All Posts By

Astrid Groenewegen

What is Behavioural Design

By All, Behavioural Science Insights, Citizen Behaviour, Customer Behaviour, Employee behaviour, Personal Behaviour

This blog post is an extended introduction to Behavioural Design. You will get a clear idea about what it is, how you can use it in your professional and personal life to influence minds and shape behaviour, and what you could do to learn more about it. Moreover, this blog post is the perfect entry to most other blogposts we published on the SUE Behavioural Design website.

 

1. Behavioural Design is about influence

How do you influence minds and shape behaviours? How do you change other people’s, as well as your behaviours? How do you help people to make better decisions? Isn’t it strange that the majority of all of our behaviours and communication aims at influencing other people? Yet, at the same time, we have no clue about the principles and laws that govern influence?

 

Behavioural Design is a systematic understanding of how people think and how they make decisions. This understanding forms the basis of thinking about interventions that lead to behavioural change. Maybe you want to influence the behaviour of your partner or children. You might want to influence your colleagues or managers. Some people like to develop a healthy habit for themselves or want to live a more sustainable life. Maybe you want to influence customer behaviour or win elections. No matter what the subject is, you can all think of them as a behavioural design challenge.

 

So what is Behavioural Design? The most pragmatic definition of Behavioural Design we came up with so far is the following:

 

Behavioural Designers combine Psychology, Design, Technology, and Creative Methods to find out why people do the things they do and to figure out through experimentation how to activate them to change their behaviour.

 

2. Behavioural Design is a method

The best way to think about Behavioural Design is to think of it as the combination of Design Thinking with the Science of Influence. Design Thinking is the method through which designers solve problems. Designers start with empathy. Through interviews and observations, they try to “fall in love with the problem”: Why do people do what they do and where could we spot opportunities for improvement? This insight phase forms the groundwork for creativity. First, designers develop as many ideas as possible, and then they prototype the most promising ones. They take the prototypes back to the real world and test them with real people to learn and observe how the prototype influences the targeted behaviour. Design Consultancy Ideo, the godfathers of Design Thinking, explain the process like this:

When you combine the method of design thinking with behavioural science, you will get design thinking on steroids or Behavioural Design Thinking. Because a better understanding of human psychology you will get:

1) Better insights into why people do what they do;
2) Better ideas on where to look for solutions;
3) Better prototypes, because you will have a much sharper understanding of what specific behavioural outcome you’re designing for.

At SUE the essence of what we do is to train the Behavioural Design Method© at our Behavioural Design Academy and at in-company training and we run the Behavioural Design Method© in Behavioural Design Sprints together with our clients.

More about Behavioural Design as method:

Would you like to power up your team or project with behavioural intelligence?

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3. The ethics of Behavioural Design

Behavioural Design is dark wisdom. The difference between positive influence and manipulation is a very fragile line. In the end, we have to be aware that Behavioural Design is about using deliberate action and techniques to influence the behaviour of the other in the direction you want.

The problem is that those who want to design for good quite often feel bad about using dark forces. Whereas those who use this dark wisdom to manipulate and mislead are usually much more motivated, advanced, and have fewer scruples about its application. Think about how extreme-right populists exploit fear and uncertainty, or think about how technology companies use our vanities and our desire for social recognition and belonging to the extent that it leads to (social media) addiction.

The world of interaction design is full of “dark patterns“, which are manipulative ways to present choices to us in such a way that they manipulate us into making a specific decision, whether we want it or not.

 

Doctor Evil

At SUE, we are very sensitive to this ethical component. We even encoded it in our mission. The SUE mission is “to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to help people make better decisions in work, life and play”. Our point of departure for designing interventions for behavioural change always starts with the question, “How might we help people to make better choices? Moreover, how could we create products, services, and experiences to contribute to helping people achieve their goals or dreams? Our commitment to this mission is sacred, even to the point that we refuse to accept work that doesn’t match this mission. You can find more about this way of thinking below at “5. Outside-in Thinking“.

More on the ethical side of Behavioural Design:

4. Behavioural Design is about designing choices

Multiple levels of influence
In a certain sense, the term ‘Behavioural Design’ is a little bit misleading. Behavioural change is the outcome we aim for when we design an intervention. When we want to achieve this outcome, we need to create interventions on multiple levels at the same time:

  1. Design attention: How do you make sure something catches people’s attention?
  2. Trigger curiosity: How do you get people to invest time and mental energy to learn more about what you want from them?
  3. Change the perception: how do you get something to stand out as the attractive option between other choices? How do you design the desired perception?
  4. Design the experience: How do you get someone to have a positive feeling? How can you reduce stress or uncertainty?
  5. Trigger the behaviour: How do you trigger the desired behaviour? How can you increase the chance of success that people act upon your trigger?
  6. Change habits: How can you get people to sustain the behaviour? Most behaviours require much more than a one-time action. Think about saving, living healthy, exercising, recycling, collaborating, etc.

Thinking fast and slow

This simple list of influence levels teaches us that:

Behavioural Design is all about how we design choices and how we present those choices.

Behavioural Design has everything to do with human decision-making and how the brain works. The cornerstone of human decision-making is the masterpiece “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Kahneman and Tversky. This book – awarded with the Noble Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2002 – is the fascinating journey of the collaboration between two Israeli psychologists and their discoveries of how the mind works. This book is the ultimate work on thinking about thinking.

Kahneman and Tversky discovered that about 96% of our thinking is automatic and unconscious. Our brain is making most of the decisions for us by taking shortcuts – which they call heuristics -, with the goal of not having to invoke the 4% bandwidth of our slow, rational brain. In a way:

Influencing behaviour comes down to helping people to decide without having to think. Because the more we need to think about something, the more stress we get, the less we end up making choices.

Since 2018, we now have a second psychologist in the ranks of noble prize winners. Richard Thaler built upon the work of Kahneman and Tversky and zoomed in on how to make use of System 1-System2 thinking to nudge people into better decision-making in wealth, health, and happiness.

 

Our hard-wired tendency to persuade

When it comes to our attempts to influence minds and shape behaviours, our biggest fallacy is that we always tend to persuade the other with rational arguments. The problem with persuasion is two-fold:

  1. Persuasion evokes system 2-thinking, and we don’t like that. When you try to persuade someone, you want them to think about your argument. Thinking complicates things.
  2. System 2 is the little slave of system 1: we only accept rational arguments or facts when they align with how we already think about matters. You can only persuade someone who’s already convinced.

The real challenge is to make a decision making extremely easy. More about designing choices:

Want to learn how to design behaviour?

Join our two-day Fundamentals Course and master a hands-on method to use behavioural science to develop ideas that change minds and shape behaviour.

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5. Behavioural Designers think ‘outside-in’

When we try to influence minds and shape behaviour, the most common mistake we make is to think inside-out. We take the benefits of our product or service as our point of departure, and we try to figure out how we could pitch those benefits so that people would realize the value of what we have to offer. Behavioural Designers work the other way around.

We take the human behind the customer as our focal point, and we try to figure out what this human needs to be successful.

Which anxieties, doubts, prejudices or bad habits he holds stand in the way of embracing the desired behaviour or which pains or frustrations we could solve for him.

The SUE | Influence Framework©

We developed the SUE | Influence Framework© as a tool to do outside-in thinking systematically,. This model brings all the forces to the surface that influence the behaviour of the people for whom we need to design interventions. The Influence Framework© consists of five questions we need to answer to understand why people do what they do and how to get them to act:

  1. Job-To-Be-Done: What is the underlying goal for which people would have to embrace the new behaviour? How might we align the desired behaviour with goals that matter to them?
  2. Pains: What are possible frustrations and pains in their current behaviour, for which we need to come up with a solution?
  3. Gains: What are the benefits we have, compared with their current solutions?
  4. Anxieties: What are anxieties, doubts, prejudices or other barriers that prevent someone from embracing the new behaviour?
  5. Habits: Which habits keep them locked in their current behaviour?

Finding the answers to these questions will provide you with a blueprint of where to spot opportunities for behavioural change. In this video, you can find a brief explainer of the SUE | Influence Framework©.

 

More about outside-in thinking:

6. Behavioural Designers work with principles from the science of influence

The next step in the Behavioural Design Method© is about turning a deep understanding of the forces that explain people’s behaviours, into ideas for behavioural change.  These are two different games. Whereas the SUE | Influence Framework© uncovers the unconsciousness of people, is this part about applying principles from the science of influence to come up with solutions on how to change behaviour. We have developed a helpful tool for this: the SUE | SWAC Tool©:

It is foremost a very easy-to-use tool. It explains which four pieces of the puzzle you need to solve to create a context that will persuade someone into doing something and to have them keep doing it. What makes the tool so easy to use in practice, is that anytime you want to design for behavioural change, all you have to do is ask yourself four simple questions:

  1. How can we make sure someone WANTS to perform the new behaviour?
  2. How can we make sure someone CAN perform the new behaviour?
  3. How can we SPARK new behaviour at the moments that matter?
  4. How can we activate this new behaviour AGAIN and again?

 

When the new behaviour does not happen, at least one of those four elements is missing. The most important implication of this is that by using the SUE | SWAC Tool© as a guide you can quickly identify what stops people from performing the behaviours that you seek.

If a sufficient degree of capability (CAN) to perform a behaviour is matched with the willingness (WANT) to engage in that behaviour, all that is then needed for the behaviour to occur is to set someone into action (SPARK) at the Moments that Matter.

Maybe you notice that in the tool it says moments that matter. Not one moment, but moments. As we learned, behavioural change doesn’t happen overnight. Most of the times someone needs to be reminded of the desired behaviour more than once for it to happen in the first place. Furthermore, behaviour becomes easier when repeated. Therefore, we have to make sure we SPARK someone AGAIN and again to activate the desired behaviour. So, you need to design several interventions at multiple moments that matter. In practice your intervention strategy will look something like this:

The objective of most intervention strategies is to not only to change behaviour, but to change this new behaviour into a routine behaviour (a habit), so the new behaviour will stick.

Often your desired behaviour is new behaviour for people and that’s why it is important to spark behaviour AGAIN and again. Only then the behaviour will take place, as illustrated above as the BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE THRESHOLD. When your objective is to design repeat behaviour, it almost goes without saying that you have to make sure the desired behaviour is performed repeatedly. If you can make someone perform new behaviour over and over AGAIN, it can become automatic.

7. Behavioural Designers research, prototype, test

The more familiar you get with how the brain works and how influence works, the more you become aware that human behaviour obeys a different kind of logic than formal logic. Rory Sutherland calls this “psycho-logic” in his brilliant book Alchemy.

The way people make decisions is highly context-sensitive. These decisions are full of stories they tell themselves and full of irrational beliefs they hold. Furthermore, even the slightest difference in how something is framed can dramatically affect how people perceive the meaning. When an English native speaker says they think something is “interesting”, it usually means precisely the opposite. Whereas a non-native Dutch audience would think “interesting” means what they think it means.

The importance of doing the research yourself

That’s why research and prototyping are so important. Before you come up with an idea for behavioural change, you first need to fall in love with the problem. You observe or interview humans and try to put yourself in their shoes. You’ll be surprised about how many thoughts and beliefs you hold are projections of your limited worldview onto the world of the target audience you want to influence.

Prototyping and testing are all about finding out which variation of your intervention has the highest potential to design perception, attention, curiosity, experience, behaviour or habit. Even with the clearest of insights, you can still develop an intervention that ultimately misses its desired effect. What you thought your intervention was supposed to trigger sometimes triggers the exact opposite.

More about prototyping and testing:

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

Then our two-day Fundamentals Course is the perfect training for you. You will learn the latest insights from behavioural science and get easy-to-use tools and templates to apply these in practice right away!

Download the brochure

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

8. Domains of Behavioural Design

The number of applications for Behavioural Design is endless. Because in the end, most of the things we do as humans aim at influencing the behaviour of others. You can apply it from managing teams to the design of products. Or from getting people to buy products to changing the way they perceive a service or experience. And from the creation of financial habits, personal habits and healthy habits till the raising of children. At SUE, we’re particularly fascinated by six specific domains for behavioural change:

  • customer behaviour (product, marketing, sales)
  • citizen behaviour (government/society)
  • financial behaviour (financial independence)
  • voter behaviour (politics and government)
  • self-improvement (personal development)
  • team-behaviour (organisational design)

Most of our blogs and our weekly newsletter “Behavioural Design Digest” is about one of these topics.

 

9. Start to learn more about Behavioural Design

Now you have a deeper understanding about what Behavioural Design and how you can apply the Behavioural Design Method to influence minds and shape behaviour, there’s a couple of next steps you can take to learn more about the method:

  1. Subscribe to our weekly newsletter Behavioural Design Digest, in which we take a closer look at how influence works in daily life.
  2. Subscribe to one of the upcoming editions of our Behavioural Design Academy courses and master the SUE | Behavioural Design Method© to create next-generation, people-centred products, services, campaigns or policies.
  3. Book in-company training for your team and learn the method while applying it to a critical business challenge for your organisation.
  4. Hire SUE to run a Behavioural Design Sprint to fast-track your innovation, transformation or growth by leveraging behavioural science to develop people-centred products, services, campaign or policies with an evidence-based approach.
  5. Book SUE for a keynote or workshop (contact us).
  6. Check or frequently asked questions and discover answers to questions you didn’t even know you had.

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

Behavioural Design Week: Matt Wallaert

By All, Employee behaviour

Our final keynote speaker at Behavioural Design Week 2021 was Baptiste Tougeron. As a Google Research Manager, he is responsible for ad effectiveness. During his session, he presented the most read whitepaper of Google worldwide: Decoding decisions. He talked about the messy decision process and how behavioural science can supercharge the attractiveness of brands. A must-see if you work in branding, marketing and advertising.

Behavioural Design Week: Matt Wallaert

The first speaker on Behavioural Design Week was most certainly not the least. If you are looking for an hour filled with inspiration on applying behavioural science within your organisation, this is the keynote you don’t want to miss. In a wave of unstoppable energy, Matt shares the four steps needed for running a successful behavioural change project. He shares the don’t and don’ts combined with lots of humour—Matt shares how you can genuinely apply behavioural science. Learn from Matt’s experiences and get practical guidelines to get into the action yourself.

How to set-up a Behavioural Change Project
Behavioural Design Week 2021

Matt Wallaert: Our key take-aways

Matt explains there are four steps in a behavioural change project:

Behavioural strategy
What is the desired behaviour? What do you want people to do? Translate this into a Behavioural Statement with clear OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), so you can make people accountable; it is not one person’s task to run a successful behavioural change project. Everyone’s job is behaviour; everything can be linked to behaviour.

Behavioural Insight
Our job is to build a bridge between a world that is and a world that isn’t. We need to understand which bridge to build. Why is this a desirable outcome? Why don’t we already have this outcome (bottlenecks)? You need to look for emerging patterns and need cross-validation. I see this in qualitative research; do you also see this through your quantitative lens.

Behavioural Design
We start imagining interventions. All we do is changing the pressures or the environment and making behaviour easier or harder to do.

Behavioural Impact Evaluation
You need to measure the impact of your interventions. However, we are in applied behavioural science, not academic, behavioural science. You have to have some basic fluidity about the probability. In academia, p can be less than .5. This holds not true in business. If we can find a solution that can save some people’s lives, well, that’s a win. Maybe not scientifically significant, but essential.

Matt Wallaert: Quotes to remember

Science is a process, behaviour is an outcome.

Everyone’s job is behaviour, everything can be linked to behaviour.

Accountability allows for autonomy.

Our job is to build a a bridge between a world that is and a world that isn’t.

You need cross validation. Take a qualitative belief and validate it quantative.

We are not in academic behavioural science but in applied behavioural science.

Matt Wallaert: Further reading

If Matt’s talk inspired you, please make sure to pick up his book ‘Start at the End: How to build products that create change’. We finished reading it in one fellow swoop, and it has become one of our favourite readings.

Hungry for more Behavioural Design Fest?

Please make sure to check out our other videos of other 2021 Keynote speakers on Behavioural Design Week: Tim Versnel on designing behaviour for sustainability and Baptiste Tougeron on using behavioural science for more effective advertising.

Or, check out our upcoming edition of Behavioural Design Fest.

Also, you can find all the videos of the keynotes of Behavioural Design Fest 2018 and Behavioural Design Fest 2019; watch and re-watch here to upgrade your Behavioural Design know-how and boost your inspiration.

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

Then our two-day Fundamentals Course is the perfect training for you. You will learn the latest insights from behavioural science and get easy-to-use tools and templates to apply these in practice right away!

Download the brochure

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

Behavioural Design Week: Baptiste Tougeron

By All, Customer Behaviour

Our final keynote speaker at Behavioural Design Week 2021 was Baptiste Tougeron. As a Google Research Manager, he is responsible for ad effectiveness. During his session, he presented the most read whitepaper of Google worldwide: Decoding decisions. He talked about the messy decision process and how behavioural science can supercharge the attractiveness of brands. A must-see if you work in branding, marketing and advertising.

Behavioural Design Week: Baptiste Tougeron

Purchase decision-making is not a linear process. Between the purchase trigger and the purchase, customers are exposed to much information, like reviews or social media. The Google research team tried to uncover how customers process all this information and make decisions between the purchase trigger and the purchase itself. The call it “The messy middle”.

Behavioural Design for Advertising Effectiveness
Behavioural Design Week 2021

Baptiste Tougeron: Our key take-aways

Key-take away 1: Organise the messy middle:
Between the purchase trigger and the purchase, we can identify two ’mental modes’. The Exploration Mode and the Evaluation Mode.

While the Exploration Mode expands our consideration set, the Evaluation Mode narrows down our options. People oscillate through these two mental modes, repeating them as often as they need to make a purchase decision. These two mental processes can run simultaneously or apart, but they are two distinctive processes.

Key Take-Away 2: Supercharge the brand with cognitive biases
Now that there is some order in the messy middle, we need to know how shoppers process the information. During the process of Exploration and Evaluation, cognitive biases shape their behaviour and influence their choice. In the research, six cognitive biases are prioritised:

  1. The Power of Free
  2. Social Norms
  3. Authority Bias
  4. The Power of Now
  5. Category Heuristics
  6. Security Bias 

Important conclusions to keep in mind:

  • Ensure brand presence, simply showing up can impact customer decision making when they are exploring and evaluating. (This is called the Mere Exposure Effect)
  • Intelligently (and responsibly) employ behavioural science principles to influence the decision-making process
  • Close the gap between trigger and purchase.

Baptiste Tougeron: Quotes to remember

“Purchase decision-making is not a linear process”.

“I would like to think of the messy middle as a big spaghetti plate”.

“The cool thing about behavioural science, if you put the theory into practice in different countries, the brain remains to work very similarly.”

“We are not done. We still have to explore ‘exposure’ and ‘experience’, so lookout for new research and results in 2022”.

“Playing with the six cognitive biases is not easy. You cannot choose to supercharge your brand just like that. Some biases you can influence yourself, others need to be acquired”.

Baptiste Tougeron: Further reading

Want to know more about untangling the messy middle? Make sure to read the white paper by Google, which can be found here.

 

Hungry for more Behavioural Design Fest?

Please make sure to check out our other videos of other 2021 Keynote speakers on Behavioural Design Week: Tim Versnel on designing behaviour for sustainability and Matt Wallaert who shares his experience in setting up a Behavioural Change Project within an organisation.

Or, check out our upcoming edition of Behavioural Design Fest.

Also, you can find all the videos of the keynotes of Behavioural Design Fest 2018 and Behavioural Design Fest 2019; watch and re-watch here to upgrade your Behavioural Design know-how and boost your inspiration.

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

Then our two-day Fundamentals Course is the perfect training for you. You will learn the latest insights from behavioural science and get easy-to-use tools and templates to apply these in practice right away!

Download the brochure

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

Six rules for designing your happiness

By All, Employee behaviour, Personal Behaviour

If there is one thing we as humans all want more control over, it is our own happiness. Thousands of self-help books have been written, bought and earmarked. Maybe one of the pieces of advice you have come across is this quote: ‘You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with’. From a behavioural science point of view, this is intriguing, as behaviour is strongly influenced by context. We all act and react to what happens around us. Can we learn from behavioural science what kind of people we must surround ourselves with? How can we influence our context to trigger behaviours that make us flourish as human beings? Or to go beyond this: How do these insights transfer to a business context? Can it help create better performing teams and more motivated talent? This blog post will give some answers from a Behavioural Design point of view.

Happiness: The five people you hang around with

You probably have heard or read it before that we as humans are hard-wired as social animals. When we grow up, we learn the values, norms, and desired behaviours by looking at others and adapting to them. We feel better when we fit in a group. We prefer inertia, but one of the key motivators for us to spring into action is when our group is threatened by another group. That’s why the ‘creating an enemy’ tactic is so vital in getting people on your side in, for instance, winning political votes. At one point or another, we all have been influenced by social proof to buy, book or belief something. From a happiness point of view, this also has a strong effect on us. You could say that:

Our quality of life equals our quality of relationships.

However, there is this interesting paradox. At the same time, we all live in an identity economy. We are constantly searching to answer that one question: ‘Who am I?’ and we repeatedly do and say things to establish our identity. This is not surprising as most of us were raised for autonomy. It is a merit to be independent, make our own decisions, have self-motivation, and have high expectations of our ability to direct our own lives. Happiness isn’t an option anymore; it is a mandate or almost a right to be.

You probably have been looking for ways to be happy yourself once or twice. If that’s the case, I better put it to you straight: behavioural research has shown that looking for happiness has no use at all. Reading all those self-help books, turning inwards, and searching for your inner purpose: Won’t do the trick. This doesn’t mean we cannot be happy; we simply must first understand ourselves a bit better. We need to understand the psychology of happiness.

Designing happiness: predicting our happiness

If we want to be happy, one of the first things we need to look into is our ability to predict what makes us happy. Let me ask you a question: Suppose you won a lottery, and 1 million euros are transferred to your checking account. Now imagine a completely different scenario. This time you had the unfortunate experience to be involved in a traffic accident that made you paralysed from the hips down. After a year, if I ask you what is your level of happiness? Is it the same in both scenarios or is one higher than the other? I suppose, you think your happiness level will look something like this: as a fortunate lottery winner you picture yourself being far happier than as a unfortunate paraplegic.

What if I tell you these are the wrong data? Daniel Gilbert PhD, professor at the Harvard Department of Psychology, researched this, and these were the correct data:

There was hardly any difference in happiness levels after a year. This was a profound insight into the psychology of happiness. Daniel Gilbert discovered that we all have a psychological immune system that helps us handle setbacks and prevents our happiness from being negatively influenced. It shelters us from the worst effects of misfortune.

This is important as this study has shown that we are not good at forecasting our responses to emotional incidents. We typically overestimate how long we will be unhappy after a negative incident, which, in turn, affects our behaviour and decision-making. According to Daniel Gilbert, PhD:

We underestimate how quickly our feelings are going to change in part because we underestimate our ability to change them; this can lead us to make decisions that don’t maximise our potential for satisfaction.

You can see how this may affect our happiness, or as Daniel Kahneman, PhD, who conducts research on decision-making and wellbeing, said:

What people tend to do is either avoid decisions, or they build in securities by over-relying on freedom of choice. If you have more options, this gives us the feeling of having more room to escape. However, behavioural research has also shown that having more options tends to have adverse effects on the quality of our decision-making. We often tend to pay more for more options, but this is a waste of money from a happiness point of view.

Designing happiness: what makes us happy?

But there is more. We now know that we are not good at predicting our happiness, but that doesn’t tell us what makes us happy. Behavioural science has something fascinating to say about this, too, as we have another psychological mechanism know as hedonic adaptation, also known as the hedonic treadmill. It refers to the human inclination to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes.

You can compare it to a treadmill as even if a runner is running, he (or she) stays at the same place. If you do something you love or like the joy you get from it levels out. We all return to our happiness baseline. The mechanism helps us cope with unpleasant experiences but it also is a killer for joy. Happiness doesn’t last.

Maybe, you are now a bit discouraged if you can indeed design a happy life. You can. If there is one element that drives our happiness that researchers found repeatedly, it is curiosity. When we are open to new experiences, when we cherish the unknown, when we are inquisitive, it has been shown that we tend to hover above the happiness baseline for a more extended period. We can even shift our baseline a bit upwards.

Designing happiness: the freedom security paradox

This brings us back to the paradox we started out with our innate need to be socially connected and independent. This paradox starts to make sense when we want to design our happiness. Esther Perel once said we all have two human needs: security and freedom. You could say we all balance between change and stability all the time. You need your freedom as it drives that so much needed imagination, playfulness, curiosity. However, it is much easier to change if you can jump of a stable foundation of people who are committed to your wellbeing.

It is also much easier to be curious if you are inspired by interesting people. In fact, if we get disconnected from people, we can experience all forms of stress: despair, sadness, exhaustion, confusion. Just think back at the Covid lockdown; these were all emotions people have genuinely experienced and suffered from. This leads up to a fascinating Behavioural Design challenge:

How can we design behaviour that makes us feel connected, curious, and playful?

This is also where our personal happiness and work happiness come together: the same behavioural interventions can work for both. In both situations, you are a human in a relationship with other humans. Losing the other is losing yourself.

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Designing happiness advice 1:
Create an interdependent context.

Maybe the most critical shift we need to make is a shift in our context. We need to design a context that is shaped for inter-reliance or inter-dependence. Make it okay to be dependent on each other. You can be playful and imaginative if you are not afraid that you will be judged. If you can rely on each other this creates collective resilience sparking the willingness to try new things. To accomplish this, you need to design for psychological safety. This is a shared belief held by team members (or partners) that it is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.

Research has shown that this builds team efficacy, learning and performance. But psychological safety also helps to establish stable relationships. It creates the courage to speak up no matter how you feel about yourself, you will open up about your struggles, and it helps you take a step toward what you want. It also helps you propose new plans and experiment together. Some tangible behaviours that lead up to psychological safety:

  • Be understanding: Summarise, use language like ‘Do I understand it correctly that you want.
  • Avoid blaming: Don’t say: ‘Why did this happen?’ or ‘Why did you do this?’, but ‘How can we make sure to make this better next time?’
  • Avoid negative: Don’t use negative words; it creates an interpersonal culture of rejection.
  • Manage speaking time: Making sure everyone can speak in an equal amount.
  • Explain decisions: you don’t need to have a democracy in everything, but it helps to explain a decision.
  • Be engaged: Make eye contact, don’t use phones in conversations, be present.

Designing happiness advice 2:
Surround yourself with complementarity.

This is where the five people that you surround yourself comes in. If you look back at the first intervention, you can imagine that:

Interdepend roles create strength.

So, look around those five people. Are they different from you? Do they complete you? Do you get energy from them, or do they suck the living daylights out of you? It maybe feels safer to hang out with like-minded people, but it can be very inspirational to talk and meet with people with different experiences and opinions. Some tangible behaviours:

  • Plan a meeting with someone who has a different opinion.
  • Make a list of the five people who could compliment you and schedule meetings with them.

Designing happiness advice 3:
Have a prototyping mindset.

What holds us back from being curious is the lack of courage to do new things. We know from behavioural science that it is crucial to believe in yourself. If you don’t have confidence, you struggle in your relationships, and you don’t feel very happy at work, you don’t cope well with stress, which causes you to lack motivation or energy. On the other hand, research has shown that having confidence can help you set boundaries, find balance in your work and private life, improve performance at work through better concentration and commitment to tasks.

This again affects whether we dare to engage in experiences that might feel uncertain or can be risky. Expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behaviour will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. A great behavioural design intervention is to build confidence is to establish a prototyping mindset.

If you look at everything you do as an experiment, you cannot fail only learn.

Everything new is not likely to give us courage but approaching life, and new ventures as one big experiment builds trust in yourself. It’s the fuel for our curiosity engine.

Designing happiness advice 4:
Build respect and recognition.

Most relationships start to fail, both in your work and private life when you don’t feel valued anymore. We all have an innate need for respect and recognition. When we have the feeling we are not valued anymore, we cut ourselves loose. There is a straightforward behavioural intervention to make people feel valued. It is giving compliments.

There is more to it: a study from 2012 suggests that receiving praise helps our brain remember and repeat the skill when we try out a new skill. One-third of participants received compliments for their own performance, one third received for another participant’s performance, and the others received no compliments. The next day, the group that received praise for their own performance performed better on the task than the others.

Another benefit of giving compliments is that it can affirm desired behaviours, which can be helpful not only in your work but also in maintaining stable friendships or romantic relationships.

Designing happiness advice 5:
Be as pleasant at home as you are with your clients.

 

It may seem like an open door but be honest, have you have ever caught yourself changing your behaviour as soon as you got home? Whereas you could be interested, caring and curious in client conversations at home, you stop asking genuine questions to find out how your life partner is doing. You probably have heard about the seven-year itch. Well, in fact, research has shown you are actually dealing with a three-year itch. After three years, we think we know everything about our partner: what he she/likes, what he she/does. But do you? You’re not together for the most part of the day, so your partner does have new experiences, thoughts and dreams, perhaps. A simple behavioural intervention is to keep asking questions. Be interested. Do you have your phone in your hand when you’re talking to an important client or your boss? No. Treat your life partner or teammate with the same respect.

Designing happiness advice 6:
Leave your devices behind.

 

This makes an easy cross-over to this behavioural intervention. If you want to build a meaningful relationship with someone, both at work and at home, make sure you are engaged. Make eye contact, turn off that phone, don’t look at your laptop when you are in a conversation. This builds trust and respect that is needed to get playful, curious and experimental. Looking to improving your sex life? Leave the communication devices out of the bedroom!

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Summary: How to design happiness

Pursuing happiness is not an abstract matter and, most of all, not a matter of heavy, introspective labour. By using behavioural science, we can carefully design a context that balances our need for freedom and security. Both essential ingredients for a happy life. Our job is to make sure that the pendulum between the two doesn’t snap. We thrive and feel alive in social connection that sparks curiosity. These are the main drivers of our happiness. We need to rely more on each other. If we can stay connected, curious and playful, all our relationships will thrive. Some very simple behavioural interventions can help us design a context that helps us do so. And remember, you cannot always be happy, but you can always be curious.

Astrid Groenewegen

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Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Behavioural economics 101: We’re only human.

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

Behavioural economics, maybe you have asked yourself once or twice, what’s all the fuss about? Why is everybody talking about us not being rational and capable of making good decisions all of a sudden? Is Behavioural Design something you should add to your competence gamma, and if yes, why so? This is a short introduction to behavioural economics. Meant to bring you up-to-speed with what everybody seems to be talking about right now in a simple way. In fact, I could summarise what’s in it for you in one sentence: 

If you want more control over successful outcomes, you have to understand you are dealing with humans, not econs. 

 

behavioural Design

The difference between economics and behavioural economics

Okay, I admit this sounds vague without any background. Basically, it comes down to a difference in paradigm on decision-making between economists and psychologists that gave birth to a beautiful cross-over between the two: behavioural economics (also known as behavioural psychology). What is it all about?

Let’s start with a problem we have probably all faced. Many new products, ventures, policies or innovations of any kind fail because they don’t take a deep understanding of human decision-making into account. They are inside-out, not inside-in driven. Therefore, innovations are often technological high-end, make things more cost-effective or offer different unique selling points, but they don’t start at the end. How do people choose for your offering? What psychological effects does pricing have? What’s, is the impact of social influence? Does the way we display products or frame policies affect decision-making? Which unconscious psychological forces influence our decision-making? Do those forces make objective sense?

According to an economist, the answer is:

  • Decision-making is rational.
  • People make a cost-benefit analysis.
  • The utility is a critical driver of any choice we make.

However, if you have ever had any regret after purchase or not making a purchase, you know that economist rule out one crucial factor: emotion. Emotions from within and emotions attached to what we think others think or expect from us. We are not 100% rational (or econs); we are filled with emotions and sometimes make decisions that are a far cry from most optimal for ourselves or our future.

Behavioural economics put emotions into the economic equation.

Bounded rationality: critical concept of behavioural economics

Furthermore, economists propose people always have all information at hand to make informed decisions. But is that true? First of all, we are bombarded with information all day long via multiple channels and media. No sane person can process all this rationally. Secondly, do we truly have all information to make informed decisions, for example, about our future? This is where we really have to make crucial decisions, after all. Buying an ice cream is not so hard but deciding upon your mortgage or pension plan is a whole different ballgame. Do you have all the information at hand to make a 100% rational decision here?

For example, do you know exactly your income level in 5, 10 or 15 years? Do you know what the inflation ratio will be in the same periods? Do you know what your health level will be like? Will you be able to work full-time, part-time or be out of work?

Rationality requires completeness of information, computational abilities, consistency in decision-making and cognitive skills (ability to think through a problem unemotionally). No human scores 100% on all these factors. So, what do we do when faced with a decision? We rely on short-cuts and social cues in our context and past experiences. We are only human, after all.

Taking the human, so-called bounded-rational part of us into the decision equation is what behavioural economics is all about.

Behavioural economists have researched and unlocked these human tendencies for years. Behavioural Designers take this behavioural science to design environments that help shape positive behaviours and choices of people. In fact, by using the exact science and combining it with design and creativity, we can create tangible products, services, policies, or organisations that help people make better decisions for their health, wealth and happiness.

Behavioral Design is applied behavioural economics.

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Behavioural economics: a game of choice architecture

One final note: How can we design environments that shape positive behaviours and better choices? Often, we think we need disclosure. Make sure you provide people with all the required information to help them make their informed decision. Unfortunately, that again is an econ approach to matters. Even if you help people with the information they need for a particular decision, we as humans often don’t use it. Most of the times, we know what is good for us but don’t act upon it.

For example, we all know exercising is good for us, and I guess we have all made a plan to do some form of exercise one day or the other, but most of us either started and stopped or are still procrastinating. This is known as the planning-action gap or intention-action gap. This is not new, of course, as we see in general three tools being applied to get humans into action:

  1. Restrictions (you cannot buy alcohol under the age of 18)
  2. Incentives (if your child attends school five days a week, you will get more child support)
  3. Selling (convincing people by telling them about benefits or USPs)

Behavioural Designers use another tool: choice architecture. We take humans and a deep understanding of their decision-making processes as a starting point to design a context that triggers better choices and behaviours. We do it using our SUE | Behavioural Design Method©, a highly structured, practical approach to turn human insights into strategies and ideas that influence better choices and shape positive behaviours. Basically, turning the breakthrough science of human behaviour into practical applications. What this results in, you can check out on our success stories page.

Summary: What’s behavioural economics all about

For now, I just want to wrap it up with the three things to remember when designing better choices and behaviours:

  1. You are dealing with humans, not econs
  2. Humans use cues in their context to make decisions
  3. You need to be aware of the intention-action gap

Taking these three principles as starting point already jumpstarts you in thinking as a behavioural designer. And understanding what all the fuss about behavioural economics is about (and how important it is to get a grip on success).

 

Astrid Groenewegen

 

Cover visual by Red with the Red Hat on Unsplash.

BONUS: free ebook 'Behavioural Economics: the Basics'

Especially for you we've created a free eBook 'Behavioural Economics: the basics'. For you to keep at hand, so you can start using the insights from this blog post whenever you want—it is a little gift from us to you.

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Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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How to make better financial decisions: mental accounting

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

Did you know we treat money differently depending on where it comes from, where it is kept, or how we label it? In this blog post, I want to introduce you to the concept of mental accounting. A fascinating psychological phenomenon affecting many of our financial behaviours, such as the way we spent and save money or value things for which we’ve paid money. Understanding more about mental accounting could help us design better financial decisions and behaviours. And understand why some people seem to make financial decisions that don’t always seem to make sense or be in their best interest.

Mental accounting: How humans violate the economic theory

Why mental accounting is so fascinating is that it simply explains why 1 euro isn’t always 1 euro. From an economic theory perspective, this might sound foolish. The value of 1 euro and another euro on the same day is equal. We have a whole international money rate system in place that can tell you the exact worth of your euro at any precise point in time. In four digits. Also, economists believe that it shouldn’t matter if you have a 100-euro banknote or five 20-euro banknotes. It is the same amount of money, and you will spend it the same way; after all, they are exchangeable. However, psychological research has shown that humans often violate this rational approach to money. 

This works may be easiest explained by an example described in the landmark paper of Richard Thaler (1), the author of the influential book ‘Nudge‘ and a Nobel prize laureate. Let’s say you have bought a ticket to a concert and it cost you 50 euros. You made your way to the concert venue, you have dressed up nicely, you have arranged a babysitter, and if you say so yourself: you look good. You are more than ready for the evening out that you have anticipated for weeks. You get to the entrance, reach into your pocket to find out that you have seemed to have lost your ticket. After going through all the stages of grief: denial, pain, anger, depression, acceptance, finally, hope kicks in as you see the ticket booth is still open. You quickly head over to the ticket booth to find out you don’t get your ticket reimbursed but have to pay another 50-euro for a new ticket, which is luckily still available.

Okay, same scenario, but just a bit different. You want to see that same concert, again you dress up nicely, sprayed on a bit of cologne because it is a special night out, after all, the same babysitter is there to attend to your kids, and you head over to the concert venue. When you go over to the ticket booth to buy yourself a ticket, you realise the 50-euro banknote you had put in your pocket to pay for the ticket fell out. After almost panicky going through all your pockets, reality sinks in. The 50 euros are gone. Luckily, the time tickets are still available; you have to get out another 50 euros to buy the ticket. 

The interesting question is would you do so in both situations? From an economist perspective, the exact same situation: You have lost 50 euros, and you have to pay another 50 euros to attend the concert. So, there shouldn’t be a difference in the decision you make. However, Thaler’s research found that people in the first scenario are far more likely not to buy a second ticket, whereas people in the second scenario do. 

If you lose cash, it turns out you’re willing to buy a ticket. If you lose a ticket, you do not want to buy a second ticket.

Mental accounting: What is it, and how do people do it?

Mental accounting explains this story. What is mental accounting? It is the idea that people tend to label money. And the moment you label money differently, it gets spent differently. 

People tend to label money. And the moment you label money differently, it gets spent differently.

 So, how do people mentally account? Well, there are several different ways in which people put money into different psychological categories: 

  1. You could mentally account by purpose. You can allocate money to a specific product or service, or objective. This is what happened with the concert ticket. It was assigned to the concert, losing the ticket felt we had lost out on the concert in our mental account. You think you are already in the ‘red’. You are not going to make it worse by spending even more money on the same product. But allocating money to savings is another way to mentally account by purpose.
  2. You could mentally account by time. You could say I will spend X amount per week or budget that many euros each month.
  3. You could mentally account as a function of how you have earned money. If you have put in many hours of hard work to make your money, you will spend it differently if you have earned it by winning a lottery. 

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Mental accounting: The sunk cost effect

Let’s take a look at another way mental accounting influences our behaviour. Let’s get back to the concert. Let’s say you have the ticket, only this time there is a difference in how you acquired that ticket. In the first scenario, you have prepaid for it; in the second scenario, the ticket was a gift. Imagine this situation, on the evening of the concert, there is this raging blizzard storm, and the concert is a two-hour drive away from your home. Would you go to the concert in both scenarios? If you would rationally think about it, you wouldn’t go in both situations. It is much safer to snuggle up comfortably on your couch. However, most people who have prepaid the ticket will make an effort to drive a few hours through a blizzard storm to attend a concert that they (only) paid $20 for. This is caused by a phenomenon known as sunk cost fallacy

If people have spent effort, time or money on something, they will commit to the behaviour related to it; otherwise, they feel they lose out.

The moment you spend money to consume something in the future, our sunk cost effect of mental accounting kicks in. The moment you prepay, you have a deficit in your account. If you cannot consume, then you have to close your account in red. It’s like making a loss. People don’t like making losses, so they rather get what they paid for than perhaps make a better decision not to consume something. For example, if people spent 60 euros on a four-course dinner, but they are already full at the third course, most of them will eat dessert anyway. I paid for it! It feels like a loss not to go or not finish all your plates.

Another example made famous by Richard Thaler is about a man who joined a tennis club and paid a $300 membership fee for the year. After just two weeks of playing, he develops a case of tennis elbow. Despite being in pain, the man continues to play, saying: ‘I don’t want to waste the $300.’ (2)

The sunk cost effect becomes a huge motivator of consumer behaviour.

However, the intensity of the sunk cost effect isn’t always the same; it depends on how closely the cost and benefit are connected. Let me give you an example of how this works. Let’s say you love skiing and you have booked yourself a trip to the French Alps. You got yourself a four-day ski pass giving you access to all the ski lifts for the four days at the costs of € 160. You enjoyed the first three days, and then all of a sudden, the weather conditions change dramatically: Big snows, fog, heavy winds. No skiing conditions that will bring joy. The same scenario, but now you have bought four separate tickets of € 40 with which you can hit the slopes for four days. In which situation would you go out skiing on the fourth day?

This was researched (3), and it showed that people who bought the one ticket would be more prone to stay in. However, the people who had four separate tickets were far more inclined to go out and ski anyway. They felt the €40 burn in their pocket (cost) and want to experience the benefit (skiing). The all-inclusive ticket is, in fact, a form of price bundling. This leads to a ‘decoupling’ of costs and benefits. The effect being it reduces someone’s attention to sunk costs and decreasing a consumer’s likelihood of consuming a paid-for service. In other words,

Price bundling affects the decision to consume.

Now, it becomes interesting how we can use these insights to design for better choice and positive behaviour.

Mental accounting: Using it for better decision-making

Being aware of the human tendency to engage in mental accounting and being affected by the related sunk costs effect can help us develop behavioural interventions that can help people make better decisions. I want to end this blog post with an example of how this might work. 

A lot of people find it challenging to spend less money than intended. You can make this easier for them by partitioning. How does it work? Let me illustrate this with a real-life example that took place in India. In India, there are quite some low-income households with very little spare cash. Salaries are often paid in cash, making it very easy for family providers to spend it, for instance, in the bar, after a hard days’ work. Still, people also needed money for the children’s upbringing, for example. 

Those households typically earned 670 rupees per week (£6,60 or $11,20), and most families only managed to put aside 5 rupees per week (0,75%) (4). The intervention they did is divide the money into envelopes before handing it over to the beneficiary and partitioning it beforehand. It increased the savings rates to 4% (27 rupees per week)(5). What made it even more successful is putting a visual reminder on the envelopes. So, for example, a picture of their children on the envelope contained money for their upbringing.

You could also use this for yourself. We are also more reluctant to spend money we have already mentally allocated for savings. You can distribute very physically, like the envelopes, but think about labelled jars in which you divide your household money. Viviana Zelizer, a sociologist at Princeton, calls this ‘Tin Can Accounting’ (6). The more digitally savvy translation of this is the digital saving buckets many banks offer nowadays, in which you can allocate your savings to specific goals. It will be harder to withdraw money from an ‘ultimate wedding dress’ or ‘summer family holiday’ bucket than from a general savings account.

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Summary

We, as humans, often make very emotional decisions when it comes to money. It largely depends on how we have earned, labelled or how our money is kept, how we will treat money and how we value what we bought with the money. This largely influences our behaviour. A euro isn’t always a euro, and a dollar not always a dollar. It may sound illogical, but it will make perfect sense once you understand the concepts of mental accounting and the sunk cost effect. We need to take these psychological phenomena into account if we want to help people make better decisions.

Astrid Groenewegen

 

Cover visual by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

BONUS: free ebook 'Mental Accounting: How Money Works in our Mind''

Especially for you we've created a free eBook 'Mental Accounting: How Money Works in our Mind'. For you to keep at hand, so you can start using the insights from this blog post whenever you want—it is a little gift from us to you.

Download ebook

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Accelerating Behavioural Change: From pushing to easing

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

We all have been situations in which we wanted a behavioural change. It could be you want your children to behave politely. It could be you wanted your client to approve a budget. It could be you want your manager to grant you extra time to work on a project. It could be you need community members to contribute to preventing littering actively. It could be you wanted employees to embrace organisational change. No matter what situation you were ever in, we have all experienced once or twice that getting someone to do things is hard. At least, the way we often approach it. There is a more effective approach to change. This is what this blog post is all about.

 

Behavioural change; from pushing to easing

Now, think back to a situation you had to influence someone. Tell me, was it easy to get people to change their behaviour in the direction you wanted them to move? Did they say ‘yes’ right away, or do you remember it took some persuasion? Maybe it was heavy lifting even? I remember I sometimes even used some force: ‘If you don’t eat dinner, you won’t get dessert.’ Or, for example, have you ever tried to convince a client by first giving them a stellar presentation and by following this up by emails or phone calls, making sure you gave them all reasons to make them realise your offer is one they can’t refuse?

It might have worked. But it takes quite some effort, right? It is hard work pushing someone into the direction you want them to move. Change is hard. We as humans can change, but we are pretty risk-averse and rather accept our suboptimal situation than moving in an unknown direction. In behavioural science, two potent forces that keep people in current behaviour are status quo bias and loss aversion. We are simply afraid of losing what we have right now and take our current state (status quo) as our baseline or reference point for future decisions. Any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss. Inertia being the result. So, no wonder it takes effort to change people.

What if I tell you there is a better way to generate change? That takes far less effort. That steps away from our natural inclination to push people into doing things but takes a different approach. Because that’s what we often do, we use some form of pushing to move people. We do follow-up calls; we give arguments, provide extra information, deliver facts and figures, show results, send reminders, etc. I call this pushing as it starts at ‘us’. We make the calls, write documents, round up reasons and then deliver them to the persons we want to convince or influence. I love this quote from Jonah Berger. He says:

The intuition [of pushing] comes from physics. Imagine there’s a chair in your office, and you want to move that chair. We often push it. Want it to get it to go in a particular direction? If we push in that direction, it goes. The chair moves across the floor just like we want. But when it comes to the social world, when it comes to applying this intuition to others, changing minds, action, and organisations, there’s an important difference. Because when we push people, they don’t just go along as the chair does. When we push people, they often push back‘.

Behavioural change; a matter of psychology, not physics

So, the message is clear:

When we have to convince people, it is not a matter of physics but psychology.

And that makes me come back to the accelerator of human change: It is thinking outside-in instead of inside-out. And not taking your product, service or policy as a starting point but taking humans as a starting point. More specifically, gaining a deeply human understanding of how people come to decisions and what is preventing them from deciding to act (or to act now instead of procrastinating). It is a hard inclination to fight, to not start at ourselves. We are trained, surrounded with and used to at our brand, product, organisation or policy. A tool that helps you truly get human-centred insights is our SUE | Influence Framework©. It helps you unlock all the forces that stand between current and desired behaviour.

 

It helps you to fight your assumptions. We all assume we know our clients, employees, partners, citizens think or need, but we often don’t. It’s another bias we need to fight: The expert fallacy. As most of us are paid professionals, we are assumed to be experts in our job. It becomes false authority when it is assumed that the opinions of a recognised expert in one area should be taken to heart in another area. So, if you are an expert in human psychology, your appeal to authority to have an opinion on what moves people’s choices and behaviours is valid. When you are an expert in a different domain, you might be fooled by your own of someone’s else’s opinion.

How to avoid this fallacy is quite simple. It takes two things: unbounded curiosity and interviewing six people. By interviewing, I mean talking to six people and genuinely listening to them, observing them, stepping into their shoes and turning your empathy radar way up. With this, you’ll be making the shift from focusing on ‘us’ that makes us forget the person to concentrate on ‘them’ that helps us move away from persuading by pushing.

You will uncover the underlying motivations people have to show behaviour. You’ll discover the behavioural boosters that may propel people forward towards the desired behaviour, but you’ll also identify the behavioural bottlenecks that hold someone back. These are all essential elements. You can leverage every one of the forces in the SUE | Influence Framework© to come up with interventions that will predictably change minds and shape behaviours.

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Behavioural change: Willingness and capability

However, human insight is one thing; you need to translate it into tangible interventions. If you want to change behaviour, you have two strategies: You can make someone want to change (boosting their willingness to change), or make sure someone can change (improving their capability to change). You can imagine that willingness to change requires some form of cognitive action. It has to do with motivation. However, it can be pretty daunting to stay motivated to us humans to set our minds on doing things for a more extended period. When we find ourselves in uncertain situations and new things (thus also new behaviours) are uncertain. As we discussed earlier, we are often okay with the status quo, even if it is not optimal. We often overvalue what we have.

Maybe you have ever experienced such a motivation wave yourself. Let’s say you genuinely wanted to eat healthy all day. You did great at breakfast (smoothie), coped at lunch (homemade salad), pecked away at some almonds in between, but then it becomes four in the afternoon. You are tired, you worked hard, and someone puts a bag of potato chips at arm’s reach. You truly have to push yourself hard to persevere in your new, healthy behaviour. Often, we lose this internal battle. Even more so, we can come up with outstanding arguments why we are deserving of some potato chips (if you want to understand why our human brain works this magic read this blog on the work of Kahneman). To make the point, you might see already that if we don’t want to rely on pushing as an influence strategy, working on willingness may not be our best option. So, what is?

 

The key to behavioural change: Take away bottlenecks

If you want to change behaviour there is one place where you need to start and what you need to consider. To successfully change behaviour we need to:

Start with taking away behavioural bottlenecks, the barriers.

We can do this by coming up with capability interventions: Focusing on taking away friction and lowering hurdles and making the desired behaviour easier to perform. Or as Berger states in his book ‘The Catalyst – How to change anyone’s mind‘: ‘The easier it is to try something, the more people will use it, and the faster it catches on’. We can easily replace ‘try’ with ‘do’, as the same goes for behaviour. The easier is it to do something, the faster it will catch on. The secret ingredient to change behaviour therefore is:

Not pushing someone in desired behaviour but easing them into it.

That’s why, when looking back again at the SUE | Influence Framework©, the real power lies in taking away anxieties and piggybacking on (or replacing) comforts. You also can influence minds and shape behaviour by stressing pains and highlighting gains but see them as cherries on the cake. I feel they are great add-ons completing the influence picture. Not to be denied add-ons, but still:

The actual name of the game we are in is removing obstacles.

To do so, you need to understand which behavioural bottlenecks your target group is experiencing. It would be best if you shifted your focus from us to them. So, whenever you catch yourself giving more arguments, sending over more information, coming up with reasons to buy, stating facts or sending reminders, put yourself on hold. And remember, there is a different approach to change minds, behaviour, and action with a simple reminder: If it were easy, everyone would do it.

I bet you never thought of a quote that glorifies hardship and discipline to make perfect sense to help us human beings to accomplish more by, in fact, taking motivation out of the equation. Life can be immensely satisfying, don’t you think?

Astrid Groenewegen

Blog header photo by: Lucas van Oort

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How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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Confirmation Bias: How to convince someone who believes the exact opposite?

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

We all are influencing people every day. On a small scale (could you pass me the salt) and on a larger scale (choose me, my business or sales proposition). But how do you get people on your side who happen to believe the exact opposite of what you’re trying to convince them of? Or how do you get people to engage in behaviour that is better for them, communities or the planet if they don’t believe that behaviour is the right thing to do or too hard to perform?

Often, we resort to convincing people with information, arguments and reasons. However, behavioural science sheds an attractive light on how we, as humans process information and, foremost:

How you can make people not just willing to change but also willing to consider what you have to say needed for that change?

We first have to understand the information context of the people we are trying to influence. What do we need to take into account when we want to get our information across? To say the least, we live in an interesting information age. News and messages come to us in many ways, but not all ways are created equal. This is the day and age we all are trapped in filter bubbles [1]. The digital ecosystem and algorithms tailor our information supply to our existing views with a preference to extremist viewpoints, creating more and more distance between different perspectives and a greater social divide.

Confirmation Bias: The godmother of information processing

Before we can understand how information is processed, we have to realise that we as human beings all suffer from so-called confirmation bias. We process information to confirm what we already think or believe. In other words, we assign greater value to evidence that favourites our beliefs than we value new points of view. Whether that information or evidence is true or false doesn’t matter, the post-rationalisation capacity of our brain helps us feel good about our viewpoints.

We, as humans, are champions in justification after the occasion.

However, the tailored information technology and confirmation bias combined can cause systemic effects that can be pretty troublesome. People who hold strong opinions on complex social issues are likely to examine relevant evidence in a biased way. This can cause us to be firmly entrenched in our beliefs. We are creating polarised societies that show little willingness for cooperation or empathy instead of narrowing disagreements which is so much needed to solve society’s challenges of today.

Let me give you an example of how strong confirmation bias can be. An experiment [2] run by researchers at Stanford University proved that even scientific facts would be dismissed if they don’t match our existing beliefs. The researchers invited both opponents and proponents of the death penalty. Both groups were divided into two, getting a different conclusion from scientific research on the death penalty’s effectiveness. Opponents reached either a research conclusion favouring the death penalty or a judgment opposing the death penalty. Proponents also got either the in favour or against decision. These research conclusions were as follows:

Research conclusion in favour of the death penalty:

Kroner and Phillips compared murder rates for the year before and the year after adoption of capital punishment in 14 states. In 11 of the 14 states, murder rates were lower after adoption of the death penalty. This research supports the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Research conclusion opposing the death penalty:

Palmer and Crandall compared murder rates in 10 pairs of neighbouring states with different capital punishment laws. In 8 of the 10 pairs, murder rates were higher in the state with capital punishment. This research opposes the deterrent effect of the death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty have read the first message were strengthened in their belief: “The experiment was well thought out, the data collected was valid, and they were able to come up with responses to all criticisms.” but after having read the second message they didn’t shift beliefs but dismissed the study: “The evidence given is relatively meaningless without data about how the overall crime rate went up in those years“, “There were too many flaws in the picking of the states and too many variables involved in the experiment as a whole to change my opinion.”

It worked the same way around. Opponents of dismissing the death penalty who read the conclusions against the death penalty agreed: “It shows a good direct comparison between contrasting death penalty effectiveness. Using neighbouring states helps to make the experiment more accurate by using similar locations.”. Whereas the evidence in favour of the death penalty was dismissed: “I don’t think they have complete enough collection of data. Also, as suggested, the murder rates should be expressed as percentages, not as straight figures.” The research showed that:

People can come to different conclusions after being exposed to the same evidence depending on their pre-existing beliefs.

This bias is so strong that prior beliefs (also known as the prior attitude effect) made people even dismiss scientific proof; the evidence only strengthened their beliefs and caused further polarization. Other research [3] found an interesting addition to this conclusion:

People accept ‘confirming’ evidence more easily and evaluate disconfirming information far more critically. It’s not a fair game.

Confirmation bias in interpretation and memory

We know now that confirmation bias steers how we interpret information: What we focus on, what we value and favour. But it also influences what we remember. We all suffer from selective memory or memory bias [4]. For instance, schema theory has shown that information confirming our prior beliefs is stored in our memory while contradictory evidence is not [5]. This is also where stereotyping has its roots.

People also tend to remember better expectancy‐confirming (versus expectancy‐disconfirming) information about social groups [6]. It is also good to know that:

Confirmation bias does not only affect our individual decision-making; it also affects groups. We, as humans, are social animals, we interact, and we want to belong. However, our need to fit in makes us adapt our views to the views of the group.

We seek recognition by streamlining our position. This creates a tendency to produce groupthink. Our need for conformity shuts out the consideration of different points of view and rules out exploratory thought [7], which, in return, can negatively influence the quality of group decisions.

Why does confirmation bias happen?

Confirmation bias happens as it helps us. Our brain is constantly trying to lower our cognitive load. It does so by using short-cuts, also known as heuristics, to interpret the information we are faced with, for example, by using our past experiences, the social norms or our instinct. Taking in new information, evidence, facts and figures use energy. Confirmation bias is a perfect way to scan through information more easily.

This means that we as humans never take a fully informed decision; we automatically choose the path of least resistance and rely on short-cuts.

But there is more. If you have a firmly held belief, it is part of your identity. Sticking to that belief helps us in maintaining our identity or self-esteem even [8].

Switching almost feels we didn’t make an intelligent decision the first time, so we’d better stick to what we hold true before. I guess we have all experienced it ourselves that it can be rather painful to admit your strongly held belief was mistaken. Switching hurts; admitting we were wrong is not one of our favourite things to do. This doesn’t mean we can never convince someone that has different beliefs than us. We simply have to take confirmation bias into account.

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How to convince someone with different beliefs

What we can learn from this is that if we want to convince someone who holds strong beliefs or doesn’t share the same beliefs about desired behaviour just yet, we have to consider two things:

First, we have to know where we are positioned. Looking at the decision we want someone to make or the behaviour we want someone to perform, do we find ourselves in someone’s zone of acceptance or rejection? In other words, how much distance is there between you and them?

A key to convincing people is to close the belief distance between you and them.

Second, we need to know is how strong are these beliefs? Feeling strongly about something narrows our zone of acceptance and widens our zone of rejection. In short, if you want someone to go along with you, you need to get a clear view of where you are at on the influence playing field.

Thirdly, identify the movable middle. Jonah Berger cornered this concept [9]. You have to realize (or accept) that getting everyone on your side is a tough battle to win. Haters will be haters. Or, differently put, people who are really on the belief extremes are extremely hard to budge. If possible, at all. People who are fiercely against abortion, climate deniers who think climate change is a hoax or conspiracy thinkers who are convinced Covid doesn’t exist, well, don’t waste your energy on them. The truth is, in every issue, there is a vast majority of people that aren’t sure yet. People whose zone of acceptance and rejection are somewhat balanced out. Think about swing voters, often a large group of people who decide on election day on who to vote. Often this group flips the coin. Therefore, these are the best people to target. The trick is not trying to influence everyone but those with moveable minds.

Our job is to decrease the distance between the people we are trying to change or convince and us.

Not by giving people more evidence or information. That will only activate confirmation bias; it will make people dig in their heels much deeper. We have to use behavioural psychology. So, how can we do this?

Bypassing confirmation bias (1): Find common ground

First of all, we have to see if we can find common ground. Let say you want people to actively engage in behaviour promoting sustainability. You might encounter sceptics, people who believe climate change isn’t all that bad. Instead of counterarguing with facts, first, find a belief you may both have in common. For instance, the belief that family is important. Beliefs in return are closely linked to motivations. The belief that family is important could be a stronger motivator for someone to do everything to ensure his/her children have the most carefree life possible.

This is what we call a job-to-be-done: A deeper-lying motivation that drives behaviour. Something people want to achieve in their lives and for which they’re willing to take action, make decisions or engage in a behaviour. I might not like to make extra payments on my mortgage (behaviour), but I do want to take financial action to make sure I can still live in my beloved family home after retirement (JTBD). If that takes extra payments, so be it. It is pretty fascinating that even people with very different beliefs can have similar jobs to be done. It is there where you can find common ground and start building a bridge to close the distance between you. You could, for instance, use a principle from behavioural psychology called question substitution.

Let’s go back to the sceptics of climate change. Instead of asking them: ‘Do you want to engage in sustainable behaviour?’, you could instead ask them a different question: ‘Do you want to help build a healthy community for your children?’ That’s a far easier question for them to answer as it fits their beliefs about the importance of family. That to help create that family-friendly community, it (also) takes sustainable behaviours such as preventing littering in local parks, limiting car usage in the neighbourhood, buying locally grown produce, planting flowers that attract bees and so on, is the behavioural side-effect we were aiming for. This is how you can stretch the zone of acceptance of sceptics.

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Bypassing confirmation bias (2): Provide proof not evidence

Let’s add on to the previous example. You are still dealing with climate change sceptics, and let’s say you need to design recycling behaviour. In short, you can say that people with strong beliefs need more proof before they are willing to change. However, proof isn’t evidence, nor are they facts, figures or arguments. Proof is what other people are doing.

We humans have a strong need for certainty. When designing a choice or behaviour, you have to realize that engaging in a new behaviour or making a new decision comes with uncertainty. It is new, so different, so uncertain. This makes our status quo bias and inclination to loss aversion kick in. We are simply afraid of losing what we have right now and take our current state (status quo) as our baseline or reference point for future decisions. Any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss. Inertia being the result. We really on short-cuts to see if a given behaviour or decision makes sense.

One of the strongest short-cuts our brain takes is looking at what other people are doing. We are wired as social animals. As children, we learn by watching others; we prefer belonging to the in-group, and as we have seen, we even adapt our beliefs to conform to a group. We addressed the possible dysfunctional decision-making capacities of a group; we can also leverage this human tendency to follow the beliefs and behaviour of others more positively. Simply by showing more people are showing recycling behaviour. We are providing social proof and activating the bandwagon effect [10].

We adapt our beliefs and behaviour because many other people do the same.

If you want this behavioural intervention to work, it is best to show more people showing the desired behaviour. If you only showcase one person, you might run into what is called a translation problem: ‘That person is not like me or someone I aspire to be, so why following his/her behaviour?’ We preferably follow similar others. That’s why when you are booking a hotel room online, you value reviews of people like you more than random others. If you’re a young couple, reviews of families with several kids are less relevant to you. However, in the absence of another you, quantity counts. Simply because it is harder to argue against more people.

Adding on to this, the more (different) sources say the same thing, the more social proof it provides. People need to hear from multiple sources to switch beliefs. Social proof also can work in our favour another way: It creates network effects. If we can get more people to change their minds, people around them may change their minds as well.

The question remains, how many people do you need to create network effects? The answer is; it depends. If you are dealing with weaker attitudes and beliefs, people don’t need proof from many sources. However, if you are dealing with more strong opinions, you need more sources to prove your point. How does this work in practice? Jonah Berger differentiates a sprinkler and a fire hose strategy. Or, differently put, a scarcity or concentration approach.

If you are trying to convince people to engage in sustainable behaviour on the outer sides of the moveable middle (so, more strongly leaning towards the zone of rejection), a concentration strategy is more effective. That is to say, focusing on a smaller group of people that you confront with proof in a short period, multiple times (the more time sits between proof, the less impact it will have). However, if you are dealing with people leaning towards the zone of acceptance, one or two people will be enough proof to others to shift their beliefs and mimic behaviour. In this case, you can provide less social proof and can focus on influencing more people at once.

Bypassing confirmation bias (3): Don’t ask too much

A final intervention from behavioural science is to tone it down a bit. Rome wasn’t built in one day; the same goes for behaviour change. We have seen that hard-wired, even often unconscious human tendencies instead make us favour inertia over change. So, getting someone to change overnight is hard if not undoable. Are we as humans not capable of change? We absolutely can! We change all the time (or are you still sporting your nineties hairdo and outfits?) Almost everyone has something they want to change. Only often the threshold for change is too high. When we want to convince someone to show a new behaviour, we often tend to ask too much at once. We underestimate that a new behaviour takes time, money, effort or energy. To lower the threshold for change, we should cut up end-goals into more minor, specific behaviours. What’s the difference? For example, an end goal can be living a healthy life. Specific behaviours that will help achieve this end goal are, for instance, drinking six glasses of water each day, buying vegetables on Saturday, doing two 20-minute workouts each week. These specific behaviours together will add up to the end goal. Furthermore, we need to understand that:

Behaviour is a process; if you can make someone commit to the process, change will happen.

There is a magical word in the sentence above: commit. Our brain loves simplicity. If you can make people commit to a first ask, they are likely to follow up on it. If you said yes to A, doing A is the easiest thing to do. It simply feels logical and requires no further cognitive effort. This is known in behavioural science as the commitment/consistency principle. The trick is to start with a small ask instead of a big question. To link back to what we’ve learned before, start with a small ask on common ground. Find that place of agreement that helps you build an initial connection.

Let’s go back to the climate change sceptic who holds his family so very dear: Don’t ask them to live more sustainably as of now. For instance, ask them to hand in their old paper at their children’s school. Put a recycling container next to the school playground. Make it easy (they are there to pick up their children anyway). Make it relevant for them (their motivation is to give their children the best living conditions, so putting away paper in a container next to the playground is an unconscious reminder of a way to keep their children’s playground clean).

But most importantly, by doing so, you have them commit to a first small ask. From this initial ask, you can then build on, slowly opening their zone of acceptance. Maybe even pivoting their initial beliefs on sustainability, giving you the manoeuvre space to provide them with more information on sustainable behaviour. Differently put: You have used Behavioural Design to prep their brain to be susceptible to both change and the information needed for that change.

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Summary

Confirmation bias is the human tendency only to seek, focus on or favour information that confirms our existing beliefs. It is a strong bias as it operates pretty unconsciously in our brain and is catered by the filter bubbles we all find ourselves in. Confirmation bias strengthens our prior beliefs and makes societies more polarised. If you want to change the behaviour of people who do not share the same opinions, you don’t achieve this by giving more information, evidence, fact or figures. You accomplish this by closing the distance between you and the people you are trying to influence using Behavioural Design, taking human psychology and deep human understanding as a starting point. If you want someone to change, you first need to make people willing to listen to the information required for this change.

Astrid Groenewegen

BONUS: free ebook 'Confirmation Bias: how to convince someone who believes the opposite'

Especially for you we've created a free eBook 'Confirmation Bias: how to convince someone who believes the opposite.' For you to keep at hand, so you can start using the insights from this blog post whenever you want—it is a little gift from us to you.

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Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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How to design a choice: The art of choosing

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

Can we design a choice? In most societies, if there is one value we hold dear, it is our freedom of choice. Having autonomy is a concept that directly speaks to our core as human being. Suppliers of goods and services understand this and have submerged us in an economy of choice that can match everyone’s individual needs. It fits our need for autonomy like a glove. It allows us to be in the driver seat of our own lives. But is it? Is it true? Does abundance help us make better decisions? Does more choice equal more satisfaction? The answer is no. So, the question is: How we can master the subtle art of choosing to shape better decisions and positive behaviours?

How to design a choice: The paradox of choice

Something interesting is going on which choice. It is a paradox, a concept cornered by Barry Schwartz. He describes the paradox of choice as follows:

So, what does this implicate? Is less indeed more? Well, yes and no. In most cases, too many options to choose from isn’t in our best interest. This has to do with our bounded rationality. We, as human beings, cannot make every decision in our daily lives wholly rational or, better put, with focused attention. There are too many decisions for us to deal with to do so.

Just think about your morning. From the moment you heard your alarm go off, you had to decide to turn it off or snooze. You had to decide to stretch or do another roll-over on your side right into that comfy spot that has the perfect temperature; You had to decide to get up or sleep in for just a little bit longer. You had to decide to get dressed right away or get your first coffee in PJ’s first. You had to decide to have coffee indeed, or did you decide to have something else? Or did you decide to go pee first? I have not even begun to talk about the decision to check your phone, turn on the radio, heating or toaster yet. Or the decision to combine all of these with checking your to-dos of the day. And your day has only just started.

These examples all may seem trivial, but they’re not. It is estimated that your brain has to compute about 35.000 decisions a day, from minor ones to bigger ones. Your brain cannot process all of them consciously or with extensive thought; It would simply crash. Therefore, a lot of our decisions are made automatically and unconscious. As Nobel laureates Kahneman and Tversky have discovered, we have two operating systems in our brain: A deliberate and an automatic one. And the automatic one has the upper hand, which is a good thing. It simply shows our brain is wired to help us navigate as with as little effort as possible through life.

How to design a choice: The phenomenon of choice overload

Now back to too many options to choose from. Why does it work against us?

First of all, having too many options causes apathy simply as it requires too much cognitive activity. This can lead to decision fatigue or even not making any decision at all. This phenomenon is called choice paralysis (also referred to as choice deferral).

There is a cognitive bias related to this phenomenon called regret aversion. When people anticipate regret from a choice, they tend to not act at all. This can have severe consequences. A meta-analysis has shown that people’s behaviour to accept medical treatments is influenced more to avoid regretting making the wrong choice than it is influenced by other kinds of anticipated negative emotions. Therefore, when designing a choice, you have to be aware that the number of options you present to someone also enhances the probability of choice regret. Which in return enhances inertia. In the mentioned example, this has shown to seriously impact behaviour concerning health.

Secondly, when we have more options to choose from, we tend to make worse decisions as we tend to rely even more on our system 1 cues, which can be biased. Examples are our tendency to stick to defaults, recommendations, or reliance on peer choices. Have you ever said in a restaurant: I am having what he/she is having’? Well, probably this was caused by option overload on the menu. Research showed what happens if there are either six or thirty food options on a menu. In the first case, people tend to choose for themselves. In the second case, they choose what their partner chooses.

Thirdly, we tend to make more conservative choices to minimise the potential for regret.

And finally, the more options to choose from we have, the less satisfied we are with the choice we did make. The more options, the more we feel we ‘missed out on.’ In his book, Schwartz described two experiments. One in which people had to choose between 20 varieties of jams and another could choose between six models of jeans. The experiment showed that the more choices people had, the less satisfied they were with their final choice. This matches Sheena Iyengar’s research, professor at the Columbia Business School and author of ‘The Art of Choosing’, which taught us that:

‘The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist. And to the extent that we engage our imaginations in this way, we will be even less satisfied with the alternative we end up choosing. So, once again, a greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.

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What works to design a choice: Bounded choice

So, what works then to design choice in a way it shapes positive behaviours? Next to the concept of bounded rationality, there is the concept of bounded choice (which I prefer to call bounded options as you may have guessed). Let’s look back at the paradox of choice again. It shows that having too many choices has been associated with feelings of unhappiness.

 

A greater variety of choices actually makes us feel worse.’

But on the other hand, it works the other way around too, and on the more positive side of things:

Limiting the number of options can lead to more satisfying choices.

Researchers did a meta-analysis comparing 99 scientific studies on choice overload. They found that choice reduction is most effective when:

  1. When people want to make a quick and easy choice
  2. When the product is complex
  3. When it’s difficult to compare alternatives
  4. When consumers don’t have clear preferences

Before we design a choice: Ethical considerations

From an ethical point of view, it is good to make a distinction between options and choice. We feel it can be a very effective Behavioural Design to help someone make better decisions by limiting an option, but you shouldn’t forbid a choice. So, in fact, you design choice by working with options. This is the essence of nudging. Let me illustrate the difference with an example.

Limiting the number of options or take out some options altogether has, for example, proven to be very beneficial in helping people who are struggling with being overweight. One very effective way to fight this is to change eating habits. A lot of interventions have been developed and tested to help people change their eating patterns. From adapting food labels to more affective nudges, for example, by promoting the taste instead of a particular food’s healthiness. From a meta-analysis, aggregating data from almost 96 behavioural experiments on successfully promoting healthy eating, the most effective intervention turned out to change the plate and cup size Taking an option (in this case, large 16 oz. cups) helped people eat less and still feel satisfied. Although you take away options with this intervention, you don’t take away the freedom of choice. People always have the choice to go for a refill or buy a second portion. Only, it turned out not many people do. By simply reducing options, you make it easier for people to change their behaviour.

Just one more argument against limiting freedom of choice (instead of options). We, as humans, are wired to want a sense of control and closely tied to this sense of control is our need for freedom and autonomy. If you do forbid a choice, you may, therefore, very well encounter adverse effects. People might start avoiding, ignoring or counterarguing. This is also why warnings backfire. We don’t like to be told what to do. It crosses our innate need for freedom. And if people are pushed into doing something, they push back. How many times did you change your mind or behaviour in your adult life because someone demanded you to do so? My parents and teachers still had that influence on me, but in daily life when we want to influence people, we need to allow for agency.

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Designing a choice: Behavioural change interventions

Time to turn human understanding into practice. What can we do to help people make better decisions and be more satisfied? I want to show you five behavioural intervention strategies to design for better choices:

Limit or remove options
Terminate products or services that are not doing well.

Organise options
Make categories or ease people into choosing from more options.

Frame options
Present information to someone in a way choosing becomes easy.

Help people to understand their personal preferences
Helping them limit options to the ones that fit them.

Offer expert advice
This way, people can ask a specialist to help them choose, outsourcing the decision.


Limit or remove options
How far you should limit options depends on the behaviour you are designing. If you want someone to click on a button on your website, it is better to have one clear option. If you want someone to pick a health regimen, it works to have three options, with your preferred option positioned in the centre, as people tend to gravitate to the middle. If you want someone to buy a specific product, it works to show two options of which the left product (in Western countries) is a decoy that is priced much higher than your target product. This higher-priced product will act as a mental anchor that makes people feel your product is a perfect deal. These are best practices from behavioural science, but it is always a matter of experimenting with what works best in your situation. One thing remains the same for every situation: Less is always more when shaping decisions and behaviour. 

Organise options
However, you can make people more capable of choosing from more options. You just have to do it gradually. A research team at a German car manufacturer ran an experiment with the manufacturer’s online car configurator. Potential clients using the configurator had to choose from 60 different options to configure their entire car. Every option again consisted of sub-options. For instance, to pick your car colour, you had 56 colours to choose from, picking your engine also four options and so on. It seemed logical to have people select an ‘easy option first. For example, colour is something that most people have a set preference for. And then move to the ‘harder’ options like the engine. The experiment made half of the customers go through the configurator from many options (e.g., colour) to fewer options (e.g., engine type). The other half from fewer options to many options. The researchers found that they ‘lost’ the second group: They kept hitting the default button or aborted the process. The first group hung in there. They had the same information and the same number of options, only the order in which the information was presented varied. 

If you start someone off easy, you can teach them how to choose.

Frame Options
Sometimes option reduction is a matter of framing. In other words, thinking about how to present information to someone. Maybe you have kids, and well, most kids aren’t big on eating veggies. Mine isn’t, anyway. We, as parents, often tell our kids: ‘Eat your peas’. You’ll probably have more success if you give your kids a sense of control, designing the options a different way. ‘Do you want to eat your peas or carrots first?’ It can also work in our professional life. Let’s say you are in negotiation with a talent you like to attract your team or organisation. Make sure you frame your negations in a way options are limited but still allow for autonomy. To make it more real: Often, negotiations come down to challenging the salary offer. Suppose you give someone the option to get awarded a higher salary, but you tie a condition to it. For example, sure, you can have a higher salary X, but it implies X fewer days off. Your candidate still has freedom of choice, but at the same time, you framed your offer as bounded options. Thus, prevented setting the stage for a limitless salary/bonus battle, nitpicking over secondary employment conditions. ‘It’s either this or that kind of framing.

Identify personal preferences
We have seen that when we experience option overload, we tend to rely on system 1 cues such as following the choices of others. If you can help someone identify their personal preferences, you can rule out a lot of options. This is why shopping bots or online filters really help us navigate through options. Once you have set your preference, you only get to see a selection of all available options.

Offer expert advice
A different way to reduce options is to outsource the decision process to an expert. In this case, we can learn from the healthcare domain. If you have a condition that can be solved with treatment A, B or C, most people follow their doctor’s advice for a specific treatment. He rules out some options for you. What if we could also provide trusted experts in other domains? If you know, you can rely on an exercise, nutrition, finance, education expert? That would save you a lot of option researching and go down a rabbit hole of endless possibilities. You could simply follow the lead of a trusted specialist.  

To conclude, there is, in fact, an art to choosing. If you start to understand a bit more about the workings of the human mind this will give you far more control over successful outcomes. You can choose to be more successful, in fact. How’s that for a change? Doesn’t it spark your sense of freedom?

Astrid Groenewegen

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How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

Why motivating people for climate action is problematic.

By All, Citizen Behaviour

Of all ‘wicked design problems’, motivating people for climate action and designing for sustainable behavioural change are topics many people at SUE are passionate about. When Tom recently suggested Futerra’s paper Sizzle to me, I dove right in, eager to find additions to our toolbox. It’s an excellent read and it makes a persuasive case for a new way of ‘selling’ climate action: instead of selling the negative necessity, we have to sell the positive results of action. Not the hunger, not even the sausage, but the sizzle. Being half-German it invoked lots of appealing memories of grilling bratwurst, so I was all aboard.

We know what dystopias look like, but we lack images of a green utopia.

Lame jokes aside (it’s a cultural thing), it reminded us of a podcast we made some time last year (sorry, Dutch only), in which we discussed climate inaction and stumbled upon the realization that we badly lack utopian visions of the future in popular culture for behavioural change in sustainability. I really don’t know of any book, film, game or piece of art from the last couple of decades that plays out in a positive future. Albeit in many different variations, it’s pretty much all cyberpunk or otherwise dystopian and apocalyptic visions and the message is simple: one way or another, in the not-to-distant future we’re gonna fuck it up. Big time.

That is a symptom of a lack of positive imagination within our cultural avant-garde and a serious problem for the rest of us. Why invest in a future that’s doomed? Why take part in process of change if you don’t have any mental pictures of the exciting and bright future that it could lead to? It’s hardly a surprise that indeed many people simply don’t: compared to where they fear change will lead them, they like where they are just fine, and inaction or worse is the result. So yes: I think Futerra makes a meritorious point. Climate action must be framed in a far more positive way if we are to motivate people for behavioural change.

Yet, for some reason it didn’t sit with me well.

Aren’t we just yet again preaching to the choir?

Isn’t this all a – granted, greatly – improved version of a still fundamentally flawed approach, which is that through communication we should try to achieve a level of aspirational motivation among the population to contribute to a sustainable way of life, and that behavioural change will follow from that? And won’t it, when that inevitably yields limited results, still turn out as a way of preaching to the converted, but with a nicer preach? Isn’t it therefore essentially still focused on fulfilling the emotional and social jobs-to-be-done of the activist, rather than purposefully designing large scale behavioural change? In other words, use behavioural psychology to drive real behavioural change?

Now, I don’t mean this to feel harsh. In fact, the authors explicitly invite a behavioural perspective on their approach. Here it comes.

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Intention is a bad recipe for motivating people for climate action.

One concept from behavioural psychology that’s particularly interesting in this regard to behavioural change is the intention-action gap. As a rule, people have a hard time acting up on their intentions. More than often, people even behave in a way that directly contradicts them. This happens at the level of individual behaviour (just think back to everything you’ve intended to do to live more healthily and reflect on how much of it you’ve actually accomplished), and definitely at the level of collective behaviour as well.

We love our local shops, but with every purchase on Amazon, we give them the finger.

A good example is the struggle that local retailers have in their competition with the big webshops. Both individually and collectively, we all want flourishing city and town centers, with lots of locally owned shops and cozy restaurants and such, but with every passing day we buy more of our stuff at a small number of big webshops. With every purchase at Amazon, BOL or Zalando, we’re tightening the rope around those local entrepreneur’s necks, and yet we keep doing it – even employees of the local shops.

Why? Because it’s simply easier and cheaper. Individually it’s the better decision.

Even when motivation to support local entrepreneurs peaked during the first COVID-lockdown, Dutch online giants BOL and Coolblue did better than ever and Amazon managed to very successfully enter the Dutch market. We heedlessly make choices that completely contradict our intentions, let alone our larger aspirations. Behavioural psychology at work?

In other words, even when exactly the right messaging manages to build up peoples’ intention to contribute to climate action, it’s not at all likely that this will lead to matching behaviour. That’s a sobering insight which, especially when it comes to climate action, we must be very clear-eyed about. The stakes are too big.

How might we break this behavioural pattern?

Apparently, many behaviours emerge, even if they lead to an outcome that people aren’t motivated to achieve – in fact even if it’s an outcome they’re motivated to prevent. Current consumer behaviour will lead to a web-only retail sector, dominated by a handful of giants. Nobody wants it, but it’s the outcome of our daily choices, which are heavily determined by convenience and costs.

This can work to our advantage.

Many of the most fundamental changes in our way of life have occurred over time, without people having some clear end goal in mind, or even an expectation of what the end result of the road they were on could be, or even a desire to look further than the immediate short-term. When steam machines and electric light bulbs were first put to use, nobody had the ermergence of the industrialised welfare state in mind. When people ordered their first modem, nobody had their sights on the cyborg-like relationship we have with our smartphones a couple decades later. What kind of a way of life these first behaviours would eventually lead simply to didn’t matter. What mattered was that that machine, that lightbulb, that modem, and every small steps that followed, made those peoples’ lifes a little bit easier, more convenient, or in another way humanly more pleasing, in that moment.

Developing a climate neutral way of life is a fundamental change of a similar order, and for the population at large, climate neutrality will similarly be an emerging property: the outcome of their choices, rather than the goal of their choices. This is the only way forward is to influence group behaviour for climate change.

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The solution: Make sustainable choices more desirable.

Hence to motivate people for climate action, we shouldn’t put too much of our collective creative energy into convincing people of the larger goal and building up their motivation to contribute to climate action, and put nearly all of it into simply designing those incrementally better everyday choices. If we want to design for genuine behaviour change, it means innovating on sustainable products, services and behaviours, so that they’re increasingly convenient or in many other possible ways the more fulfilling choice.

Tesla doesn’t want you to drive electric for the environment, but because they offer an exciting driving experience. Beyond Meat doesn’t want you to go vegan on your hamburgers, they want you to eat the juiciest hamburger in the world, which happen to be vegan.

That requires above all ruthless, methodical empathy for those humans whose behaviours and choices we want to change. Don’t wash away their anxieties, comforts, pains and deep-rooted human needs and desires in service of climate neutrality – start with them. In fact, I’d put it even stronger:

The only way to achieve climate neutrality in time is to be ruthlessly empathetic with the people whose behaviour we need to change.

Tim Versnel

Tim is a Behavioural Design Lead at SUE. In his spare time, he’s a councillor for the Dutch Liberal Party at the City of Rotterdam
He recently co-authored a book with Klaas Dijkhoff, Group Chairman of the Dutch Liberal, in which they plead for an optimistic renaissance based on the fresh liberal concept.

Cover Photo by Markus Spiske

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 45+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company training or one-day workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful tools to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course brochure, contact us here or subscribe to our Behavioural Design Digest. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design