Easy Does It: Successful Behaviour Change

Published: 03 October 2019

Exploring the central themes from Behavioural Exchange 2019.

The central concepts in behavioural science are increasingly well-known. We are largely driven by emotion and instinct, rather than cold-hearted rationality.

Ethics was a hot topic at Behavioural Exchange 2019 (BX2019). Keynote speakers Cass Sunstein and Dan Ariely emphasised the importance of using behavioural insights for [social] good rather than commercial manipulation. Senior civil servants underlined that the goal of behaviour change programmes should be to help people help themselves and, ultimately, improve policy outcomes.

In short, we have a responsibility to use new insights to Nudge people in the right direction not exploit people using Sludge.

Speakers showed how behavioural insights can be applied in multiple areas – to increase savings and investments, drive active lifestyles, boost sustainable travel and improve hygiene. Yet, despite the eclectic and growing number of successful applications in the UK and across the world, a number of key themes and principles emerge:

  • Social norms remain a powerful tool to influence behaviour. They’ve been a cornerstone of change campaigns for years, but social norms remain one of the most effective means to change behaviour. Essentially, we like to be part of the crowd and tend to follow the herd. In his new book, Cass Sunstein introduces the power of the ‘Norm entrepreneur’ – specific individuals who have the influence to lead new modes of behaviour and social movements. Working with these individuals we can begin to unlock change by highlighting ‘dynamic emerging norms’.
  • People are generally happy to take part in experiments. One of the key principles behind behavioural science is to test what works. That can mean, for example, that different groups of people receive different financial incentives, frames of reference and modes of communication during tests. Some practitioners have expressed concern when this leads to inequitable outcomes. Extensive research in the education sector suggests that people are more than happy to take part in experiments to ensure that practitioners only scale what works.
  • People often change their mind based on stories, not facts. As a species, we’re inherently attuned to stories. We need and enjoy narratives that help us make sense of complex issues – witness the relative success of the narratives and phrasing of Donald Trump and Brexiteers. The same often applies for change programmes. Interventions tend to be more successful when their packaged as part of a compelling story, using real life examples to show what can be achieved and how people can act. A critical element is to develop stories that are plausible to the target audiences of any campaigns or movements.
  • Make it easy and reduce the effort people need to expend. It sounds simple, but it’s critical to consider how to make it as easy as possible for people to behave and act in a way that helps themselves. This can involve simplifying messaging and communications. But it often involves looking closely at current default behaviours and seeing if and how a simple redesign may lead to a different outcome. It’s the principle behind pensions auto-enrolment in the UK (an opt-out rather than opt-in system), and it’s the approach the likes of Google apply to promote healthy eating in their café (healthy food is more prominent and noticeable than the unhealthy options).

The central concepts in behavioural science are increasingly well-known. We are largely driven by emotion and instinct, rather than cold-hearted rationality. That’s why information alone, however well-argued, is often insufficient to drive change.

To influence behaviours we need to understand the full range of barriers to change (individual, social, infrastructure, policy) and test different ways to overcome those barriers – Dan Ariely, the master of exposing irrationality, calls this friction and fuel. BX2019 showed that programmes based on these principles are being used across the world to affect real and dynamic change.

At Linstock, we’ve applied these techniques to boost cycling and walking, upskill charity volunteers and boost savings. Interestingly, we’re seeing more interest in our interactive workshops where we explain what the most popular principles are and develop possible interventions together with the teams who need to deliver services and change on the ground. As the Ikea effect explains, people are more invested in things they have a stake in building and, we all know, everyone loves their own idea.

Drop us a line if you want to join the growing band of organisations applying behavioural insights to drive real change: info@linstockcommunications.com

Simon Maule


More from linstock

With Tokyo 2020 just around the corner, we look at using behaviour change principles to capitalise on the Olympic effect.

Simon splits his time between our offices in Leeds and London. He formerly ran the UK corporate comms practice at Gavin Anderson & Company.

Linstock designed and delivered a campaign that would encourage people to walk, cycle or use public transport rather than the car for short journeys.

Jen helps Campus Living Villages, Baringa Partners and Grant Thornton, among others, to set the agenda on industry discussions and debates.

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