Ketamine, Cars and Habits – Business Psychology and Strategy #33

PABLO PICASSO  L’Homme à la pipe 1968

Afternoon reader!

Normally I’m pretty rigorous about sending this email in the morning, but yesterday was Valentines day so I spent the afternoon away from my computer, not typing like I normally do.

This week I haven’t got any witty aphorism to include in the letter, so I’m just going to wish you a good week, and let me know what you think of the articles.

Thanks for reading, Callum


Could ketamine become the new alcohol for overworked employees? This is a complex story of brain anatomy and neurochemistry, but I’ll spare you the details and stick to the interesting bits.

First, there are several theories of why we get depression, but so far it seems that they are all right. There is the monoamine theory of depression which believes that depression happens when there isn’t enough serotonin or dopamine in your brain – this means that depression should be treated with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) which cause the serotonin created by the brain to last longer. However, SSRIs, and all drugs that seem to work on this line, only work for about half of all people with depression.

Then there is the inflammation theory of depression which believes that depressive behaviors are a natural response to inflammation, but in a modern world there are excess unresolved stressors leading to very high levels of inflammation. This model is newer, and suggests that anti-inflammatories would help with depression, which they do. But again, this only seems to work on half of people with depression. Luckily, it seems to be the other half that SSRIs don’t work on.

Finally there is the network theory of depression which believes that depression is the result of areas of the brain being over or under active. This more holistic understanding of brain functioning, although not the basis for treatment, does help explain why psychedelics are so effective at treating depression – they cause a large-scale reset of brain networks.

Recent articles have shown that ketamine is effective at reducing depressive symptoms, and might work via two of these routes. Ketamine has been shown in rat models to reduce stress induced depression, but also has mild psychedelic effects so might effect overall brain network states.

When we combine this with the fact that a record number of knowledge workers are burning out while working from home, increasing stress and leading to potential depression, it seems that ketamine might be a mental health savior. In the future, the doctor might prescribe “monging out” on the sofa over the weekend to deal with an aggressive boss.

As interesting as this future might seem, medication doesn’t fix the root cause. An HBR article that talks about burn-out in depth explains that the most effective treatments of burnout are simple – have meaning at work, have a manageable workload, feel like you can talk about mental health at work, and spend time with family and friends.

Behavior Design

The attention economy is worth billions of US dollars annually. Social media companies and search engines sell attention to the highest bidder, who in turn try to sell something. The more time spent using their product equates to more advertising dollars for them, so it is clearly in their interest to hook you into the product for as much of your day as possible.

Personally, I think I use my phone and social media too much, and I’d like to reduce time spent scrolling even more than I already have. To fight the addictive technology that Silicon Valley have designed, we need to arm ourselves with the same knowledge that they have.  If we want to design habits and behaviours that improve our lives, we should start with BJ Fogg.

Who is BJ Fogg?

BJ Fogg is one of the inventors of the modern attention economy. His book, Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to Change What We Think and Do, provided the foundations for captology, the study of computers as persuasive devices. In 2007 he taught a course at Stanford on using persuasive design to create Facebook applications.

But despite all the criticisms of the attention economy, BJ Fogg isn’t the bad-guy. At the beginning of his career he published Persuasive Computers: Perspectives and Research Directions, a paper in which he talked explicitly about the ethical implications of using persuasive design. More recently, he has published Tiny Habits, a book about small changes you can make to completely change our behaviours.

At the core of Fogg’s theory of behaviour is the equation B=MAP. Behaviour = Motivation vs Ability at the time of a Prompt. The idea is really simple – if there is not enough motivation, or not enough ability, then a prompt to perform a behaviour will not be successful. If, however, there is sufficient motivation and ability, then a prompt will successfully start a behaviour.

This idea is incredibly powerful and can help us to understand why we are or are not performing certain behaviours, which can help us create good habits or eliminate bad habits.

How do we use this idea?

Fogg also presents the idea of the Ability Chain, which consists of Time, Money, Physical Effort, Mental Effort, and Routine. This list is presented as the key levers to create or change any behaviour, but breaking down the Ability Chain into the more general buckets of Motivation and Ability might be even more helpful.

On the Ability Chain, money (both spending and receiving) and routine both fall into Motivation. But money and routine aren’t the only motivators. A more exhaustive list comes from the division into Internal Motivators and External Motivators. Internal motivators include routine and identity, and external motivators include money or prestige.

When I normally think about motivation, I find that there needs to be both internal and external motivation for a behaviour to reliably occur. The internal motivation will make us want to perform the action, and the external motivator will be our justification for wanting to perform the action. For example, if we want to build the habit of exercising then we need both the internal motivation of identity (believing that we are the type of person who exercises) and the external motivation of looking good and being healthy.

Ability consists of physical efforts, mental effort, and time (in this discussion I will ignore whether or not it is possible to perform the behaviour, i.e., not having enough money or not having licence to perform the behaviour and I will assume that we are able to perform the behaviour). These don’t play a direct role in whether or not the prompt is successful, instead they all play a role through our perceived effort involved in completing the task.

All of these factors are levers that we can use to change our behaviour. To make it more likely you’ll perform a behaviour, you can increase the likelihood of encountering the prompt, increase internal and external motivation, and, most importantly, reduce the effort needed to complete it; as well as vice versa for eliminating unwanted behaviours.


If you want to use social media less often: log out of your laptop, tell your browser not to remember the passwords, and delete the apps from your phone. No need to go cold turkey, just make it harder to check the site every ten minutes.

If you want to reduce phone use, leave it in a different room, which would increase physical effort required to check it, or turn it off, which would result in a longer time before you can gain the benefit of using it. Both of these activities also remove the prompts which cause most phone use: notifications.

If you want to eat less, try boxing up the leftovers before you start eating. This creates an additional barrier to eating more. Like any of these activities, this isn’t expected to work all the time, but it is expected to work enough of the time that it pushes you in the right direction.

A difficult habit to break, if you want to stop biting your nails you could create a financial incentive for every day you go without biting your nails, or a financial punishment every time you bite them.

To stop yourself from eating snacks or sweet treats, don’t buy sweet treats. Having to go to the shop is a huge perceived effort, and if they aren’t in the house you are less likely to crave them – no prompts.

These levers also work for controlling positive behaviours.  To drink more water during the day, have a bottle of water on your desk (no excuses for not drinking enough water now, good luck leaving your water bottle at home while in lockdown). To meditate more, start with a 3 minute meditation to increase ability. To exercise more, build a specific exercise prompt into your routine (when you wake up/when you finish working/etc.).

Personally, I have almost every notification on my phone turned off. I have left notifications on for messenger, texts and phone calls, but that’s all. Removing these prompts has reduced my phone use significantly. Additionally, I don’t have any social media applications or video applications on my phone, meaning I need to use Chrome to access those sites. This doesn’t make it impossible to access these sites, but it does make it hard enough for the cost-benefit equation to be rebalanced.

In sum, BJ Fogg offers some solutions to the problems he helped create. Using clever habit and environment design, we can live the lives we want to live. Remember, we are no different from lab-rats reacting to flashing lights in our environment, the only difference is that we can design our environment.  

Not the iCar

In newsletter #30 I talked about the Apple Car, Hyundai, and Boston Dynamics. This week it became clear that the discussions between Hyundai and Apple had fallen through. This could have been for a couple of reasons.

Who gets to keep what?

First, the profit distribution. The auto market tends to have low profit margins, although premium cars are the exception to that. For Apple to enter the auto industry, they would have to expect decent returns on investment and so would expect to price their cars, like their phones, at a premium. Hyundai could expect, though this is complete speculation, to share in this increased profit. Apple however (more speculation) could expect that the value added from their technology and branding would have led to them receiving most of the additional profit.

I don’t know which parts of the design and manufacturing process Hyundai was expected to perform. But I can only expect that they included the less technical, more mechanical construction efforts – building the chassis, body, wheels, etc. It seems that Apple intended to build the battery, and potentially the engine, themselves. We can also expect that Apple expected to perform most of the software creation themselves. These factors add weight to the argument that since Apple was performing the value-add tasks, they should reap a greater share of the profits.  

But of course, Hyundai don’t see it that way. At a time where other car manufacturers are investing in battery technology and self-driving technology, outsourcing the development of those factors puts Hyundai at risk.

If ten years down the line the agreement falls apart, Hyundai would be left up shit creek without a paddle – they would be stranded as the only automaker without self-driving technology, and potentially with worse battery technology. Energy, time, and resources spent working on the Apple-car could also be spent on developing proprietary technology, putting Hyundai ahead in the tech-car race.

Where there is risk, there should also be reward. In return for not developing their own technology, Hyundai should expect to receive a greater profit share, or to have access to the technology developed by Apple.

This factor alone explains a large part of why the conversation broke down. But outside of profit discussions are branding and image discussions. The fact that Hyundai were releasing statements about being in discussions with Apple means that they thought that the Hyundai name (or at least the Kia name, the Hyundai sub-brand that was specifically involved in discussions) would be on the final product. But Apple doesn’t collaborate on the products they make – everything they produce is made by Apple and Apple alone, and letting anyone mess with that risks polluting the brand image.  

Apple wants to make an Apple-car, Hyundai wanted to make a Kia, produced in collaboration with Apple. I’m sure that there is a solution to this somewhere, potentially found using [Integrative thinking], but clearly any imaginable middle-ground was untenable to Apple and Hyundai.


The final reason why I think that this discussion broke down is that Hyundai doesn’t want to become Intel. In June it was announced that Apple was breaking away from their 15 year partnership with Intel to make their own chipsets for both their mobile devices and their laptops. Apple developed enough technology to no longer be reliant on Intel, and when they moved away they left a sizable dent in Intel’s revenues.

Hyundai doesn’t want the same thing to happen to them. It is entirely possible that throughout a collaboration, Apple learns how to do what Hyundai do, and no-longer needs them to produce their cars. Apple has already shown that they are interested in owning their entire supply chain, and this is a risk that Hyundai shouldn’t be willing to take unless they can contractually insure their position – the kind of contract that Apple wouldn’t be willing to sign.

In sum, we shouldn’t be surprised that negotiations between Apple and Hyundai have broken down. As this happens, Microsoft and VW have struck a deal that is beneficial to both of them. Microsoft will provide cloud services to VW to help them process data from vehicles and to roll-out updates to cars on the roads. This makes sense for VW because training self-driving cars requires enormous amounts of data collection and processing, and it makes sense for Microsoft because, well, it counts as a big sale of their cloud computing software, helping them to compete with AWS.

To finish, I don’t think the auto industry is Apple’s best bet – its low margin with many established players. I think that what Apple should do is recreate the success of the iPhone – use existing technology, that someone else has created badly in the past, and make it work. Namely, AR. Apple is already investing in partnerships with TSMC to create displays that would work well within wearable devices (like glasses). From a competitive angle, it would make much more sense for Apple to create a market instead of entering an existing one. As Peter Thiel says, competition is for losers.

(Since writing this article over the weekend, more information has come out about Hyundai’s concerns, and about Nissan rejecting Apple’s advances. )


A terrifying look at the world where the icecaps are melted. A terrifying look at what one person with a vengeance can do to a whole family’s online image. And a short discussion about whether genocide is the right word for what China is doing to Uighurs.

And on a slightly brighter note, this is a story of a man who uses spreadsheets to manage his lovelife.

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