12 Angry Men and 5 lessons in behaviour change

After re-watching 12 Angry Men yesterday (great movie), I started thinking how inspiring this movie might be for anyone working with communities and organizations to change behaviour for the better. Compressed into an intense and claustrophobic 96 minutes, the script and performances do a wonderful job of highlighting and exaggerating some big points when it comes to behaviour change. It’s kind of like a mini test-lab of social norms, nudging and the power of emotion all mixed up and working together.

I’ve put together a little summary of the five observations that stood out for me. It’s by no means exhaustive, but captures a few ideas that kept popping up after.

#1 – Looking up and out

In the early scene of the movie, as the jurors start to gather around the table, Henry Fonda’s character (Juror #8) deliberately separates himself from the group. He moves at his own pace, walks over to the window and looks out, and is the 2nd last Juror to seat himself at the table. It’s pretty clear that while he’s sizing up the group and their mood, he’s being careful to separate himself from the group, and maintain a different perspective.

I think this is an interesting image to keep in mind when kicking off any behaviour change initiative. It’s important to seek a different point of view and start seeing the bigger picture – to look up and out. By looking up at the environment, you can start to size up the surrounding conditions and environment that are contributing to why people do the things they do. And by looking out, you can seek inspiration in unusual and surprising places. This might be reviewing what’s worked in other markets, or simply by talking to lots of different people who impact and experience the issue from a number of different angles.

#2 – Nudging toward a better choice

This movie does a pretty good job of demonstrating how people can be nudged in a certain direction by changing the way choices are presented to them.

Juror #8 knows that the he cannot force his opinion on the other jurors. They need to be nudged along, so that the choice to vote “not guilty” seems the more attractive one. Emotions are high in the room, and people are resistant to change. If there’s any doubt, he’s reminded of this early on in the movie when he stands alone against the 11 in voting not-guilty, and another juror barks – “You’re not gonna change anyone’s mind”.

So Juror #8 is cautious from the get-go. Whenever he’s asked if he thinks the kid is guilty, he constantly answers “I don’t know. It’s possible”. This may actually be what he’s thinking at the time, but it’s more likely he knows that he can’t box people into a corner by telling them what to do. He needs to continue to nudge them, giving them information that gradually weakens their arguments, many of which aren’t based on rational reasons as expected, but a variety of emotional influences (including their own prejudices).

Whenever we’re trying to change people’s habits, we know we’re dealing with complex forces and emotions. So finding a way to nudge rather than push is always going to be more effective in the long-term. In working on a Breastfeeding initiative a few years back, it was clear how emotionally charged the issue was. Our focus then was to ensure we didn’t add to the pressure, so we focused on delivering an empathetic message that would nudge, not push.

#3 – Empathy provides context

From the outset, Fonda’s character attempts to understand and “walk in the shoes” of the kid accused of murdering his father. He talks about what it must have been like for the teenager, constantly pushed around by his father, and living in rough and slum-like conditions. He wasn’t using these as excuses, but rather because it provided context for much of the evidence that was being used against the accused. Often this was effective at re-framing the issue, helping others to see things from a different point of view. For example, simply knowing that the boy lived in a violent family environment started to change how the jurors perceived much of the evidence. So rather than simply running from the scene of the crime, he may have been running away from another beating.

The same goes for behaviour change. Effective research, observation and collaboration can help us better understand the daily reality of the people we are talking to. So how might this affect our approach to an issue like healthy eating. While communicating the importance of eating 5 fruits and vegetables a day might seem reasonable, to a single-parent family without a car, shopping and cooking takes on an entirely new set of challenges. And if, as is likely, they already know they should be eating better, than its clear there are bigger issues at play, including their surrounding environment. Truly seeing things from their point of view is an obvious  first step, but often one that is glossed over. It may tell us that people’s limited access to fruit and vegetables is a bigger issue than any message we might communicate. In fact, messages like “5-a-day” may not always have a positive impact since it could make the idea of eating healthier beyond the reach of many.

#4 – Tone Matters

What’s also clear is that the more influential folks in the room (especially Fonda’s character) are those that make their points in a calm and steady manner. In comparison, those who lose their temper, shout and attempt to force their opinion on others quickly lose any ability to persuade. They have an impact on people, but not the one they seek.

It’s the same really when it comes to communication and behaviour change strategies. Attempts to scare people using fear tactics or other messaging designed to shock is a version that seeks to SHOUT at people. If we’re trying to influence people in our typical day-to-day conversations, making them angry and antagonizing them rarely works. So the same should apply with health promotion initiatives. We can’t shock or scare people into changing their long-term habits.

#5 – The influence of social networks

I’ve long been interested in the writing and thoughts of Mark Earls, with his focus on the power of the herd in driving what we do. While many of us aren’t likely to find ourselves as jurors, 12 Angry Men effectively mimics and exaggerates the incredible power of the group in swaying our actions – in this case, a choice that dictates whether a teenage boy lives or dies.

When the first show of hands is taken, it’s clear that many are being influenced by those around them. This explains why, when questioned on their choices, many struggle to define why they feel he is guilty – “I just thought he was guilty”.

And when Juror #8 chooses to stand alone against the 11, you feel the enormous weight pushing against him. Keenly aware of how others are being influenced by the group, we then have the key scene in the movie when he takes an incredible, but calculated gamble. Trying to weaken the influence of the group, he calls for a secret written ballot. It’s a dramatic and tense scene.

“I have a proposition to make for all of you. I want to call for another vote. I want you 11 men to vote by secret written ballot. I’ll abstain. If there are 11 votes for guilty, I won’t stand alone, we’ll take in a guilty verdict to the judge right now. But if anyone votes not guilty, we stay here and talk it out. Now that’s it. If you want to try it, I’m ready.”

His gamble pays off as one other juror stands with him in voting not guilty. This starts a gradual shirt in momentum and provides courage to others who are wavering.

There are two other wonderful scenes when the group bonds in a natural show of unity. In the first scene, the group gathers together as a collective in response to a violent outburst by juror #3. And in the 2nd scene, the jurors turn their backs one-by-one on Juror #10 when a sudden rant reveals his deep seated bigotry.

Of course, the big difference with this example and real-life is that most times we’re not even aware of the influence of the group or social norms on our behaviour. And most times we’re not cross examined or forced to defend why we do what we do – we just go along with what feels normal in our world. For example, if everyone around us smokes or binge-drinks, it’s easy to see why the decision to do either of these things would feel normal.  And that’s a big part of the challenge faced in initiatives that are focused on improving the health and well-being of our communities. Unless we understand the power of these social interactions first, we’ll have little chance of understanding how to impact these influences, and deliver change that lasts.

I’d love to know what you think? Have you seen the movie…and what insights or inspiration do you think it provides when it comes to changing behaviour.