Making behaviour change about everyday things









Behaviour change efforts will always be more effective if you start by considering how people behave in their home, at work – in the real world. It might seem an obvious point, but we don’t live in a world of units, milligrams, servings or calories. Rather, we drink from glasses, eat from plates, use cups as a measuring tool, and often equate exercise as something that gives us permission to eat more. By communicating with people in these terms, we are giving them the information they need to act. By building on how people live their life, we effectively “shrink the change” by going with the flow of human behaviour – rather than competing with it. It’s a key first step I believe when considering how to frame many behaviour change initiatives.

I was reminded of this during a recent visit to a naturopath. She was talking about the amount of vegetables I eat every day (funnily enough, even as a vegetarian, I can still eat more). But when giving me my prescription, she asked what would be a more relevant term – “servings” or “cups”. For me, it’s cups, and I’d suggest for many others as well. Fruit might work well as servings, but it’s a different matter when talking about vegetables (given how we generally prepare and eat them).

So how might that apply in other campaigns focusing on health promotion?

There’s this effort from Change4life, with a focus on helping people reduce those “sneaky” drinks in their day. Smartly I think, they chose to talk about the idea based on glasses not units. If course, while everyone drinks from different sized glasses, it was communicating a broader message through TV. Online tools and community efforts can help to educate people on the idea of a standard sized drink or glass. But I think they are off to a great start by tackling the issue in terms people can relate to, rather than spending considerable energy to educate people on the idea of units of alcohol.


Or what about this wonderful solution to the challenge of health labeling on food. Instead of trying to find simple ways to showcase the amount of fat in our food, it gets to the heart of the matter by converting fat to energy. It does this by highlighting how much exercise we would have to do to work off the fat we’ve just eaten. Fantastic!

Of course, given how effective it would be in making people think (and change their behaviour), I would guess it’s likely to face extreme opposition from private industry.

In another example, the new USDA food guide ( released last year replaced the pyramid with a more relevant graphic focused around a plate. Again, a good attempt to relate information in terms people can connect with.

By understanding how people think, how they translate information, how they behave at home, at work, in the car, at the gym, we will give ourselves a better chance of changing behaviour. It’s not rocket science really. It’s simply about ensuring we’re not getting overwhelmed by the “curse of knowledge” within the industry we find ourselves in. It’s about converting all that rich data and information into something meaningful  – something that builds on our existing behaviour as we nudge people toward healthier habits.


Top 16 Sunday reads – #10

Here’s my Sunday reads on behaviour change. It’s a longer list, since I’m just catching up from stuff over the past month. Hope there’s something of interest for you somewhere in these.

1. Great article via Wired on a New York Times Magazine story on “How companies learn your secrets”. A great reminder I think on why we need to continue to apply the same rigour and investigation when identifying insights that help change behaviour on critical community issues such as health promotion and energy conservation.

2. In another article commenting on the same Febreze example, Jonah Lehrer delves into the power of habits and how new ones take hold in the brain.

3. Promising work here from Change4life on those “sneaky drinks” many of us consume during the week. While I’d like to know what they are doing to support the message of course – especially on the issue of standard drink sizes etc – I do like that they are going with the flow of our behaviour and using “drinks” as the reference rather than units. The 5-a-day fruit and veggie folks  face the same issue of relevance in their communication – servings vs. cups vs something else? Relate it to the real world and go from there.

4. A new report from the Behavioural Insights team in the Cabinet Office (UK) on some of the early approaches and results of applying nudging in the UK – Applying behavioural insights to reduce fraud, error and debt.

5. Great little post by Tim Harford on how Nudging is proving to be a credible tool in behaviour change. I wrote something earlier in defence of nudging. While it’s not the silver bullet, we should consider it as one of the many useful ways we can shift behaviour.

6. A wonderful post on one of the best print ads you’re likely to read all year. A wonderful mix of genuine insight, strategy and creative, working together to get people to act. You won’t be disappointed.

7. The power of “perceived” social norms – or why Facebook might be making us sad.

8. Huffington Post on the The Secret to Pinterest’s success – we’re sick of each other. Much like Tumblr I think, although a much smarter interface.

9. Simple reminder here that behaviour change is about “shrinking the change” – and this opens up an entire variety of solutions beyond the individual – from our environment to the people surrounding us.

10. The world’s 50 most innovative companies via Fast Company. Clearly they understand a few things about people and behaviour change.

11. A recent study demonstrating that Pot smokers are twice as likely to have car accidents. Are we doing enough to change behaviour on this issue?  The human cost must be significant.

12. An impressive graph demonstrating the crazy growth of Apple devices – another reason why it really is a mug’s game trying to predict the future. Unless of course your Apple, although they are really in the business of making the future rather than predicting it. There’s a difference.

13. Exercise labels on food – a truly wonderful idea. 1 can of cola = 1 hour’s run. You can just imagine the backlash from the food industry…because we know it would work.

14. The challenge for introverts in a world rallying around groupthink. Great piece on why brainstorming and groupthink is not as effective as many might think. Balance is the word I think.

15. Beautiful and emotional work by Mercedes. A great reminder that when communicating product features, we needn’t just focus on the rational.

16. Finally, for something a little bit light and irresistiblyhappy on this Sunday Morning