Bursting the bubble

One thing I often focus on when thinking about behaviour change is the bubble. So much of our behaviour is driven by the people and things that surround us – our physical environment and culture, our friends and colleagues, and the wider community. All of this contributes to a type of bubble that informs our world. We each have a bubble, and it creates a special type of social norm that drives and reinforces much of our behaviour. So unless we find ways to crack open this bubble and reveal other, often larger bubbles, people will continue to feel supported in their behaviour – whether, for example, we’re talking about smoking, binge drinking, mob riots, or immunization.

One project I worked on in 2011 was the 15andfalling anti-smoking campaign. The bubble we focused on cracking was the one that told kids that smoking was popular – in fact, they believed that 50% of young people smoked. The actual smoking rate was far different – 15%, so we set about breaking this bubble, and building a greater sense of resiliency for young kids to resist.

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The Birthday effect

So I just celebrated another birthday – and no-one tried to change my behaviour.

Although many of us brush it off as “just another day”, we can’t help but think a little differently about our life – where we’ve been and where we’re headed – as we hit another visible milestone. And for anyone focused on health promotion, we know that one of the main challenges preventing people from taking action today (quitting smoking, getting screened, eating healthier or exercising more) is our inability to think long-term. We focus so much more on the moment, and it’s hard to swim upstream against this way of thinking. However, during our Birthday phase – however briefly – we find ourselves thinking a little more long-term, as much because of the influence of friends, family or work colleagues.

Yet it’s surprising our little we attempt to use this insight to encourage a change in behaviour. Sure, it’s a more challenging approach because your strategy needs to be a little more tailored and timed – rather than a typical mass approach – but surely it’s worth it.  For a small window of time a few weeks before and after your birthday, we can give our chances of success a small yet significant boost.

Of course, this should only be one tactic in any wider communications initiative. We see a similar increase in commitment around New Year’s – but as always, without follow through, this initial increase in motivation will quickly fade.

As an example of the Birthday effect in action, we can look to this trial in Oslo showing an increase in Colorectal Screening rates when invitations were timed around key milestones, including Birthday’s, Christmas and New Year.

We’ve also seen the recent increase in commitment apps in helping people change behaviour – such as the inspired Blackmail Yourself idea. Targeting people on or around their birthday with these sort of ideas would likely see an increase in participation as well.