Amara’s Law and Behavior Change

Roy Amara, a Stanford computer scientist and Head of the Institute of the Future posed a keen observation. He stated that we tend to overestimate the effects of new technology in the short term, but underestimate it in the long run. A great example here is computers. Those who originally set out to make “thinking machines” and the science fiction that followed overestimated the initial effects that computers would have on society as the experts and computers sat isolated in rooms. Despite the short term miss on expectations these initial estimations have undershot the world changing direct and tertiary effects that computers do and will continue to have on our lives. 

Sudha Jamthe on Twitter: "Speaker of @StanfordCSP "self-driving cars  business" @anupamr Amara's law shows human expectation vs technology  capability for emerging tech. AV is in the overestimated phase vs  expectations #driverless…"
We expect progress to be linear where more often than not a “trip wire” effect occurs. The compounding effects creates an exponential rise once a certain threshold is breached. Figure from Sudha Jamthe on Twitter.

When it comes to behavioral change, new habit implementation seems to follow Amara’s law. We expect progress now, or at least expect it to be linear. We see the promise of the end road and mentally are committing to an expedited process. An optimists projection of time til returns. 

We tend to expect that first few week of exercise to create some sort of physical or mental phase shift other than just making us sore and tired. Though often, those first few weeks just make it more unpleasant to walk up the stairs. Logically, we know striking gold on the first round is highly improbable, but emotionally we need consistent signs of progress to continue to comply with the inconvenient and uncomfortable challenges we add to our life. 

On the other hand, we often greatly underestimate the change that these small scale habits can have on our live on the scale of years. We undervalue the impact of a daily walk on our physical and mental health. We don’t appreciate how the commitment to 30 minutes of resistance training, twice a week can profoundly lessen our risk for many common diseases. What we don’t see is that once we hit a certain threshold of fitness, each stair we climb is a percent less taxing on our body. Accrued over a day we are exponentially more efficient. A trip wire exists right over the horizon that will provide 100x returns on investment rather than the consistent payments you thought you would receive. It’s hard to commit to because the act often feels too easy to create such staggering effects future effects and feels justified for not creating instant returns.

 The lesson here. Guide your clients to commit to small. To commit to playing the long term games. Find quick wins to paint a picture of the end game potential but foster patience. Cultivate a dedication to the process. 

What are you undervaluing today that could drastically change your world in 10 years?


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