Social Change consultant Les Robinson answers some frequently asked questions about behaviour change. This is an unabridged version of an article that appeared in The Guardian in January 2011.

Can you change people’s behaviours?

It’s a delusion we can change peoples’ behaviours. Instead, people change their own behaviours.

Adopting new lifestyle or business practices requires a lot of energy, optimism and sustained commitment. There is only one source of that commitment, that is peoples’ own intrinsic hopes and desires (a.k.a. “intrinsic motivations”). So one of the arts of a change agent is to ensure the behaviour answers peoples’ hopes and desires.

Successful campaigns therefore tend to be based on behavioural products that increase peoples’ control over things that matter to them. So, for instance, effective farm sustainability programs also improve the look and productivity of a farm. Effective exercise programs are also enjoyable and sociable. Effective climate change programs also give people comfortable homes they’re proud to show their friends.

We can’t change peoples’ behaviours, but when we offer them a chance to take a step closer to the lives they dream about (and we make that change feel safe) then they’ll do the changing for us.

Does behaviour change theory work?

There is no single accepted behaviour change theory. The sciences of human behaviour are fantastically fragmented and contradictory. There are a handful of commonly used theories or models, like the Stages of Change model, the Health Belief Model, or the Theory of Planned Behaviour. However each of these models is based on assumptions that are open to criticism and many have been widely questioned. Many of these theories are rooted in a simplistic transactional model of human behaviour based on perceived costs and benefits (a.k.a. carrots and sticks). So, to change behaviour, you would simply emphasise the costs of inaction and the benefits of change. Fortunately, human nature is vastly more complex and rich than this. To design a change program we must work with humans in their social context, respond to their hopes and fears, recognise the role of power, and understand that behaviour sits in a matrix of technologies, infrastructures, institutions, norms and social structures, all of which need to be the open to strategising and potential modification. There are rarely silver bullets in this field and successful change programs are the result of multi-disciplinary efforts over considerable periods of time, with plenty of experimentation and failure along the way.

How to you move beyond “the converted”?

The converted want to change the world. The majority just want incremental improvement in their farms, businesses, lives, families, health etc. There’s nothing wrong with that and we can’t transform the majority into the converted. Instead we have to respect their hopes and enable them to achieve the things that matter to them. The single biggest mistake change agents make is trying to make the public care about the same things we care about.

So, instead of asking “How can I make the public share my passionate concerns for climate, road safety, domestic violence etc?” We need to ask “How can I be of service to the concerns they already have?”

So, for instance, instead of promoting “Reasons you should stop smoking.” we might shift our focus to “Ways you can make a safe, smoke free home for your children.”

It should be apparent from this (real life) example that the first step in moving beyond the converted often requires tackling the fixed ideological assumptions of our organisations and funders – dragging them out of their ivory towers into the real lives of real people trying to better themselves in a frustrating world.

(Another nice example is California’s anti-drug campaign that’s abandoned the typical “Just say no” or “Talk to your kids” for a more realistic Dinner makes the difference approach, where the behaviour is simply to have dinner with your kids. This requires a rethink of the logic behind the campaign.)

What if people just aren’t interested?

Don’t blame them. Maybe it’s our fault. Let’s take their apathy as a message that we need to act more like designers. Let’s immerse ourselves in their lives until we figure out how to create solutions that answer the real needs of their families, businesses or health. Everyone has problems and frustrations. When we create an answer that really works for them, the rest is easy.

Imagine if the inventors of the first mobile phones (known affectionately as “bricks”) just sat around blaming the public for not buying them. Instead they set about evolving the phone into something that met more and more people’s practical needs. The same applies to, for instance, a climate change project. If you want people to reduce their energy use then get to know your audience and start innovating answers to their needs. A nice model is the Low Carb Lane project in the UK.

One of the biggest changes to the practice of social change in recent years has been the entry of design professionals into the field. They bring a system of thinking based on immersive research, wide ranging inspiration, prototyping, piloting and redesign. This is an incredibly healthy intrusion. It reminds us that “It’s the product, stupid.” Good behavioural products sell themselves, but no amount of persuasion or wiz-bang marketing can sell a behaviour that provides no benefits for the adopter. For those familiar with Diffusion of Innovations this will be no surprise. Design thinking + Diffusion of Innovations makes a very powerful system for understanding how to change the world.

Do threats work?

Common sense says “no”. After all, when was the last time you responded to a threat? Yet threat appeals dominate campaigns in fields like climate change, alcohol and tobacco control, and road safety. Threat appeals neglect a vital fact – that the human capacity for denial is infinite. So what if 50% of smokers will die of a smoking-related disease, I’m in the other 50%! The failure of threat-based appeals results in a common marketing syndrome, the Just Shout Louder Effect. If people aren’t responding to the threat, then Just Shout Louder! A classic example was Deutsche Bank’s Climate Change clicker in Times Square.

There is one exception to the rule against threat appeals. That’s when the threat is followed by the offer of a threat-reducing solution which is a) immediately available; and b) within the subject’s self-efficacy (ie. within their comfort zone). Probably the best example of is “bad news” fund raising campaigns, where the threatening information includes an offer to donate through an immediately available mechanism – GetUp does this superbly.

Do incentives work?

Incentives are a two-edged sword. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. There’s an unresolved decades-lon
g debate between economists and psychologists about the efficacy of incentives. Incentives can enable people to act by providing a leg-up, topping-up their own efforts. But what happens when the incentive is withdrawn? Many psychologists argue that withdrawing an incentive is liable to reduce the actor’s motivation to lower than it was before the incentive was offered. In fact, there’s empirical evidence both ways. So the debate continues.

Probably the best answer is that incentives tell the receiver a story about themselves. Sometimes it’s a story that dignifies the receiver, sometimes it humiliates them. So, the question we should ask is: what story does our particular incentive tell the receiver? Does it say “We recognise your extraordinary motivation.” or does it say “We doubt you really care, that’s why we’re paying you.”

Generally incentives are most effective when they are small and require significant matching efforts by the receiver.

How do you create great messages?

Marketers typically overestimate the power of messages, a syndrome that could be called “message fetish”. People are rarely convinced by messages. Usually they are convinced by the real life examples of their peers, through a process called social learning. Nevertheless, we always need to communicate, and stories (rather than messages or slogans) are our best tools. A great book on this subject is Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Basically, they say that stories should be short, emotional, surprising, concrete and believable. It’s a very useful formula.

Can you convince people to do absolutely anything?

I’ve heard marketing graduates make this claim. They must have extraordinarily gifted lecturers. The truth is that humans come equipped with two powerful capacities, denial and resistance, which can defeat all and any attempts to influence our behaviour. It’s true that salesmen have developed a suite of short term manipulations which can pull off a sale in many circumstances (best summarised in Robert Cialdini’s Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion). However behaviour change is not the same as buying a different brand of cheese. Firstly, we already eat cheese so it’s not really a new behaviour, and secondly if we get manipulated into buying the new cheese but don’t like the flavour when we get home, we won’t buy it any more, so the behaviour won’t be sustained. Those are two reasons why behaviour change is fundamentally different from marketing.

One of the most important differences between marketing and behaviour change is that the latter almost always involves building peoples’ self-efficacy. The reason people aren’t adopting many beneficial new behaviours is often that they lack the confidence that they can pull off the new behaviour with success and dignity. Seemingly simple actions like riding a bicycle, turning off an air conditioner, or saying “no” to a drink can be a terrifying for people who have not done them before. Remember that the worst fears are social fears. Humiliation and rejection loom large whenever people contemplate actions that are new to them. What will their friends and family think? What if they fail? How will they look to others? It may seem silly but one of the big barriers to women cycling to work is their fear about how their hair will look. We trivialise these fears to our peril. That is why behaviour change is not achieved by convincing people, marketing to them, or arguing with them, but almost always includes modelling how to carry out new behaviours with ease and aplomb. This explains why change travels along social networks – because the complex of social learning and norming that happens between peers is the most potent path to self-efficacy. It also explains why the best change agents are not persuaders, but facilitators of conversations between people who already know each other.

In short, no, you can’t convince people to adopt new behaviours. We humans resent unwanted advice and one of the commonest responses to well-meaning attempts at persuasion is the Boomerang Effect[2] where the behaviours we are trying to stop get worse, like sex education campaigns that result in more teen pregnancies.

Does social marketing work?

I have serious reservations about the efficacy of social marketing. One of the reasons is that social marketing tends to focus on persuading individuals to change through a simple transactional model of “buying” a benefit. It pays little attention to self-efficacy, power, denial or resistance. It also discounts the technological, institutional, and social contexts in which people lead their lives. And there are a lot of other reasons too.

In conclusion

Behaviour change includes an emerging set of practices and ways of thinking that no one profession can claim expertise to. Because it’s a multi-disciplinary effort, one of the most important roles of a change agent is to be a facilitator of strategising discussions involving individuals in diverse fields, including members of the target audience itself. This kind of facilitation might be the most important thing we do.








[2] For example, Ringold, J.R. (2002) Boomerang Effect: In response to public health interventions: Some unintended consequences in the alcoholic beverage market, Journal of Consumer Policy 25 p34-35