Stop scaring people into change

Over my years in advertising, I’ve probably sat through and listened online to hundreds of focus groups. And almost without fail, young people will say the same thing when asked about what will make them change their behaviour.

“you’ve got to shock us. Show us the blood and guts. That’s the only way we’ll notice”

So many marketers and a surprising number of agencies take that at face value, spending millions on campaigns around the world using fear and scare tactics to make an impact.

The only problem – it doesn’t work.

For one, we’re horrible at analyzing our own behaviour. We’re not always aware of what impacts our decision making, or what is actually influencing what we do. So simply asking people isn’t going to get at the real issue.

As well, numerous proper studies have shown that using fear in behaviour change and health promotion doesn’t drive long-term change. It makes an immediate impact, but because it’s not addressing deeper triggers or insights, it fades quickly. Plus, it makes it easy for people to post-rationalize themselves out of the message (“that’s not me”). Many simply reject the message as it’s the easy way to manage their cognitive dissonance.

The saying goes that “we’re not saving lives – it’s just advertising”. The shame here though is that with health promotion, we kind of are (albeit as one small part). So with that goes a sense of responsibility and – one would hope – an increased focus on using genuine human insight, psychology and behaviour change theory. And it starts by asking deeper questions, and getting at the real triggers and influences of people’s behaviour.

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Tuesday roundup

roundup

Looking back over the week that was, and sharing  a collection of stuff that grabbed my attention – usually focused on branding, behaviour change, strategy and creative.

1. Distracted driving

A very smart idea, perfectly executed. I love how it makes the invisible visible. It’s also using the power of social norms to change behaviour. While it’s showing that this behaviour is far more common than people might imagine, it’s also reinforcing the fact that the majority of people aren’t doing these things. The takeaway – if you are someone who texts, talks on the phone etc, you’re part of a dangerous minority.

2. Call a random Swede

A client who is being rewarded for embracing a genius idea.

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3. Tackling obesity

When it comes to healthy eating and nutrition, food labelling can play an important role. Unfortunately it’s an area where there’s a distinct lack of clarity, and, let’s be honest, an embracing of confusion. Of course, people are free to eat what they want, but that choice should be an informed one. And labelling can help. So the idea that resurfaced last week of using exercise comparisons to help people translate the impact of calories would be a wonderful initiative. It’s been talked about before – I wrote about it a few years back. Let’s hope we can start employing simplicity and smart design to make it easier for people to make healthy choices.

4. Sports Talk Radio and men

I stumbled upon this fascinating little podcast via the CBC’s Podcast Playlist. The good, but mostly problematic side of the industry.

5. Good design and healthcare

A great little episode via CBC Spark on how we can make healtthcare more human.

6. Remembering Zaha Hadid

Vitra Fire Station – 1994. Zaha Hadid’s first built project

Zaha Hadid was an inspiring and creative force in architecture. I was lucky enough to visit the Vitra Design Campus last year. While there, we did a tour of the Vitra Fire Station that she designed in 1991 – a remarkable building. In this story from The Guardian, architects speak out about her success and the sexism that she confronted.

7. You’re alive. Do you remember?

And from Germany, this wonderful campaign for Hornbach. Refreshing, unique, hilarious, and inspiring. They’ve got to the emotional core of what it means to build and create something yourself. To Do-It-yourself.

8. Words I hate

It’s not enough that we have to endure the word disruption in countless presentations and talks from so called Futurists, trendspotters and the like – as if it’s something new. Now we get to enjoy fancy acronyms.

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.

In defence of Nudging

Two articles today got me both inspired and frustrated.

The first is a well written, thought-provoking and balanced paper from the RSA titled Transforming behaviour change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania. It provides greater context around the RSA’s Social Brain project, with much of it focused on the importance of “Reflexivity”

Sociologists identified reflexivity – our capacity to reflect on the conditions of our action, and thereby shape our own lives and identities – as a key component of twentieth century selfhood. The RSA suggests that ‘Neurological reflexivity’ – the capacity to reflect upon and directly to shape our mental processes – may be a key feature of the twenty first – Matthew Taylor

The paper suggests that the RSA want to take a bold step to help make the intricacies of decision-making more transparent – to provide what they term “transformational learning” to help people better understand the various forces that cause us to make the decisions we do. Once we have this knowledge, they argue, we are in a stronger position to make better decisions.

While this seems a noble approach, it rises up like Everest to me. Taking on the very essence of our nature as social animals seems like a herculean task, and I question whether it can be applied at scale and to the broader population.

What I did really appreciate was their much needed caution against Neuroscience, warning against what they term “Neuromania”, and its focus on separating the brain from its inevitable social context – cultural influences, social norms, and other learnings.

However, it was in its criticisms of nudging that I found it less effective. Their main point here is that nudging is not transformative.

Nudge changes the environment in such a way that people change their behaviour, but it doesn’t change people at any deeper level in terms of attitudes, values, motivations etc.

My counter to this is that sometimes it doesn’t need to. Nudging can shrink the change, by making the desired behaviour easy and simple to choose. In these cases, nudging can move people into a new behaviour without necessarily changing attitudes or values. Since people don’t like their beliefs or attitudes to be inconsistent with their actions, they will shift their values and attitudes to fall into line with their new behaviour. I’ve referenced Jon Howard’s excellent presentation on this very subject in an earlier post here. It’s worth checking out.

The second article that I referenced earlier was this one published via Slate (a great magazine with wonderful podcasts by the way). However, this article discussed some of the more common and weaker arguments against nudging of late.

It suggests that benevolent meddling won’t help us make good decisions. But it misses the point. Every day we’re meddled with and nudged in our decisions whether we like it or not. While it’s not the panacea, choice architecture does play a role in our behaviour. From the way products are arranged in a supermarket, to prompts of “want fries with that”, to upgrading to bigger TV’s, or simply copying what those around us do, we’re constantly influenced, nudged and bumped by the things around us. So rather than meddling with our choices, nudging is one tool that helps us fight back and even the odds.

While I’m not suggesting nudge theory will single-handedly solve major behaviour change issues like the obesity crisis, without considering our environment as part of the solution, we’re unlikely to succeed either. Nudging, behavioural economics, the power of the herd can all work together to help people lead healthier lives.

Beyond the Nudging of Thaler and Sunstein, I also find the more general term of nudging useful as it suggests a more natural way of helping people move toward healthier behaviour by going with the flow of human nature. Nudging can help us appreciate that in many cases, the majority of people have the information they need, and already understand they should exercise more and eat better. And in the case of smoking, numerous studies tell us people who smoke want to quit. So it’s important we’re worrying about the right things.

Anything that helps us take that first step toward new and healthier habits is a good thing in my view.

Take this recent example from Massive Health called The Eatery. With over 200,000 photos of food taken in just 1 week, they are making change fun, interesting and social.

Top 11 Sunday reads

My blogging has been a little slack lately – but with a renewed focus, I’m hoping to get going again. I thought I’d kick it off with  an updated list of some of the stuff that has inspired me over the last few weeks. It might be of interest to anyone while enjoying a weekend cuppa.

1. A link to the UK Insights team and their thinking on sustainable development.

2. The Fearless Cottage blog is an “informal clubhouse” for inspired and fresh thinkers. Led by Alex Bogusky (co-founder of Common), you can catch up on how the latest generation of concerned citizens are helping drive a new era in sustainability.

3. The Guardian Sustainability blog is always a great resource

4. Great list of top 10 links on green behaviour change initiatives

5. The Natural Change Project is a fascinating report documenting the efforts by the 2011 WWF team (Scotland) to cultivate new leaders in sustainability. Nicely presented as well.

6. This article from Wired talks about how we’re inherently social animals. The influence of others change how we tell stories about the past.

7. Via the International Journal of Advertising, this is a wonderful article by Faris Yakob outlining some great books for anyone interested in marketing, communications and a deeper understanding of human behaviour.

8. The British Psychological Society’s report on the psychological impacts of childhood obesity

9. Check out The Guardian’s new and very clever Twitter-based search assistant – @GuardianTagBot. As they say “It’s rather like playing fetch with our articles, videos, galleries and audio.” I’ve tried it – works quite nicely.

10. I wrote about Chipotle’s wonderful work on an earlier post. Here’s a follow up – again, wonderful storytelling. It’s great to see a brand with a clear purpose. You can find more at www.cultivatefoundation.org

 

11. And finally…A wonderful video on Beauty – part of The Feynman Series.

White-coat syndrome and why environment matters


It’s great to see the growing appreciation of why context and environment matters in driving behaviour change.

And perhaps one of the better demonstrations of how our environment affects us in big and emotional ways is through what’s known as white-coat syndrome. This is a tendency for people’s blood pressure to rise when in a doctor’s office. It can affect about 20 to 25 per cent of patients (me included). What’s worse, if the doctor doesn’t consider this phenomenon, it can lead to incorrect diagnosis and unnecessary treatment for hypertension. But if the doctor is aware, steps can be taken to either take the elevated readings into consideration, or adopt different approaches that seek to relax the patient.

The lesson here is that without taking the impact of the environment into account, the wrong conclusion – and solution – can be adopted. If we don’t see the bigger picture when it comes to changing behaviour, millions of dollars can be wasted around the world trying to get people to adopt healthier activities. As argued by Philip Graves in Consumer.ology and Faris Yakob in his Uncovering Hidden Persuaders paper, we give too much weight to the power of attitudes. The evidence suggests that while attitudes might help indicate our intentions, they don’t always reflect what we do. This is because so much of our behaviour depends on the context – the who or what that surrounds us.

When we start to walk in the shoes of our audience, and understand how the things around them impact how they feel and what they do, we start asking the right questions, observe more deeply and challenge how we use research. This leads to inspired thinking, insights and ideas that have the potential to make a tangible difference. The positive examples are endless, but here’s a few that grabbed my attention recently.

  • A shopping cart nudge that understands the shopping environment and powers of social norms to give us a little bump.
  • A solution in healthcare that I wrote about a few weeks back
  • An approach out of Kenya aimed at getting bus drivers to reduce their reckless driving
  • A workplace safety solution highlighted in Switch by the Heath Brothers. It encouraged more workers to wear safety glasses – not by hammering away with an awareness message – but by replacing the glasses with designs that were  less embarrassing and almost cool
  • Malcolm Gladwell’s presentation on how the wearing of seatbelts were finally normalized in the US.

Understanding our environment, how we interact with it, and how it changes what we think, feel and do can lead to powerful solutions. It can serve us well as we tackle some of the biggest behavioural challenges of our society today – from obesity, smoking rates, binge drinking and much more…