Nudging People Towards Behavioural Change

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There can be all sorts of reasons that we mind want to change someone else’s behaviour, but it’s often a frustrating task. On the whole, people carry on behaving as they have always done, unless some internal conflict causes them to change. Information by itself is not enough to change behaviour. We all know we should eat more fruit and vegetables, yet we carry on eating chocolate.

This  can be frustrating for people in the helping professions, policy makers, parents and spouses.  We can see how someone should change their behaviour for the better but we are powerless to make them change.

Fortunately there are some interesting findings about what actually does cause behaviour change, and we can use them to nudge people in the right direction. Paul Dolan has created the  MINDSPACE  model to help policy makers with problems as diverse as reducing crime and tackling obesity. These principles can equally be applied in organisations or when working with individuals.

– Maybe you are a career coach who wants to motivate a client to pursue her dreams or at least research her options thoroughly

– Maybe you are a mindfulness teacher who wants to encourage students to do a daily practice

– Or a Careers Adviser who needs a teenager to start getting up in the morning and get to training on time

– Or a teacher convincing Year 11 to start doing some revision

– Or anyone running an appointment system who wants customers to just TURN UP for their appointments.

Whatever challenge you are facing, there is something useful in this model for you. There are nine principles, and you can use MINDSPACE to help you remember them.

So, here goes….

Messenger – the person giving the message about behaviour change needs to be credible or likeable, as we are hugely influenced by who gives the messages. A role model who perceived to be similar to us will be influential, but so will a respected expert.

Incentives – we prefer to avoid losses rather then gain new things, so if you give somebody something and then attempt to take it away from them, they will value it more. That is why free trials work.  We also prefer small and immediate payoffs rather than larger payoffs in the future, so if you want to persuade someone to practice a new skill, focus on the benefit they will notice immediately.

Norms – we are stongly influenced by what other people are doing, and if in doubt we will follow the crowd. So if you want people to keep their appointments, put up a poster that says “90% of our customers keep their appointments and that helps us keep waiting times short” rather than “10% of our customers miss their appointments which makes waiting times longer”. People won’t feel bad about missing an appointment if they think everyone else is doing the same.

Defaults – we tend to go with the pre-set options unless we have a good reason not to. This is why Welsh Government have introduced a system whereby it is assumed you will donate your organs unless you actively opt out. Employers can encourage people to take up pensions by making this something that you actively have to opt out of.

Salience – we are drawn to new things and novelties, or things that seem particularly relevant to us. Presenting salads in a novel way can encourage people to eat them. Taking pupils out of school for a new experience can encourage changes.

Priming – if we are exposed to certain sensory cues, this can influence out later choices, without us having any awareness of the connection. Asking people whether they intend to do something in a survey actually makes it more likely that they will do it.  So, if you survey a year eleven group, and ask whether they intend to visit a college open day, you increase the number who actually attend.

Affect – emotional responses can override rational decision-making. If you get people into a good mood they will make more optimistic choices, while people in a bad mood will be more pessimistic. Creating a sense of hope with a teenager, for example, will make them more likely to take the risk of applying for a job or opportunity.

Commitment – once we make commitments public or write them down, we are more likely to follow through. Getting someone to write down their own action plan will increase commitment. We generally try to make our behaviour consistent with our public commitments.

Ego – If our behaviour and our beliefs about ourselves are in conflict, we will often change our behaviour, so gently drawing attention to a conflict between the two can be a great way to increase motivation to change. We like to behave in ways that allow us to maintain a positive image of ourselves and we like to believe we are more consistent than we actually are.

Is all this a bit manipulative? Well, yes it is.  We are using techniques that can alter people’s behaviour, outside their conscious awareness.

Is it unethical?  Probably not as long as we are acting in the other person’s best interests.  After all, our decisions are being influenced all the time by our perceptions  of the environment and in using the MINDSPACE principles, all we are doing is tweaking the environment to make certain decisions more likely. Is it more ethical to make a conscious decision to put fruit in the most high profile position in the canteen and nudge people towards buying it, or to leave the sweets there because that is where they have always been? I think the nudge is ethical, because it is done with the best interests of the diners at heart.

So, next time you need to persuade a student to practice, a customer to keep an appointment, a child to do their homework or a client to get out of bed in the mornings, think about how you can apply these findings!

For more reading on this subject I thoroughly recommend “Nudge” by Thaler and Sunstein.