavior designer David Ngo. After studying under B.J. Fogg at Stanford, David founded his own behavior design firm – Behavior Delta:


In today’s episode, David and our hosts discuss the psychological power of expectation, the “Swarm of B's” technique, and how to apply the Fogg model of behavior to creating new habits and healthy, lasting behavior change. There are many, many different methods of achieving the same goal. David says it’s important to keep in mind – especially this time of year when New Year’s Resolutions abound – that if the first attempt (experiment) doesn’t work out, don’t be discouraged; in fact, don’t even be surprised. It’s just a matter of finding a methodology that makes sense for you. 


Check out these links for more information on the Swarm of B's Behavior Design Method, as well as B.J. Fogg’s new book, “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything.”

Dec 19, 2019

Rory Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, an advertising and marketing agency where he co-founded the behavioral science practice. He is a TED Global speaker and writes regular columns for The Spectator and The Behavioral Scientist. His latest book, "Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense," was published earlier this year.


Rory joins our hosts Erik and Zarak for a special two-part episode to share his unique perspective and expertise in identifying unseen opportunities in consumer behavior. Part Two topics include the power of reference points, whether we should be using more humor to prevent crime, and examples of when the opposite of a good idea... is another good idea.

Dec 11, 2019

Ho-Ho-Ho! It's a surprise holiday-themed mini episode of Action Design Radio! (Stocking stuffer sized, if you will -- we will.)

Erik and Zarak are joined by Jacob Mohrmann for some timely advice this holiday season on how to shop for gifts that are sure to go over well with your loved ones. Jacob is the Research and Insights Manager on the behavioral science team at Maritz, a company that specializes in employee experience solutions, incentive travel, customer loyalty and reward programs. Their history with gift giving goes back to the 1920's, when they created the tradition of giving people a gold watch at retirement.

Dec 5, 2019
Rory Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, an advertising and marketing agency where he co-founded the behavioral science practice. He is a TED Global speaker and writes regular columns for The Spectator and The Behavioral Scientist. His latest book, "Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense," was published earlier this year. 
Rory joins our hosts Erik and Zarak for a special two-part episode to share his unique perspective and expertise in identifying unseen opportunities in consumer behavior. Part 1 topics include what capitalism can teach us about the behavior of supply and demand, how small changes in context can completely change our perception of reality, and what traditional economics got wrong about the beer industry. 
Sound Bite: "Algorithms give the appearance of being wonderfully objective, but enshrined in them are all the assumptions and prejudices of the designer."
Oct 28, 2019

In our latest episode, Aline Holzwarth joins Erik and Zarak to discuss the intersection of healthcare, behavioral science, and technology. Aline is a Principal at Duke University's Center for Advanced Hindsight, where she's worked alongside Dan Ariely for the past 10 years. She is also the Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, a digital health platform designed to help people live happier and healthier lives. 

Topics include the healthcare industry's tendency to take an information-based approach, a common mistake that assumes by simply giving people information (Smoking = Bad) that they will find the motivation on their own to implement healthy behavior change. Behavioral science can help bridge that gap by designing products and services that get people from information to action. And in a world where the smartphone is increasingly omnipresent, digital interventions have huge potential for real-world impact.

Sep 11, 2019

Zarak and Erik are joined by behavioral designer Nir Eyal, the Wall Street Journal bestselling author of “Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” Nir has taught business and design at Stanford, founded two technology companies, and helps teams design more engaging products. His writing on technology, psychology, and business appears in the Harvard Business Review, The Atlantic, TechCrunch, and Psychology Today.

Nir discusses the themes and inspiration behind his latest book “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life,” released September 10th, including why we struggle with distraction, the overuse of technology, and tips for overcoming those issues to live to the fullest extent of your values.

Aug 30, 2019

We've been getting a lot of questions lately about how to start a career in behavioral science. To shed some light on different career paths, we're doing a series of podcasts on different types of training that fall somewhere between a one-day workshop and a PhD. These aren't advertisements for the programs, but are meant to give you a sense of the kinds of options out there, should you decide to pursue a career in behavioral science.

In our second Behavioral Science Training installment, Erik and Zarak are joined by Christopher Nave, Associate Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Behavioral and Decision Sciences program. Chris shares his passion for bringing together graduate students from diverse industries, backgrounds, and disciplines in order to study decision-making and better understand sustainable behavior change. Chris explains how measurement, data science, and experimental design are crucial to applying academic concepts like cognitive biases and heuristics to the real world.

Jul 23, 2019
We've been getting a lot of questions lately about how to start a career in behavioral science. To shed some light on different career paths, we're doing a series of podcasts on different types of training that fall somewhere between a one-day workshop and a PhD. These aren't advertisements for the programs, but are meant to give you a sense of the type of things out there, should you decide to pursue a career in behavioral science. 
In this episode, we focus on a ten-week bootcamp from Irrational Labs. Evelyn Gosnell is a behavioral economics consultant who focuses on the application of behavioral insights in product design, marketing, and organizational design. She is Managing Director at Irrational Labs, as well as the leader of their Behavioral Economics Bootcamp. 
Today Evelyn joins Zarak and Erik to break down the services that Irrational Labs provides its partners in order to increase end users' health, wealth, and happiness.


Mar 18, 2019

Spencer Greenberg is an applied mathematician, entrepreneur, and self-described “collector of powerful tools.” He is the Founder and CEO of multiple companies, including Spark Wave – a venture builder (a.k.a. a foundry, or startup studio) that creates software products with the goal of achieving large social impact. Spencer joins Erik and Zarak to discuss his unique perspective on psychology and behavior. He takes a background in technology and combines it with applied social science to build platforms that implement complex behavioral interventions.

How does one choose the right methodology when conducting a study? What’s the difference between testing a hypothesis and trying to accurately predict the future? How does fatigue change throughout the day? Are most people who suffer from depression aware of it? How can social media be utilized to inspire creative thinking in research? Why publish a paper when you can release an app that people can use?

All of those questions and more are addressed in our latest installment of Action Design Radio!

Jan 28, 2019

Adam Gilbert is a nationally-recognized health, fitness, and motivational expert and trainer. He is the Founder of MyBodyTutor, which helps people stick to their health and fitness goals. Adam is regularly featured in national media, and is a syndicated author on the topics of nutrition, emotional eating, the psychology of weight loss, exercise, willpower, behavior and habit change, commitment and motivation. 

Adam joins our hosts Erik and Zarak to discuss his approach to creating long-term, sustainable behavior change. By nature, change is inherently uncomfortable, so how do we make it as comfortable as possible? After years of learning and incorporating psychology into his work, Adam’s philosophy is that the only way to really help someone get through that initial discomfort is through heavy support and accountability. He also stresses the importance of avoiding the all-or-nothing mindset: The 20-minute workout you do is better than the hour-long workout you don’t do, and the good diet you can stick with is better than the perfect diet you can’t sustain.

By utilizing daily and personal accountability, Adam and MyBodyTutor use MPH (Mindset, Psychology & Habits) to help their clients take their behavior change goals from concept to reality.


Dec 17, 2018

Elizabeth Kim is an Applied Behavioral Scientist at the e-commerce company, where she designs and conducts experiments to make better products for users. She is also founder of the Duke Behavioral Science Group, a community of Duke University students and faculty dedicated to applying behavioral science to policies, products, and businesses for social good.

Our hosts Zarak and Erik chat with Elizabeth about her BeSci origin story, including how a meaningful conversation with Dan Ariely led to a partnership where they tested the behavioral effects of just that: having meaningful conversations. They discuss the importance of acting on your curiosity, being versatile, and taking the initiative in a world where there’s currently more interest in behavioral science than there are jobs specifically made for BeSci experts.

Elizabeth offers inspiration and advice to individuals – from students to experienced professionals – who want to integrate behavioral science into what they do but are unsure where to start. Examples are discussed and tips are shared about how to take action and build something even when the factors aren’t in place for a formal BeSci intervention.

Nov 16, 2018

Ruth Schmidt is a Visiting Industry Professor and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Illinois Institute of Technology – Institute of Design. Prior to joining ID, Ruth served as a senior leader at Doblin/Deloitte for over eight years, where she led teams in applying design-informed innovation strategy to solve complex challenges and grow new innovation functions within client organizations, primarily in the health care and financial services industries. She has presented on behavioral economics and communication theory + design at multiple institutions, publications, and conferences.

In our Season Two opener, Ruth joins Erik and Zach to discuss the intersection of behavioral science and design. Ruth shares her perspective on the importance of considering the people for whom you are designing a product, service, or experience. They cover cross-industry examples of when to lead with a behavioral science lens and support it by design thinking, vice versa, and why.

Jul 31, 2018

Jeff Kreisler is just a typical Princeton educated lawyer turned author, speaker, pundit, comedian, and behavioral science advocate. He uses humor and research to understand, explain, and change the world. Winner of the Bill Hicks Spirit Award for Thought Provoking Comedy, he runs, writes for TV, politicians and CEOs, and shares witty insight on CNN, FoxNews, MSNBC, and SiriusXM.

In our latest episode, Jeff joins Zarak and Zach to chat about his journey from comedian to behavioral science thought leader. They discuss the most important takeaways from his latest book “Dollars and Sense” (co-authored with Dan Ariely) , as well as his current and future projects. Other topics include how people can use behavioral science to improve their everyday lives without being obsessive, and the importance of always having a sense of humor.

May 24, 2018

Kelly Leonard is the Executive Director of Insights and Applied Improvisation at The Second City and President of Second City Theatricals. He has worked at The Second City since 1988 and has overseen productions with such notable performers as Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Steve Carell, Adam McKay, Seth Meyers, Rachel Dratch, Amy Poehler, Jason Sudeikis, Keegan-Michael Key, Horatio Sans, Amy Sedaris and a host of others.

In our newest episode, Erik and Zarak chat with Kelly about his recent involvement with the Second Science Project – a partnership between Second City and the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. The Second Science Project utilizes cutting-edge behavioral science to better study, understand, and support improvisation in everyday life. By approaching behavioral science through the lens of improvisational comedy, they create executive training programs for businesses to improve innovation, creative thinking, and ways to challenge our instincts and assumptions.

Apr 18, 2018

Today’s guest is Kristen Berman, co-founder of Duke University’s Common Cents Lab, as well as co-founder (with Dan Ariely) of Irrational Labs. Kristen was on the founding team for the behavioral economics group at Google and has spoken at Facebook, Fidelity, Equifax, Stanford, and many more.

Erik and Zarak chat with Kristen about her philosophy of incorporating behavioral science into the Product Manager’s domain, creating what she dubs the Behavioral Product Manager. Kristen outlines how behavioral science gives us the missing pieces of the Product Manager’s toolkit.

For example, a BPM would prioritize measurement and experimental infrastructure sooner than a normal PM would, highlighting that you can’t move a company toward consumer outcome if you’re not properly measuring it. Most companies, as well as their Product Managers, use traditional methods like focus groups and interviews to find out what their customers “think” and how they “feel.” But the Behavioral Product Manager concentrates on things like behavioral mapping and identifying friction, because the behavioral world focuses more on what people do and less on what they say.

Mar 19, 2018

In this week’s episode, our hosts sit down with Linnea Gandhi, managing partner of the boutique consulting firm BehavioralSight and Adjunct Assistant Professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Linnea, Erik, and Zarak discuss the importance of following the scientific method. This process applies to all settings, including the corporate world where the demand is always for results – and getting them today (or yesterday, if possible). Avoiding gut reactions, intuition, and emotional responses – and instead replacing them with statistics, data, and algorithms – will lead to more optimal decision-making.

But how do we apply this process, especially in situations where important decisions are at stake? Linnea’s focus is on getting executives across industries to realize that we are all more capable of creating algorithms than we may think – even when it comes to decisions such as whether to merger with or acquire another company, or whether to lay off a significant amount of their workforce.

Linnea argues that research and psychological literature are not useful to most people unless you can apply it somewhere practical. So she urges us to make our brains work more like an algorithm by removing intuition from the equation as much as possible. Reduce the “noise” as much as you can and isolate the data. Then, translate your behavioral science improvements to the language of the stakeholders. That is what will truly grab attention.

And never forget to be painfully aware of your own confirmation bias.

Jan 22, 2018

Erik and Zarak are joined by Dr. Sarah Newcomb, behavioral economist at Morningstar, an investment research firm committed to improving the wellbeing of investors through the use of research and software. Sarah’s personal passion and professional goal is to bring independent financial advice to populations that are currently underserved by the financial services industry, namely: women, low/moderate income households, and younger investors.

Sarah discusses the psychology of money and explores why smart people can make poor financial decisions. She outlines techniques to change one’s thinking, such as distinguishing between a “need” and a “strategy” to meet that need. A person may not need a car. What they need is transportation, and a car is one of several strategies to meet that need – all of which come along with a different price tag. Zarak doesn’t necessarily need to go to Starbucks every day. What he needs is to get out of the office for 15 minutes every afternoon, and Starbucks is just one strategy to meet that need. Sarah invokes Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to help us reevaluate what our true needs are, and why that can help us financially.

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