When Maya Shankar was 15 years old, her promising career as a concert violinist personally mentored by Itzhak Perlman came to an abrupt end. A serious hand injury forced her not only to give up her dream, but to rediscover her identity in the process. Inspired by her personal story, Shankar has spent the last two decades studying how and why we change. After earning a Ph.D. from Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship and a postdoc in cognitive neuroscience at Stanford, Shankar served in the Obama White House where she founded the White House Behavioural Science Team, which worked to create better policy using insights from behavioural science.
Today, Maya is Senior Director of Behavioural Economics at Google and is the Creator, Host and Executive Producer of her brilliant new podcast A Slight Change of Plans which explores the question: What exactly happens when we find ourselves on the brink of change? Using her skills as a cognitive scientist, she delves into the incredible stories of a number of guests. She speaks to Tiffany Haddish on her transformation from foster care kid to Emmy-winning comedian; a former member of the extremist Westboro Baptist Church on her experience walking away from a cult; Kacey Musgraves on how psychedelics changed her perspective on art; a young cancer researcher who gets a diagnosis that changes everything; a Black jazz musician who convinced hundreds of KKK members to leave the Klan; and Hillary Rodham Clinton who was never willing to change in the way people wanted her to.
In this interview, I speak to Maya Shankar about her transformation from being a musician to leading the White House Behavioural Science Team, and what she’s learned about change and transformation through her podcast, “A Slight Change of Plans.”
Q: How did you go from music to cognitive science?
[Maya Shankar]: When I was 6 years old, my mom brought down my grandmother’s violin from the attic. She’d brought it all the way with her from India when she emigrated to the US in the 1970s, and my mom just brought it down to show me. Something lit-up in my mind, and I played a couple of notes immediately and requested a pint-sized version of the violin for myself. That began a very intense journey for me. I was 9 years old when I ended up applying to the Juilliard School of Music in New York and when I was in High School, Itzhak Perlman asked me to be his private violin student. At that point, I was like wow, I’ve got the vote of confidence from my favourite violinist, I have what it takes! And decided to go professional. Aged 15, I had a sudden hand injury that derailed my dreams of being a concert violinist. The doctor told me I could never play again, and at that moment I ended up asking these big existential questions about what it meant to be me. Who was I without the violin?
That was a big turning point for me.
Around that time, I was helping my parents to clear their basement, and I stumbled across a book called The Language Instinct. It was all about our capacity to learn, comprehend and understand language. I felt that same sensation I had with the violin – I felt endlessly curious about how our minds work, and I decided to study cognitive science.
Every story sounds clean in hindsight, but I was certainly despondent, heartbroken and didn’t know what to do. It was a chance find of that book in my parent’s basement that changed everything.
Q: How important are behaviour sciences and how do they relate to change?
[Maya Shankar]: Behavioural sciences are the study of how our minds work, how we make decisions, how we come up with attitudes, beliefs and even our own identity. This field plays a profoundly important role in our day-to-day lives.
There’s a concept in psychology called identity foreclosure and it basically refers to the idea that the concept of self we develop in our adolescence do continue into adulthood. We get a very narrow understanding of who we are, and what we do. That can prevent us from engaging in a lot of exploration outside the narrow domains we see ourselves existing in. If we don’t have the right mindset, we can feel a profound sense of anxiety every time we confront one of those and miss out on the types of identity I could occupy.
Part of the inspiration behind my podcast links to this and relates to the challenges that we face as humans when we’re confronted with unexpected (or expected) change. Behavioural science has a lot to say about this, but there are a lot of gaps too – no science textbook teaches us how to navigate big changes, and what the questions are that we should be asking in our lives.
Q: What are the characteristics of people who can deal with change?
[Maya Shankar]: Whatever their starting point, I’ve found that most of the people I’ve spoken to have surprised themselves with their resilience and growth. We are all natural storytellers- so when things happen to us- there is a tendency to want to construct seamless narratives out of our lives to make sense of the randomness and arbitrariness. It helps us find meaning.
I interviewed a cancer researcher who- themselves- was in the throes of a stage 4 diagnosis. His worst nightmare was getting cancer. He’d spent a large amount of his adult life trying to avoid this outcome. He optimised his health, fasted intermittently, did interval training, has a vegan diet, adds turmeric and chia to his food and yet- out of nowhere- is confronted with a stage 4 cancer diagnosis which means his leg has to be amputated, a vertebra removed from his spine, and his entire life begins to revolve around multiple rounds of aggressive inpatient chemotherapy. He told me how he feels the whole experience has allowed him to mature, soften, and become a better person. He told me how he’s more or less just as happy as he was before – and while the lows are certainly lower with the pain and medication, the good moments are just as good. Interestingly, he also said that if he had known at the beginning that he would respond this way psychologically and emotionally that- perhaps- he wouldn’t have spent so much time being fearful in the first place.
Aside from being a powerful narrative, this is corroborated by the science of happiness and how people find meaning in adversity, and how common it is for people to return to their happiness points even after profoundly tragic circumstances prevail.
Q: Do we need to think of our identities as less ‘fixed’?
[Maya Shankar]: Scott (the cancer researcher who- himself- was faced with a stage 4 diagnosis) shared with me that he now sees his identity as more negotiable than he thought. That’s the key phrase more negotiable. He absolutely had to find success along a rigid set of metrics until that point in his life. He was a Harvard grad, PhD, engineer, cancer researcher. He prided himself on his athleticism. The experience of getting cancer made him question whether those things needed to be so core to his identity.
One of the defining traits of being able to come out of change well is having an openness around who you might be and who you are. Don’t’ forget, the only data point you have for subjective experience is you. You don’t even know what other parts of yourself could exist which you have yet to tap into.
Q: How can we nudge people to change?
[Maya Shankar]: Prior to this, I was working in the Obama White House leading our behavioural science team. Our mission was to make sure that we were applying insights from behavioural science to the economic, psychology and other disciplines which lead to the design of public policy and programmes.
I spoke to Katy Milkman and we explored how small habits of change can help us accomplish goals and stop procrastinating. She talks about temptation bundling – the idea that you tie together undesirable tasks with a very desirable reward. You may have a reward for kids if they finish their homework… you may only listen to your favourite music on a treadmill. It can be really helpful to limit those positive goods to ‘bad’ activities as it allows you to then associate positive feelings with these activities over time. She also talks about fresh starts where a big life change- a move- a marriage- a child- can precipitate you to reassess your own sense of identity and self, and to leave behind baggage and start afresh. There’s a lot of very solid research showing that we can- in fact- achieve those long-term goals of ours by using these techniques.
I also spoke to Adam Grant who told me how changing minds is incredibly hard to do because our views link to our tribal membership. Even in these situations, by increasing the question-statement ratio (asking more questions about why someone has their beliefs rather than statements about why you have yours) or by asking for evidence… by showing genuine curiosity, you can actually nudge people to change their minds.
[Vikas: do nudges work at different scales?]
[Maya Shankar]: When I think back to my time at the Obama White House, we needed to create one-size-fits-all instruments. We didn’t have the luxury of engaging directly with every citizen of the country. There are certainly some insights from behavioural science that apply at scale when it comes to changing minds.
One of my favourite bodies of work looks at the moral reframing space. It basically acknowledges how hard it is to get people to change their values and looks at how we can reframe policies to affirm values rather than threaten them. Take climate change. With liberals, you might tap into values that link to how solving climate change will reduce social inequality and help the disadvantaged to climb the ladder and prosper. For those with more conservative values, you might talk about how solving climate change will preserve our natural beauty, and how it’s patriotic to help people find jobs and get the economy growing. For both groups the outcome we want is the same, but we’re framing it differently.
[Vikas: What about the scale of time?]
[Maya Shankar]: We are definitely present biased and discount the future considerably. This was a challenge in my White House days when we were trying to convince veterans to sign up for retirement savings plans. They were like wait, that’s so far away, I want to spend my money now! As a species, we’re not great forecasters- and we can’t predict our future selves. We need to realise that taking leaps now may carry risk but can also lead to growth.
Q: How can we broaden our values to allow more change into our lives?
[Maya Shankar]: I’ve tried to attach my identity to the pursuits that energise me, not to things. When you do this, you realise the world is much larger than you thought, and you can ‘scratch that itch’ in different spaces.
In my early years playing the violin, I thought it was the violin that I loved. The reality was that the thing that got me energised was the ability to forge an emotional connection with my audience. We’d never met before, and within moments we felt some kind of profound emotional bond, a remarkable and intoxicating connection. I was tapping into people’s emotional states and getting them to feel things they may not have felt through my music. Fast forward to today, and with my podcast A Slight Change of Plans, I feel again that same emotional connection being forged with my audience and my guests.
Change doesn’t happen in isolation and can lead to unexpected outcomes. One of my guests, Eleanor Baker, had made it her lifelong goal to become thin. For whatever reason, she felt that if she could just lose weight, that she would achieve the dreams in her life. In a short space of time, she lost close to 100lbs, and in her mind she thought that she would now- effectively- go from being Eleanor to being Thin Eleanor. What happened in the process however, is that she ch anged. She felt she became a worse person- more superficial- more self-conscious- less bold- less irreverent. She felt she’d lost core pieces of her identity and had fallen into a cognitive fallacy that when something changes, nothing else does. She had willed what she believed was a positive change, but actually a very negative fallout happened as she realised that weight was not the problem that needed solving.
Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are spill over effects in the rest of our lives and on other parts of our personality that we just can’t predict. No matter what we think, we’re not always going to have an accurate understanding of how change will affect us.
You have to be humble and almost audit yourself through change so that you know what the desirable and undesirable effects are. It’s really important you have an openness to the experience, and don’t take too much for granted.
You also have to attach yourself to your values and revisit those values on occasion. Our identities are far more malleable than we think, as are our opinions. It’s healthy to challenge our fundamental values once in a while, they too can be problematic.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Maya Shankar]: Over the course of my career, I have tried to introduce elements of what it means to be human into spheres that haven’t always appreciated the importance of that. For example, at the White House, all my colleagues were busy building these remarkable programs to serve low-income students, veterans and service members. The programs themselves are great, but if we don’t appreciate the human angle, the psychology of that veteran, the barriers they face, how can we truly help them? How can we deliver a program to a veteran without realising the challenges they face transitioning from military to civilian life? What other psychological risks are they facing? By putting the human at the centre, we can create things that are effortless to use – something that would be impossible without asking the right questions at the front.
With this podcast, I’m trying to approach change with that same perspective of behavioural science. When I’m hearing people’s stories unfold, I’m trying to see where the science corroborates (or not) with what we see and therefore how we can unlock a better understanding of ourselves and our potential.
It’s imperative for scientists everywhere to try and translate insights from their field into resonant terms for everyone. My Dad is a theoretical physicist and he’s prided himself on spending the last decades trying to convert physics into terms that people like me can understand! I’ve always felt part of my job was to make the concepts that I am studying accessible and that’s why I’m so proud about A Slight Change of Plans because we bring listeners through these powerful narratives, but if they can learn some science along the way, and understand themselves better too? Well, that’s a win-win!