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Planet Money Asks: What Small Thing Would You Do To Improve The World?


There are the big ideas of the world and then there are tweaks - tiny ways to change things in our everyday lives like how long we stand in line at the grocery store. Jacob Goldstein of our Planet Money podcast has been asking researchers and writers what small thing would you change to improve the world. Here's what he found.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: The first tweak is a way to get people to lie less often. It's a tweak for forms. Tax forms, insurance forms - they're all basically the same. You put in all your information and then at the bottom of the form you sign, saying everything I wrote here is true. Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, says we are signing forms in the wrong place.

FRANCESCA GINO: We should sign at the top of the form.

GOLDSTEIN: That's it. Instead of signing at the bottom we should sign at the top.

GINO: Exactly. It's that simple.

GOLDSTEIN: If we sign at the top instead of the bottom, Gino says, we are much less likely to lie. And she has data to back this up. For example, in one study of 13,000 people who were filling out forms for car insurance, people who signed at the top were less likely to lie about how many miles they drive. Gino says most people want to tell the truth. But when we're filling out a form, honesty is not at the top of our mind, so we fudge the numbers. Then we get down to the bottom of the form and see that signature box, and by that time, Gino says...

GINO: It's just too late. You're not going to go back and scratch the numbers that you just reported and correct them. You're done with it.

GOLDSTEIN: Having people sign at the top, Gino says, is just like swearing in a witness in court before they testify. It's a reminder right when you need it to tell the truth. So that's tweak number one. Tweak number two is a supermarket tweak.

KATE BAICKER: My name is Kate Baicker. I'm a professor of health economics at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health.

GOLDSTEIN: What's your one small way to improve the world?

BAICKER: Two words for you - one line.

GOLDSTEIN: When you're ready to check out, you go to the back of that one line. When you get to the front, you go to the next open register. This is the way it works at most banks. This is not the way it works at most grocery stores. There, they have a different line for every register, which means you have to choose a line. This makes Kate Baicker crazy.

BAICKER: You see one line's kind of moving. One line has a lady with a giant basket. One line has a guy who can't find his wallet. And you're trying to calculate which line is going to move the quickest, and it never works out well.

GOLDSTEIN: She says, this is a problem science has solved - one line.

BAICKER: There's a whole branch of operations research that goes back, like, a hundred years about how to get throughput most efficiently through a system. If we all wait in one line, the average wait time is the same, but the variance goes away. Nobody wins, nobody loses. We're all in line together. Isn't that a beautiful vision?

GOLDSTEIN: One line - it's the operations research hippie dream. Finally, one last tweak; you can do this one at home. It comes from Megan McArdle. She's a columnist at Bloomberg View. Her tweak - bet against yourself.

MEGAN MCARDLE: Well, I think sports is probably the best example and this is going to make me unpopular, but look, if you really love your team, you know, lay a little bet on the team on the other side.

GOLDSTEIN: If, for example, you're a fan of San Diego Padres, bet against the Padres, just a little, just enough to take the edge off if things don't go your way.

MCARDLE: Then when something bad happens, you've got that little psychological backstop, you know, like, I won money. Everyone loves winning money.

GOLDSTEIN: You can do this with anything, McArdle says, even with major life events.

MCARDLE: If you're going to propose to your girlfriend, you're not quite sure she's going to say yes, that would be an excellent time. So you say to a friend, like, look, I'm going to make you a bet. If she says yes, I'm going to buy you a great dinner. If she says no, you're going to buy me a great dinner.

GOLDSTEIN: McArdle knows this feels wrong. It feels disloyal, which is why in general we don't bet against ourselves. And with all of these tweaks, social norms, traditions are a huge barrier. Francesca Gino, the Harvard professor who wants people to sign at the top, says she's gone out to companies, showed them her data, but she says the status quo is really powerful. A lot of people don't want to tweak anything. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jacob Goldstein is an NPR correspondent and co-host of the Planet Money podcast. He is the author of the book Money: The True Story of a Made-Up Thing.
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