Behavioral Economics Conquered Books—Can It Be a Hit on TV?

An interview with Daniel Pink, the bestselling author of Drive and the host of Crowd Control, a new show on human behavior on the National Geographic Channel

Each weekday, I take the elevator up to the Atlantic office in New York City—an unremarkable detail, except our office is on the second floor, and this is an act of profound laziness. When I press the “2” button with another passenger in the elevator car, I feel only the soft gnawing of shame—nothing sharp enough to change my habit. But what if each time I pressed the button, a voice bellowed from the speakers: “Hey lazy, take the stairs!” Yes, that would count as biting shame. I would obey the voice. I would take the stairs.
In fact, that’s precisely the trick that Daniel Pink, the bestseller author of Drive and To Sell Is Human, tries in his new show Crowd Control, debuting this week on the National Geographic Channel. To reduce congestion on elevators of an 18-story building, he programs an elevator to admonish people into taking the stairs to low-number levels.
Pink is trying to port the behavioral sciences to television, a medium where they've received little attention, much less created a small empire within the non-fiction genre. In the first episode, "Lawbreakers," he creates a lottery to pay people to drive under the speed limit, puts life-size cardboard cut-outs of cops on the streets to prevent bike thefts, and designs sidewalk games to occupy the time of would-be jaywalkers. Last week, we spoke by phone about his new show and what it takes to entertain people with science in paper, pixels, and video. This is an edited and condensed transcript.

Derek Thompson: Where do these episodes start, with the science or the stories?
Daniel Pink: We start with a problem. We brainstorm a bunch of things that tick people off. Like, let’s say, jaywalking. And then our team looks at the science and says let’s see if it tells us about jaywalking. And then we have to bring in our art director and some design and tech people and say, Is there something super cool we can do to tell this story? Then our producers learn the logistics and get the permit to shoot the story. So the process goes: problem, science, design team, and then producers. [In the series premiere, Pink creates games that pedestrians play against each other across the street while the light is red to prevent them from wandering into traffic.]
Thompson: What’s been your favorite story to shoot?
Pink: One of my favorites is in the first episode. To keep people from parking in handicapped spots, we put up disabled parking sign with pictures of people in wheelchairs: Think of Me, Keep It Free. What I like about that is that it’s such a simple intervention, and it works really really well. There are now other cities in Texas that are using it. A speed-cam lottery is interesting but unlikely to be rolled out widely across America.
Thompson: One of the critiques of behavioral economics is that the revelations aren’t that surprising. Since the science is explaining how we behave everyday, sometimes my reaction is, like, Well, yeah, I already recognize how I behave every day, because it’s how I behave every day, I didn’t need a long word to describe it. So how do you grapple with the idea that some of the science just isn’t that surprising?
Pink: People know that lions eat antelope. But seeing it on TV is pretty cool. Similarly, it's relatively rare for people to see other people acting wild, and we're not necessarily looking for surprise on television. Let’s take the concept of occupied time. The insight is that time feels like it’s going by quickly when we’re doing something and it goes by slower when we’re bored. Nobody is going to be shocked by that concept. But when you see a guy on a street corner not jay-walking because he’s occupied with a game that we devised for him to play on the sidewalk, it’s kind of interesting. It's the lion eating the antelope.
Thompson: There are lots of ideas that work across books and TV. Formulaic crime is an obvious one, but also cooking, and science, and fantasy. Then there’s behavioral economics, this huge force that’s taken over entire shelves of bookstores but which has no obvious home on television. What took so long?
Pink: That is absolutely a part of the strategic thinking behind this programming. You want to put on a great show that is also going to work commercially. The physical sciences—like Cosmos, Bill Nye, and lots of shows on PBS—have shown they can do this. But with the behavioral sciences, there’s clearly a gap on TV, even though it’s also clear people are really interested in this stuff.
Thompson: There are a lot of media companies now which have historically been in the writing business that are now are trying to get into video. They're learning to turn paragraphs into scenes. You’ve written several best-selling books, and this is your first TV show. What’s struck you as biggest difference between writing something that's smart and entertaining book and making a TV show about the same thing?
Pink: Well, to start with the obvious difference, a book is a largely solitary endeavor. Even though you’re going out and interviewing people, you’re spending a lot of time writing and researching alone. TV is a team sport. There are people involved in every aspect, and that’s a blessing and challenge. Other people will have better ideas than me, or they won’t like my ideas.
Second, on TV, there is an even greater pressure on writing and talking concisely. Writing books is a luxurious form of expression. On TV, you’re bounded by time.
In contrast to a book, or even long-form features, it’s just, obviously, a much more visual medium. For somebody used to writing words on paper, I had to appreciate the conceptual freight of pictures.
Thompson: This is the part I wanted to get into, because I’ve considered behavioral sciences a really un-visual category. Like when I’m reading a book by you, or Ariely, or Kahneman, sometimes I’ll just scan the story, and read the science, because I’m really just hunting for a takeaway. But then in watching the show, I was far and away most interested in hearing from and watching people. That struck me as a huge difference between the books and the show.
Pink: Exactly. Not to turn this into a seminar in semiotics, but you can scan books in a way that you can’t scan television. I might regret this metaphor, but when you’re reading a book, you’re in the driver seat. You can step on the accelerator or the brake if you want to move through the words faster or more slowly. With a TV show, you’re in the passenger seat, going along for the ride, and each scene needs to really capture your attention.
There’s a very different relationship between a reader and watcher. A book reader, if they actually read the book they buy and not all do, are spending six or seven hours with you. But a TV show, they’re spending 22 minutes with you, and they might be doing something else along the way. With books you have to reach into your pocket to pay for the book. TV is essentially free after you’ve paid for cable. A book stays on your shelf, while a TV show is ephemeral. They’re both valid. But for me as a writer, I love the idea of reaching viewers with these ideas in their living room or on their computer.
Thompson: Savvy audiences know that the so-called non-fiction TV genre has a lot of fiction in it. There were moments in this show where the reaction of the crowd was so perfect, I have to admit that I wondered if it was real.
Pink: There are some shows where smart audiences know that one woman was told to yell at another woman. But this show we want to play straight. We want to show our failures, like when we put up cardboard cut-outs of policemen to prevent bike thefts and people ended up stealing the cardboard cut-outs, instead. Sometimes, things just don’t work well.
My analytic view is that it’s the right thing to do and viewers can see the puppet strings in these genres. The typical narrative arc is: We tried this and oh my God, it was so successful, I can't believe it! To make good television now you need the transparency of: We tried this, and it didn’t work, and we learned. What that might lack in firepower it adds in credibility and insight. That’s how real change in the real world works. Our theory of the case is that people want to know what makes them tick and why people behave. But we’ll see.