Conformity is irresistible

As perfectly demonstrated in this classic group think experiment from the 60’s, the desire of humans to conform is irresistible.

via Brain Pickings

There continues to be great opportunity to drive positive behaviour change using the power of social norms.

Of course, on the flip side, it brings out the worst in our humanity as well – the mob unleashed.


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 8 sunday reads

Here’s a few of my favourite links and video’s from the past week on all things behaviour change related . And just a suggestion to follow the Twitter streams at #behaviourchange and #behaviorchange for a constant source of inspiration and fresh thinking

1.The Unexamined Society by David Brooks. He reminds us that we’re in the golden age of behavioural research, so we can do better. Hat tip to @carolharnett

2.An essay from Mark Earls, and an extract from Digital Advertising; Past, Present and Future. As the champion of Herd theory, he reminds us again of the power of the social, and why we need get beyond the idea of “influencers” as a driver of behaviour.Via @creativesocial

Too many of us are still using ideas about human behaviour transposed (uncritically) from the old world. Take, for example, the notions about influentials and influence being peddled by the social media gang. On the one hand, the science is quite clear that most human social networks are not structured in the hub-and-stroke way that the influential hypothesis would require; on the other hand, things are a lot messier in the real world on- and offline. Influence is often mutual and many-directional. It’s not a one-way street, like some kind of human-enabled information micro-broadcast system!

3. False Choices. The bright lights of The Big Society.  A challenge to the Big Society, and the challenge that comes from the “paradox of choice”. Via @theRSAorg

4. Another reminder on the impact of our environment in the choices we make. In this case, the power of smell. Hat Tip @johnxkenny

5. A detailed report by the British Psychological Society on Understanding Bipolar Disorder. Available free for download through July

6. Another nicely presented plan by the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team – this one focused on nudging people toward energy efficiency.

7. A reminder of the power of emotional storytelling. Hat tip @anna_planna


8. And for something a little light – some emergency safety advice. Via American Red Cross Oregon Trail Chapter and Failblog. Hat Tip @KarenSnider

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.