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Tom de Bruyne

Zombies - conspiracy

Why data scientists and conspiracy theorist have a lot in common

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations

I want to share a couple of thoughts and insights on how data produces Fata Morgana’s . I have become a bit obsessed lately with how easy it is to be fooled by data. In this blog want to argue that many researchers and data scientists fall for exactly the same mistakes as conspiracy theorists.

The psychology behind Conspiracy Theorists

You probably heard of Qanon. It’s a conspiracy theory about liberals running secret Satan-worshipping, child molesting, blood-drinking networks. The Qanon theory spread like wildfire on the internet in the last couple of years. In a brilliant post on Medium a while ago, a game designer argued that the nature of Qanon is strikingly similar to a well designed Alternate Reality game.

Alternate reality games (ARG’s) are designed for you to look for cues to solve a puzzle. One of the problems that game designers often encounter is a phenomenon called “apophenia”. Apophenia is : “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things (such as objects or ideas)”. 

Better said: Once you are searching for patterns, you will start finding them everywhere. Your players might encounter some scraps of wood on the floor that accidentally form an arrow, and they will become convinced that this must be a clue and can’t be a coincidence.

The same mechanisms are at play in the alternate reality of conspiracy theorists. The thrill of being a Qanonist is that cues are everywhere. Once you are sucked into the community of like-minded truth seekers’, you will stumble upon cues that are so convincing that they must be true. The addictive part is the fact that your fellow conspiracists will challenge you to connect the dots for yourself. “Wake up! Open your Eyes!” Nobody tells you what to think or believe, but once you connect the dots, the truth will reveal itself. Cracking the puzzle is similar to the dopamine rush you get from solving a game puzzle.

Of course, the problem is: Once you start looking for patterns, you will always find some. You don’t believe in Illuminati? Well, what about all these pictures of Hollywood stars who use the Illuminati “one eye” symbol? Coincidence? I don’t think so?

Still not convinced that liberals run satanic networks? Well, why do all these Hollywood stars use the 666-symbol, the number of Satan? Once you start looking for it, it’s so damn obvious! How can we all have missed this?

666

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((Image Courtesy: Curious Institute)

Of course, all of this is an illusion. An illusion fostered by wishful thinking, selective attention and the addictive thrill of finding patterns.

Data Scientists are a bit like conspiracy theorists.

Today I read a piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC about recent research amongst Dutch voters. We’re having elections here within five weeks. The study delved deep into the wants and beliefs of the Dutch electorate. And lo and behold, it discovered some fascinating patterns: “About 30% of the population are culturally conservative but economically liberal”. Or “There’s still an untapped potential if far-right parties would embrace more leftwing policies” or “Although 70% are in favour of a big government and income redistribution, progressive parties are suffering from a steady decline. This loss can be attributed to the fact that only a minor group of those people (15%) favour progressive themes as abortion, euthanasia, multi-culturalism and European unification”.

The problem with all the above: Sounds reasonable, but it’s bullshit. Real people don’t change their voting behaviour based on these issues. They answer a different question in the voting booth: Which leader or team do I trust the most to fight for the things that threaten my way of living? To whom do I sympathize?

Under the article, NRC posted a series of short portraits of voters and their consideration. The first portrait was featuring an entrepreneur, aged 35. Every time he filled in a voting configurator online, the Dutch Liberals came out as the party that best matches his beliefs and values. Yet he categorically decided not to vote for the liberals because he chose to answer a more powerful different question: He feels it’s time for a system reboot. So he feels more sympathy for the challenger parties, some to the far left, some to the far right. He voted for the FvD (a far-right party), but only because he felt sympathy for one of the (ex) leaders’ fighting spirit, even though he despises their racist whistleblowing.

 

Why you should have a healthy distrust for data.

The problem with quantitative research is that numbers and graphs signal objectivity and power. If you make the case with solid data, you are more convincing. But the problem is that the patterns we find are often a mirage. A fata morgana that the dataset produced. In the case of Qanon, the fata morgana is produced by combining random pictures that suggest a secret code. In the research above, the fata morgana is created by asking for beliefs and values within the voter base of parties. But it only takes a simple look beyond to data to realize that parties’ rise and fall have everything to do with the rise and fall of their leaders.

Tom De Bruyne
Co-Founder SUE Behavioural Design

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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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
Activists

Behavioural Design Advice for Environmentalists

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

This blog summarises a lecture I gave at a social innovation conference a little while ago in Belgium.

Governments, NGOs, and Environmentalists worldwide are trying to get people and companies to change their behaviours sustainably. To achieve these goals, they use a mix of interventions and strategies: they urge for stricter policies, campaign for greener buying decisions and name and shame companies that benefit from polluting ecosystems. A combination of all of these tactics is needed to influence minds and to change behaviour. Here are a couple of thoughts on what behavioural design thinking can teach us to be more effective at achieving long term sustainable behavioural change.

Four classic mistakes in campaigning for sustainable change

To design for sustainable behavioural change is a pretty tough challenge. 

First of all, there’s the problem of hyperbolic discounting. Humans find it very difficult to align their current behaviour with abstract rewards in the future. We find it much easier to align our actions for smaller tangible rewards in the near future. People are also very good at providing themselves with all kinds of post-rationalisations to justify their behaviour to themselves and others. (See our blog on System 1 – System 2 thinking). Climate activists need to be aware that you can’t achieve behavioural change for abstract rewards in the far future. 

A second mistake is the desire to persuade people. Facts only matter if they confirm what people already believe. Activists, therefore, only tend to convince other activists. They’re preaching to the choir. If you’re a Trump fan, you will dismiss all lies and accusations as fake news, or deep state undermining. If you’re a hard-working ordinary guy who can barely make ends meet, you’ll get very upset by green fanatics who want to tax your old diesel. Like you should never try to persuade someone with facts to have sex with you, you shouldn’t try to convince someone into sustainable behavioural change. 

A third mistake: If I ask you not to think an elephant, you can’t help but think of an elephant. By pointing your attention to the elephant, I activated your brain to think about it. Climate activists and environmentalists ignite thoughts and images of fear, danger, suffering, guilt and hopelessness. These thoughts are highly unproductive for action, because they paralyse people at best, or get people to feel too small and irrelevant at worst. If you insist that we’re not doing enough as a society, you strengthen the belief that it makes no sense to act, because nobody else isn’t doing anything neither. 

A fourth mistake is the fascinating world of perverse incentives. Quite often an intervention that was designed with the best intentions trigger the exact opposite behaviour. When you increase the fines for texting while driving, people don’t stop the behaviour but lower their phone between their legs. When you clean up people’s mess after they littered, you give them a free pass for littering. 

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Five Behavioural Design Principles for better campaigning

Principle 1: Think outside-in: Find the deeper needs and drivers in people’s lives and try to connect with those. Donald Trump discovered that a deep sense of not being recognised and respected is an emotional goldmine. Translated to environmentalist campaigning: Never expect the masses to change their behaviour for the climate. But do expect them to change their behaviour if it’s in their self-interest. Turn climate-activism into a right-win theme and appeal to self-centred motives: local jobs, national pride, more quality of life, lower costs of living. Tell a story of how the small guy takes back control against big corporations with deep pockets. Don’t talk about costs; talk about investments. Link abstract ideas to words and images that people can relate to. Littering is abstract, but not when you talk about little kids on the beach, putting cigarette buds in their mouth. 

Principle 2: People want to follow exciting leaders

The problem with environmentalists is that they always lose the battle for public appreciation. They are either too kind (hippy tree-huggers) or too irritating (stubborn activists). Figure out how to make environmentalism more bad-ass. You want the tough kids and the cool kids to be on your side. Don’t get me wrong: You also need the Greta’s, but you need other persona’s to take activism from the fringes to the masses. 

Principle 3: Framing is war. Our brain is hard-wired to interpret the world in terms of battles and enemies. Environmentalists need to create better narratives with in-groups (us) versus out-groups (them). Every populist in the world can only thrive by stirring the anger of the masses against their enemies. The right-wing populist provokes their rage against the liberal elites. The left-wing populists stir anger against the billionaire class. Frame the environmental challenges in terms of a battle between ordinary people and all the evil forces that make their lives more difficult. For an ‘us-story’ to catch on, we need to start telling a vivid ‘them-story’.

Principle 4: Social Proof. Social proof is the most powerful principle in the universe. Humans are highly social animals. We are continually looking at what other people do to calibrate our own beliefs and behaviours. As long as I have the feeling that majority is not moving the needle, then I’m not going to be the lonely sucker who does. Conversely, when a critical mass for behavioural change is reached, things can change very fast. Environmentalists need to create the feeling that everyone’s on board, to make people feel more comfortable to join the change. 

Principle 5: Ability: Ability is the dark horse of behavioural change. Many people shifted to solar in the Netherlands when iChoosr organised a group-buying scheme. Norway is the world leader in the percentage of electric cars buying sold, by allowing toll-free passage for EVs and turning parking in Oslo free. Meatless Monday has been a worldwide success to trigger trial behaviour for eating vegetarian. You can’t change people’s eating habits if you can’t activate them to try it first. 

Conclusion

Environmentalists and climate activists need to embrace the science of influence to become more effective at achieving their goals. 

Sometimes this requires to act against their impulses to persuade and convince people for the need for action. In the end, the outcome is all that matters. 

If you want to create lasting sustainable behavioural change:

  • Make the desired behaviour selfish
  • Make the desired behaviour easy (and don’t give a damn if people don’t give it a thought) 
  • Frame the desired behaviour in terms of a surplus in joy and happiness, instead of a decrease. 

One more thing: Activists still matter. They set the agenda and move the needle. They create awareness for problems and take the issue from the fringes towards the critical mass. But the tactics that brought them there stand in the way of mass adoption. 

Tom De Bruyne

Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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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happiness

A Behavioural Design Guide to Happiness in 2021

By | All, Self Improvement

What is the secret to happiness? Which behaviours lead to a happier life? In this blog I want to explore how a deeper understanding of behavioural science can help us to design for happiness. I want to explore how you can use Behavioral Design thinking to nudge yourself into living a happier life.

Tom De Bruyne

Happiness comes in four chemical flavours.

The problem with designing for happiness is that happiness is a bit of a tricky state of mind. It comes in many flavours: excitement, joy, satisfaction, wellbeing, a sense of belonging, etc. So if we want to pursue happiness, what are we talking about? The most objective way to think about it is to look at the neurochemicals that produce happiness. In the end, our experiences are nothing more than triggers that produce neurochemicals: 

  1. Dopamine gives a person a sense of joy when a goal is reached or fulfilled. Dopamine comes in instant rushes, right before the moment of success. Think about: scoring a goal, crossing the finish line, winning a pitch, get a Tinder Match, beating your competitor, etc. 
  2. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone. Whenever you feel deeply connected with a loved one, or when you feel you truly belong to a group or community. Oxytocin produces a sense of bliss and a feeling of security. Sapiens is a social primate that needs this connection with others. 
  3. Serotonin is the wellbeing hormone that we produce when we achieve social status. Serotonin generates a feeling of self-importance. Your body releases serotonin when your investments in yourself, your skills, social life, and professional life start to pay off. There lays the difference with dopamine, a hormone that is all about instant gratification. 
  4. Endorphines are the hormones that produce a feeling of euphoria. Endorphine is the neurotransmitter that many of the well-known drugs activate. Its biological function is to mask pain. Your body releases endorphins, for instance when you transcend your limits in sports. E.g. Runners often refer to the endorphin rush when they talk about the runner high. 


The problem with happiness: Addiction to dopamine

We live in a dopamine economy. Whenever you open your senses, you are under attack by an endless stream of messages that try to persuade you to go for instant gratification. The promise of snacks, candies, alcohol, processed food is that there’s instant gratification within reach. Social media is nothing more than a dopamine pump on steroids. It always tries to lure you back with notifications. After every social media notification lays the promise of a like, comment, important e-mail, offer, etc. 

The problem with dopamine is that it depletes. The more you chase it, the more dopamine you waste. The more dopamines you waste, the more you need to approach the memory of that feeling of initial satisfaction. The drama of the availability of instant gratification machines in our life (cheap calories, cheap social technologies), is that they make us crave for more, but in the long run, produce less and less happiness. 

Buddhists try to solve this problem by detaching themselves from every desire. They argue that the desires we chase are not our desires anyway. When we desire beauty, success, wealth, admiration, and victory, we all become a slave to a passion that is not our own. We copy these desires from other people, and we assume that the success stories that we see in the media are the ultimate goals for successful living.

While we assume they will deliver happiness in the end, they produce a lot of misery and a continuous state of dissatisfaction. 

I never found the Buddhist answer completely satisfying. Perhaps because I grew up in two of the greatest cities of under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy: Ghent and Bruges. There’s just too much joy in feasting, and in being passionate and gluttonous once in a while. However, I do recognize that the chase of desires is a dead end. I’ve seen too many seemingly successful people, who keep chasing more and more success, but without being happy or satisfied. 

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The solution: Design for Serotine and Oxycotin. 

In an podcast interview with Naval Ravikant, I overheard the quote “Hard choices, easy life. Easy choices, hard life”. That’s such an elegant phrase. It suggests that we should go for the happiness that follows from investment in mastery and connection with others. 

You produce serotonin when you finally get in shape. It’s in the flow you experience once you master your craft. It’s in the joy you feel when you can apply your creativity, intelligence, experience to solve problems.  

You produce oxytocin when you have deep and meaningful friendships. When you can experience the joy of being with people, you can fully trust. People that always pull you in delightful and effortless conversations. People who care about you and people who appreciate the fact that you care for them. 

The things in life that take investment, that are a bit risky, and that require pain and abstinence upfront, are the things that produce happiness. 

Five practical behavioural design interventions to achieve happiness.

The guidelines above are still a bit abstract. ‘Design for Oxycotin and Serotonin’ is not exactly a practical guideline. I want to propose five practical behavioural design principles that will lead to the behaviours that release the right mix of serotonin and oxycontin, topped with a little bit of dopamine.

Intervention 1: Framing. Frame life as a game. 

This is one of the simplest ways to live a happier life. Think of everything you do as a game. If you think of your relationship as a game, you will have much more fun with it. Your goal is to crack the code of how to keep the relationship playful and how to maintain curiosity. 

The same rule applies to work: Work is a game. You need to figure out how to get good at it. If you don’t take risks, you’ll never make progress, and you’ll remain stuck in the same bland level. If you take a chance and it doesn’t pay off, you will always get a second shot. 

However, there is a pitfall; A game can become an addictive dopamine pump. People too often don’t understand when to stop playing the game. And the moment this happens, the game will play with them. The tail starts wagging the dog. Too often, people get trapped inside status games or success games. At this stage, the game start to produce misery, anger, competition, stress, anxiety, and fear of losing status. 

There’s a big difference between “game” and ‘play”. Once you reach a level where you can enjoy the game for the sake of playing it, then you can truly enjoy it for its own sake. I have this approach to most games in life. I don’t care if I win them or not, as long as I enjoy the game in itself. That usually suffices to make a very decent living. It also prevents me from detaching my happiness from the outcome of these games. Granted, that’s a bit easier to say when you are the company’s owner, but I have always had this approach this game-frame to life. 

Intervention 2: Fuck it, let’s do it. The 5-seconds rule. 

One of the most critical behaviours that lead to happiness is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people learn more, meet more people, get more achievements. In other words: Curiosity produces both dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. To force yourself to experiment and try things out is one of the best approaches to living a happier life. We’ve written about the “fuck it, let’s do it” approach in the past. The essence of this philosophy is: treat your whole life as a continuous set of experiments. You should be running experiments all the time to figure out if they make you happy. If they don’t: cancel the experiment and be grateful for what you’ve learned. This way, you will never experience failure again. Instead, you have learned that some things don’t work for you.

Intervention 3: Create Forcing functions

For the body to produce serotonin, we need to do the things that require investment, effort and abstinence. Think of eating healthy, getting fit, growing in your job, etc.  

However, our senses are bombarded continuously with dopamine alternatives to serotonin. Why go to the gym if you can watch Netflix right now? Why cook for an hour, while you can order a pizza? Why read a book, if Facebook is full of instant gratifications? 

At a certain point, we need to find ways to manipulate or force ourselves into serotonin behaviours. For instance, I have made a deal with a personal trainer to train me three times per week for six months. In the first weeks, I wouldn’t say I liked every second of it. I called her my closest thing to a Nazi. But I had no excuse to skip training. I had a gym subscription for more than four years, but I never could get beyond the initial suffering phase. Now, after four weeks, I even start to enjoy it.

Intervention 4: Priming. Do Misery Benchmarking 

Misery often follows from benchmarking with people who are more successful than you. We always seem to look up. But isn’t that insane? If you read this blog, chances are very high that you are part of the 1% of the world that is educated, financially well-off. 

Whenever you are a bit bored, confined to your house, blaming the pandemic for your misery, think about the refugee mothers with babies in tent camps in Lesbos, whose babies are being bitten at night by rats. See if you still think your sense of entitlement is justified. 

Intervention 5: Practice gratitude

I won’t spend too much effort on this one. The value of gratitude should be a well-established idea by now. 

Practising gratitude leads to a more fulfilling life. Furthermore, it primes your brain to focus its attention on the good things in your life. By doing this every day, you gradually train your brain to pay attention to the good stuff. 

That’s it. 5 interventions to hack your happiness hormone system. Try them: You’ll love it.

Tom De Bruyne

Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
Reading books

Books I loved in 2020, and why you should read them too (updated)

By | All, Self Improvement

I know it’s a bit of a cliché to make lists like these. But on the other hand, I love to read these curated lists myself. Exciting reviews and recommendations always inspire me to buy books for myself. So here’s a list of the books I think you’ll love as much as I did. The list is as random as my reading habits. I sincerly hope I can succeed in triggering your curiosity to buy at least one of these books.

Update January 25th 2021: How could I forget not to include “The Invention of Nature”, the biography of Alexander von Humboldt! Check out why below.

Tom De Bruyne

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Category: History

The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science. 

The Invention of NatureThis book blew me away. Von Humboldt’s life is marked by an endless curiosity about understanding the world and the principles of physics, biology and nature. He lived in an era that marked the beginning of scientific enquiry and in a way he was the posterchild of that era. Von Humboldt combined an insaturable curiosity with total fearlessness and a sense for adventure. One of the best biographies I ever read. Highly recommended.

 

HHHH by Laurent Binet

HHHH - Laurent BinetThis year I read this book for the third time. The best way to describe the book is that it’s the journey of a neurotic historian who gets into a conversation with his readers about his struggle to tell the story of the assassin of Heinrich Heidrich in Prague. It’s hilarious and fascinating. If I would have had a history teacher like Binet in high school, I’d probably become a historian. I also re-read The Seventh Function of Language. I love this book, but you have to have a bit of background in French philosophy to appreciate his mockery of the scene around Foucault, Derrida, Jakobson, Lacan and others. I also loved his latest book Civilizations, a thrilling fictitious history of what would have happened if Columbus failed and the Incas would have conquered Europe.

Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham

Midnight in ChernobylThis book made a significant impression on me. It tells the story of the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. You get a deeper understanding of how the Communist System shaped the behaviours that eventually lead to the nuclear disaster in 1986. The story of Chernobyl is the story of a system that produced layer upon layer of bureaucrats that only wanted to hear good news and who were obsessed with success and glory at all costs. 

I previously wrote a blog about this book here.


Several books by Philipp Blom

Wicked Company - Philipp BlomThis year I discovered the historian and philosopher Philipp Blom. What a lucid writer. A Wicked Company, the forgotten Radicalism of the Enlightenment takes the reader to the Seventeenth Century philosophical salons where Diderot, D’Holbach and their famous guests like David Hume lay the radical intellectual groundwork for a new theory on humanity that doesn’t require a God.

Fun fact: The famous philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the writer of Emile, a famous treaty on education, got five kids with his mistress and got rid of all babies. He was also a paranoid, vicious man, quite in contrast with his philosophy.

What’s fascinating about this history is that one salon in Paris created the circumstances in which the greatest minds of that era connected, cross-pollinated and pushed each others thinking and writing. If the saying is true that “you are the average of the five people you hang around with”, then this was the place where the 0.00001% of lucid minds came together. A great reminder that brilliance is the product of creating the right context. 

Other books I enjoyed by Philip Blom (in Dutch):

  • Wat op het spel staat. The book hasn’t been translated yet. A highly recommended read on the challenges we’re facing today due to climate change and robotization, where Blom shines a historical light on the challenges we’re facing.
  • Het Grote Wereldtoneel. A marvellous essay on the battle between the stories that define our view on the world. Blom argues that we need new collective narratives to deal with the current challenges.

The Full Fundamentals Course experience.
All from your Home or Office.

You can now access the FULL Behavioural Design Fundamentals Course live from your home or office. Watch a live trainer and get real-time feedback & coaching. Interact with fellow peers. Work together in virtual break-out rooms. Don’t let COVID slow you down!

Category: Economics

Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

Alchemy - Rory SutherlandWhenever people ask me to recommend a book on behavioural science, this is the one I recommend. Alchemy is witty, creative, sharp. Rory Sutherland knows how to make you fall in love with the intriguing world of behavioural economics. His book challenges flawed human understanding in the way we think about designing products, services, policies and our private life. When you embrace irrationality, you will come up with highly counterintuitive ideas that can make a huge difference.

Tip: You can also listen to Alchemy as audiobook on Storytel, read by Rory himself.

 

Angrynomics by Marc Blyth and Eric Lonergan

AngrynomicsI have written about Mark Blyth several times. He’s a Scottish-American professor in political economy at Brown University. He wrote a lot about austerity, arguing that austerity is the dumbest solution to an economic crisis. Angrynomics is a relatively short book in which Blyth and his co-author Eric Lonergan attempt to build up an economic theory on why we’re witnessing so much anger that has been captured so well by populists. I loved the book because it read like a little masterclass in economic theory. Blyth is also fascinating and funny to watch or listen to online.

 

Fantoomgroei by Sander Heijne and Hendrik Noten. 

Fantoomgroei - Sander Heijne en Hendrik NotenI sincerely hope this book is going to get translated into English. Hendrik and Sander did a fantastic job exploring a simple question: Why is it that the economy is booming, but less and fewer people benefit from this boom? They explore how we became obsessed with the economy while forgetting that the economy should be instrumental in shaping society. Fantoomgroei inspired my liberal friends and me to think about how the rules and the beliefs underneath the current economy produce growing inequality. It explores how to fix it through more cooperative ways of thinking.

 

Category: Science

How Innovation Works – Matt Ridley

Matt Ridley - How Innovation WorksI discovered Matt Ridley this year after listing to the interview that Naval Ravikant did in his podcast. His most recent book, How Innovation Works is an excellent history of innovation. A highly counterintuitive insight is that invention is never the product of a lone genius. On the contrary, innovation is somewhat in the air at some point in history. And for every great invention, several inventors were working on cracking the problem at the same time. Ridley is one of those great minds, comparable with Yuval Harari. I started reading Genome, a book about our genes’ history but didn’t finish it yet. His 2010 bestseller The Rational Optimist blew my mind. You can think of it as a history of human problem-solving capacity and if you need some antidote to apocalyptic climate change fearmongering, then this is your book.

 

Category: Creativity

Obliquity by John Kay

Obliquity - John KayFascinating book. It’s a bit of a cult book in the planning community. Obliquity makes a strong case for approaching goals indirectly. If you want to get rich, never go after wealth. If you’re going to get happy, never chase happiness. If you want to learn how the pursuit of financial goals time and again turns out to be the fastest path to oblivion for companies, read this intriguing little book. 

 

Range by David Epstein 

Range - David EpsteinThis book was one of the most recommended books by the Farnamstreet blog learning community. It’s a great book about how we learn. The core idea is that true mastery is all about combining skills, instead of focus on learning just one. Real outperformers seem to combine know-how from multiple disciplines. But the book is much richer than this elevator pitch. Tons of insights on how to learn. For instance: You will learn much faster if you try to apply the theory and fail. Failing fuels your curiosity for the right approach, and as a consequence, your learning experience becomes much more profound. This is a book I’ll have to re-read multiple times.

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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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Image of happiness

The Behavioural Design of Joy and Happiness

By | All, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

These are challenging times and it’s not obvious to keep up the positive spirit. That’s why I want to explore some thoughts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to inject more joy and happiness into your life.

How to design joy and happiness?

‘Winter is coming’. Whenever these three words were uttered in ‘Game of Thrones’, you knew misery was nearby. Today they seem to have the same effect when talking about the psychological drama called reality. This winter, the pandemic is coming, the recession, climate catastrophe, and the end of democracy. Pessimists seem to have a competitive edge these days in debating contests.

And yet, I would like to argue that we don’t need to become pessimists, as long as we make some simple decisions based on behavioural science. Here are two simple behavioural rules to maintain an overall level of happiness.

 

Rule 1: Design Attention

This one sounds trivial but is critical. What you focus your attention towards, influences your thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Research amongst older people demonstrated that happy older people apply a simple heuristic to life: They decided that life is too short to spend their attention to people and events that make them unhappy.

Attention is a choice: You can choose to be consumed by thoughts and feelings about what other people think or say. Or you can decide not to pay attention to it. You have to learn to appreciate that everyone is fundamentally insecure about life and death, and they all try to cope with it in their limited way. That’s a very liberating thought. By the way, the expression “to pay attention” is quite literary true: You pay the price to your psychological wellbeing by investing your attention in things that deplete your energy and happiness.

Attention also means: Not allowing your attention to be hijacked. I have deleted all news apps, social media apps and their little notification bastards from my smartphone because I know they are designed to seize my attention for monetization. The amount of time that becomes available for family, friendships, reading, and fishing in the Amsterdam canals is bizarre.

Unlock the power of Behavioural Design

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and learn an easy to apply method  to predictably influence minds and shape the behaviour of clients, customers, employees or citizens.

Rule 2: Design a Happiness Habit

A second rule is to instil habits that drive happiness. Or more importantly: practices that help you to prevent distraction from living a happy life. For instance, Astrid and I start every monthly MT-meeting with checking how the past months have scored on the most critical drivers of psychological happiness:

  • Experiencing flow,
  • Chasing curiosity and novelty,
  • Achieving success and accomplishment
  • Having meaningful relationships
  • Growing and learning as a person.

These are the most important ones. (Tip: If you want to learn more about the science behind this, check Astrid’s lecture on the psychology of happiness at Behavioural Design Fest 2018 (Dutch). We use these happiness criteria to decide where we need to intervene in our work and our life. A great company should feel like a well-designed game in which flow, missions, achievements, curiosity, experimentation and adventure are central to the setup of the company. If we wouldn’t keep asking ourselves these questions, we would all gradually slip into boredom.

I’m fully conscious of the fact that financial stability and good health are necessary conditions for the above to be true. If you are uncertain about your capacity to sustain yourself or your family, you will be eaten by stress to survive. But unless we take back control, others will hijack our attention, manipulate our desires, exploit our talent and creativity, and eat away our limited time on eath.

If you look at it this way, living a happy life is a pretty simple behavioural design briefing.

Image courtesy: Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash. 

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
Tom De Bruyne @ NowFest

Transforming an ad agency through behavioural design

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, SUE Amsterdam & Behavioural Design Academy originals

This blog is the talk I gave at NowFest 2020, a global conference on Behavioural Science. We were asked to talk about how we successfully transformed from an ad agency to a design and innovation consultancy. This is the story of all the things we learned while making lots of bad decisions along the way. So if you work in the ad industry and you’re struggling with your business model, then this might provide you with some inspiration on where to look for answers. If you prefer to see the whole talk. I included the video below.

Part 1: The existential crisis as an agency

About ten years ago, Astrid and I were leading an advertising agency in Amsterdam. According to the market, we were doing great. We won a Dutch “Agency of the Year” award, and we were doing award-winning work for brands like Nike. The problem was: we hated every bit of it, and we felt that there were several trends that didn’t look promising for the future of the ad agency business model. Both our customers and the market were changing.

  1. Customers were changing: After their CEO’s went on a pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, they all saw the light and every big client was going through two transformation waves:
    1. Digital transformation, which meant they were now getting obsessed with everything measurable and easy to optimise. Advertising started to be seen as this old medieval art in comparison with this new obsession, and investment in advertising shifted to programmatic and tactical, instead of creative.
    2. Agile transformation: our customers were starting to work in multi-disciplinary teams around customer segments and around customer journeys. The consequence of this is that more and more creative marketing was taking place within the teams, as opposed to being outsourced to agencies.
  2. Markets were changing: Digital disruption was on its way. At that time we had a quote up our wall by Rei Inamoto – the former ECD from AKQA – that said: Business models from the least expected angles or players could disrupt your business faster than advertising can save it”. So more and more clients were betting their money on trying to cut costs and figure out how to fight the incumbents.

It was the hight of the aftermath of the financial crisis. Everyone in the industry was talking about how to build “the agency of the future”. But the problem was: All the interesting and exciting things were taking place outside our industry. To name four domains that inspired us:

  • The Conversion Optimisation community was (and still is) the hacker avant-garde of digital marketing.
  • The Persuasion design / UX community, because they re-introduced psychology into design.
  • The Lean Startup Community, because they were combining both psychology and conversion optimization to figure out the laws of marketing growth.
  • Most thinking about Creativity came out of the industry: Ideo introduced ‘Design Thinking’ as a creative process and Creativity.inc by Ed Catmull from Pixar on how to manage a culture of creative excellence.

We were deeply frustrated with our inability to transform the agency from within. Our creatives mistook creativity for originality and were obsessed with awards. Probably because they perfectly realised that what they were doing was utterly pointless.

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Part 2: The path to transformation

(solution version 1)

In 2011 we decided to quit the agency we were leading and start our own company in an attempt to design a solution that could deal with all the challenges above.

We called the company SUE, named after “A Boy Named SUE“, the beautiful song by Johny Cash.

Four principles or beliefs formed the foundation of SUE:

  1. The core of what we do is behavioural change, not communication. You probably know the famous aphorism by Charly Munger who said “To a man with a hammer every problem looks like a nail”. Well, to a branding guy, every problem looks like an advertising problem. To an ad guy, every problem looks like an advertising problem. But a behavioural designer should be agnostic to the tools he or she uses to shape behaviour: comms, design, physical spaces, framing, technology,…we even did an intervention in which we used children to prevent parents from picking up their phone while driving. As long as it contributes to the desired behavioural outcome, the medium is just a tool. Behavioural designers combine psychology, technology and Creativity to figure out how to influence minds and shape behaviour.
  2. We believe that Creativity is a step by step process, not the product of genius creatives. We were tired of the advertising myth of brilliant creative teams. We strongly believe that the quality of the output is a function of the quality of the input and the process.
  3. We believe that the separation between research, strategy and creativity into silos makes no sense. If you have a research agency for your Research, a strategy company for your big strategy, an ad agency for your Big Idea and a production company for your design and production, the process will produce lots of waste. They all tend to act upon the executive summary of the previous stage and selectively pick the insights that fit with their own framework. Instead, we felt that behavioural designers should do research and strategizing themselves. If they did the research themselves, they would have had a much deeper understanding of the problem.
  4. Since we’re dealing with humans: we should always be prototyping and testing to learn and improve. We should shred our expert bias and embrace uncertainty and a hunger for learning and improving.

The idea sounded good in theory. But let’s first delve into what we did wrong:

  • We still called ourselves an agency. Therefore in the mind of the market, they put us in the ad agency frame. That was problematic. We wanted to solve the briefings in different ways, but in the end, we were working for the campaign managers, and they just wanted a campaign. So we attracted ‘ad agency clients’.
  • We made the classic startup mistake of hiring too many people who could work on the projects while neglecting supporting sales and marketing.
  • We couldn’t figure out how to design our process in a way that made economic sense. We introduced the Behavioural Design Sprint as our method, but we had five people per sprint team.
  • We also suffered from the famous Kruger-Dunning effect. We were very confident that we could quickly master marketing automation, but that problem of finding the sweet spot between technology and creativity was hard. If you think of it: most inbound marketing is obsessed with tactics, but sucks at impact.

We thought we had the answer to “the agency of the future”-challenge: introduce creative methodology, marketing technology and behavioural sciences into the process, and your clients will love it.

The problem was: We were thinking too much inside-out. We were trying to transform from within, but the problem was the ad industry itself.

Back in 2017, this culminated in a crisis. On Easter day, we were sitting in a supermarket eating breakfast, exhausted with a 6-month-old baby that didn’t sleep and our accountant called. It’s never good news when your account calls on a holiday. He said: are you guys aware of the fact that you are loosing 100k per month and you’ll be bankrupt within three months if you don’t act?

That sucked.

Big time.

We had about two days to figure out if we would stop or tackle the problem. We chose the latter.

 

Part 3: When we finally got it right.

The nice thing with running out of cash is that you have to make bold decisions. There are no other options. We did a series of interventions:

  • Intervention 1: Staff. We had to fire about 15 people. That burned our cash reserves even more, but there was no alternative. We needed to start from zero if we wanted to succeed.
  • Intervention 2: We stopped being an agency and turned into a consultancy. The difference turns out to be substantial. We were betting on the belief that the market changed from outsourcing creativity to agencies, to developing customer intelligence capabilities internally. So said to clients: don’t hire us to do your campaign, but hire us to help you to improve your product, service, marketing or customer experience through behavioural science.
  • Intervention 3: We decided to claim the word “Behavioural Design”. At that point, the term was not owned by anyone. So the dilemma we had was: Nobody knows behavioural design, so it would be pure suicide to start a company on something that doesn’t exist. ON the other hand, it held the promise of a new story that we could own.
  • Intervention 4: The business model was still very fragile, so we started the Behavioural Design Academy. We figured that if the market was shifting to more capability development, we should begin to offer training in how to use behavioural science to improve products, service and customer journey through a deeper understanding of human psychology.
  • Intervention 5: We productized our offering. We were fed up with budget discussions, so we re-framed the whole pricing away from hourly rates to value-based pricing: you pay for the behavioural design sprint process. A 13-days process in which we do behavioural research, spot opportunities, come up with ideas, prototype the most promising ones, and test them with the users. A sprint is
  • Intervention 6: We made the Behavioural Design Method the hero, and by doing that we challenge some problematic market conventions worth solving: It solves the problem that the research industry is facing of not being able to turn insight into ideas. It solved the strategy problem of not being able to validate the power of the strategy until it’s too late – i.e. when the execution doesn’t work -, because we prototype and test the strategy right away.

 

What have we learned so far:

  • The Behavioural Design Academy is a huge success: We had over 42 nationalities who flew in for our two-day masterclass.
  • We are doing more in-company training programs all over the world, training teams in the Behavioural Design Method.
  • We spiralled out of advertising and are now working on projects that exceed our wildest dreams: to win elections, fight radicalization, transform team behaviour, design spaces, get people to save more, get people to donate. We had the honour to work on all continents for major brands and organizations.
  • Our clients like and respect us for what we do. It makes a great deal of difference if you’re in the business of making your clients smarter, instead of producing their campaigns. As an ad agency, your clients like you, but don’t respect you.

 

We transformed our company by putting deep human understanding at the heart of what we do. All the rest follows from this premise.

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

How to design team behaviour?

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations

In this blog I want to explore a fascinating phenomenon: How individuals morph into groups. Behavioural Science sheds some perspective on group behaviour in organizations and how to influence this in a positive way. So if you struggle with how to be creative, productive and happy within your team, then this blog is for you.

How do individuals morph into groups?

Groups are a fascinating psychological phenomenon. Put a random selection of people in a room, and their brain tries to figure out as fast as possible how to form a group. Every group quickly produces leaders, facilitators, followers and saboteurs. Some groups dissolve instantly into subgroups or couples. This process is mostly automatic and unconscious.

What’s even more fascinating is what happens when you throw in a new person into an existing group. Their automatic brain is working extra hours to decipher what the implicit rules of this group are: Who is the formal and informal leader? How do we talk to each other? What are the taboos in this group, and whom do I have to befriend? Is this group built on trust or competition?

In his autobiography “I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic“, the soccer superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic tells the fascinating story of how the group culture of FC Barcelona, the biggest club in the world, psychologically broke him. Under the reign of coach Pep Guardiola, there was a stringent “act normal”-culture, to which most of their superstars (Messi, Iniesta) submitted themselves. For an eccentric personality like Zlatan, who grew up in the suburbs, this was a nightmare. Here are some more juice details, if you like football.

 

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The behavioural rules of a group

A group is a set of unconscious rules that govern the interactions between the individuals within the group. This pragmatic definition gives us an interesting lens to look at the desired and undesired group behaviour in organisations. You can have as many fancy mission statements as you want, or you can have installed well-designed processes, in the end, people adapt their behaviour based on what they observe in the behaviour of others. Our automatic brain (system 1) is hardwired this way to pick up these cues and signals.

When people observe that some people get away with laziness, they will adapt their behaviour. If they see that the boss overrules decisions, everyone will work on getting approval first. Imagine they observe that autonomous decisions that didn’t turn out well are being punished by management. In that case, the whole group will fill its days by setting up meetings with the sole purpose of distributing risk and accountability to the team. And if the boss signals that his idea of good work is working long hours, you’ll quickly see everyone running around, working late and sending torrents of e-mails.

(continue below)

Unlock the power of Behavioural Design

Join our virtual Behavioural Design Academy and learn an easy to apply method, to predictably influence minds and shape the behaviour of clients, customers, employees or citizens. With live trainer and real-time interaction with fellow like-minded professionals.

PS Did you know you can book a spot now and do your training in 2021?
We’ll send you a 2020 invoice right away to help you secure your 2020 training budget.

How to transform organisational culture?

Organisational culture, therefore, is nothing more than the beliefs and behaviours that people learn by observing each other. An optimistic, creative culture often grows on top of some game rules that might look trivial at first. We had a team once who decided to run a retrospective meeting of one hour every Friday afternoon. In this meeting, they committed to give honest feedback on each other: What went great? What could have been better? After three uncomfortable sessions, this team transformed from a collective of hardworking individuals to a group that was hungry to help each other to learn and grow, and to become exceptional. Out of this small intervention – the installation of a simple habit – a group emerged with a robust set of new rules. In the end this team transformed both the company, as well as the identity of the people in this group.

Want to learn more about designing group behaviour?

Our popular report “Leading distributed teams” is a great way to understand the hidden forces that shape employee behaviour. The report gives you great insights and interventions to transform a distributed team into a high-performance team that consists of creative, productive and happy team members.

Download the report here.

Or book Astrid for a keynote on this topic for your management team. She has been giving many virtual keynotes in several markets in the last couple of months about our behavioural approach on team behaviour.

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 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames 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 Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
boredom

We are the product of the stories we inhabit

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

In previous posts, I wrote about Identity, Growth-KPI, and economic policies as examples of macro-forces for behavioural change. They have a profound impact on how people behave in society. Today I want to introduce a fourth macro-force for behavioural change: Stories. I want to explain the central role of stories in how we think about ourself and the world. And I want to argue that stories are perhaps the essential ingredient of a strategy for behavioural change on a massive scale. As always, I hope you enjoy reading Behavioural Design Digest. Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts, suggestions or remarks at tom@sueamsterdam.com.

PS: While you’re here: Last month we had the first post-corona offline Behavioural Design Academy Fundamentals Course. It was great! You can still decide to enrol in the online or offline edition in August, or – if you are an alumnus of the BDA – you can become a certified Behavioural Design Lead by attending our 3 month advanced course that starts in September. 

boredom

We are nothing more than actors in other people’s stories. 

A couple of days ago, as we were enjoying one of the first warm sunny days in July at our family’s summer house, I noticed a couple sitting outside at the nearby bungalow. They were sitting next to each other for more than 3 hours, drinking coffee, smoking cigarettes, staring into the abyss. They must have decided that, since it was summer, the smartest thing they could think of was to rent a bungalow on a bungalow park.

The whole scene struck me. It felt like this couple were actors in a story that went nowhere. And since there was no story left for them to participate in, they were sitting there, side by side. Numb and paralyzed. I imagined that probably 20-30 years ago, a different story must have structured their lives and their relationship. A story filled with dreams and plans. A story of what they wanted to become and the hero journeys they would embark upon to achieve those outcomes.

Jacques Lacan

Who we are is produced mainly by the stories we inhabit

The whole scene reminded me of why Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis fascinates me so much. What the French Psychiatrist Jacques Lacan (see image above) highlighted in his re-reading of the work of Freud, was Freuds struggle to understand the essence of the concepts that define humans: Our identity, our desires, our unconsciousness, and our relationship with lust, authority and death.

Lacan argued that what Freud discovered was that there is no such thing as a self. The words I produce are not initiated by a core self that is running the show deep inside our brain. In contrast, Lacan argues that the ‘self’ is instead an emerging property. It emerges out of the words and stories that we inhabit.

You can think of your identity as a web of positions that are assigned to you. Your first position in life is your place as a child to two parents. They teach you over and over again how they expect you to behave. Then, during adolescence, you have to start searching for your own position. You borrow a lot from role models and friends, and in that process a new identity gradually takes shape. Then you find a partner. Your relationship with that partner is very much bounded by the rules that your culture offers for your role: You need to be loyal, faithful, produce a family, create a stable life, raise kids, etc. The moment you utter the words: I am your husband, and you are my wife, your thoughts and behaviours are being shaped by the hidden rules of what it means to be someone’s husband or wife.

Gradually, as you grow older, more and more storylines emerge and force you to play an ever more growing set of roles. Meanwhile, you try to figure out whom you need to be, to be recognized and appreciated by your friends, your team, your boss, your clients, your neighbours?

 

Being human is exhausting.

If you think about it: Being a human is pretty exhausting. We’re acting in a never-ending play that consists of multiple storylines. And this is exhausting for several reasons:

  1. The roles we have to play are often in profound conflict. If we want to develop an interesting character in our professional story, we need to show ambition. If we would like to make progress in the professional story, we need to invest in our skills, our network, and our relationship with our colleagues. We need to hunt for promotions, and we need to put up fights with our competitors. But this often conflicts with another demanding storey: The relationship story. Our relationship story demands that we act according to the rules of the script: be a loving, caring lover, father, and friend at the same time.
  2. We’re fundamentally insecure about what others are thinking of us. So we waste our time and money to set up all kinds of performances to signal the desired image to others. Comedian Will Rogers famously said, “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned to buy things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.”.
  3. We have the tendencies to lose ourselves in these stories. Successful people are as much a victim of being lost in stories. I have had the privilege to work with many successful entrepreneurs, and they all reach a point where they suddenly realize that the leading role in the “success story” that they bought into, actually sucks. They got addicted to the part, and it brought them success and recognition, but they end up being bored and feeling lonely. If you think about it: The presidency of Donald Trump is nothing more than a never-ending obsessive desperate role-play to be seen as a successful businessman.

 

Why the current story sucks. 

Remember, the value of stories is that they produce our identities. Your identity is the product of the stories you inhabit. As I argued in my previous posts, the most important reason for the growing discontent in society is that people have lost confidence that the economy will produce an exciting future for them. What is there to dream for, if society has reduced you to a consumer of goods? If you’re robbed of the ability to secure a stable life and maintain that same level of living after retirement. How would you feel if you would be acting in a play in which a tiny elite re-writes the script to produce ever more wealth for themselves and burden society with all the costs, while climate catastrophe is looming on the horizon?

Unless you are part of the lucky few for which this storyline creates social status, prosperity and access to exclusive places and very cool friends, more and more people haven’t got that much to strive for, unless avoiding the stress of getting into trouble.

The story is broken.

Stijn Siekelink – a well known Dutch researcher on radicalization – argues that we should think of radicalization as an identity crisis that went wrong. Time and again, radicalized youngsters say that the Jihad Recruiters were the first people who gave them a perspective to be part of something that society wasn’t going to provide them with: status, purpose, pride, and identity. Jihadist recruiters understand perfectly well that their praying on a sense of being a loser. They offer a much more thrilling answer than regular societies.

 

What the new stories should look like. 

Why do we love movies or series? The simple reason is that we love exciting narratives. A well-crafted story has it all: a tension, a hero journey, a goal to strive for, and lots of obstacles that need to be overcome. Every movie in the history of the world follows this recipe. We, humans, crave for stories like these.

No think about your own life: When was the last time you had the feeling you were living the plot of an exciting movie? What was the last time you felt you were part of an epic journey? When did you think that the life you’re living was fueled with a desire to achieve something bigger than yourself?

There are so many major problems to be solved: Humanity can fix hunger, poverty, inequality, climate change, rewilding nature etc… but we’re no longer part of the solution anymore. We can all make individual choices, like driving electric, eating plant-based, travelling less, but these are all choices we make as a consumer. Everything else, we have outsourced to governments and international organizations.

The central thesis of my blogpost is the Freudian-Lacanian psychoanalytic concept that our identities are being produced by the stories we inhabit. If we don’t change the script, we’ll end up as bored and annoyed actors in a sad storyline. A boring narrative of success and social status. Meanwhile, there are so many epic adventures ahead of us to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

While the world is gradually turning into Instagram, we should live it more like Minecraft, a game in which people are encourage to join forces to create beautiful new worlds.

Tom De Bruyne
Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog. Learn the Behavioural Design Method in the Behavioural Design Academy or invite us to facilitate a Behavioural Design Sprint to improve your product, service or marketing with psychological intelligence.

Image Courtesy: Joshua Rawson Harris via Unsplash

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
sue behavioural design
Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Why our obsession with identity is a problem

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I have spent a lot of time reading lately about identity, and its role in politics as well as in human decision-making. Isn’t it bizarre that the challenges of the COVID-19 crisis and the emerging climate crisis should urge us to overcome our differences and start collaborating on an unprecedented scale? Yet, all we are capable of is quarrelling about who we are?

We need to examen the hidden role of identity in behavioural change. And I believe that overcoming our obsession with our identity is probably one of the biggest challenges of today if we want humanity to deal with the mega-challenges it’s facing.

PS: While you’re here: Last month we had the first post-corona offline Behavioural Design Academy Fundamentals Course. It was great! You can still decide to enrol in the online or offline edition in August, or – if you are an alumnus of the BDA – you can become a certified Behavioural Design Lead by attending our 5-day summer course in August. 

Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Both the left and the right are sharing the same obsession

‘Don’t think of an elephant’. Never was a book title as revealing as George Lakoff’s famous book on political framing. With this provocative title, he illustrated the point that fighting a frame strengthens it. In other words: If I ask you not to think of an elephant, you cannot help but think about elephants. If I try to argue that immigration is not the problem, I reinforce the frame that the real discussion is indeed about immigration.

Identity has become the dominant frame in public discourse. All over the world, right-wing national populists are trying to win elections with a romantic idea of what it means to be a Real Dutch, A  real Hungarian, a real American, etc. In their world view, the pure soul of a nation is being compromised by uncontrolled immigration, liberal politics, Muslims, gays, radical-left postmodernist academics and [fill in the blanks]. What they’re selling is a return to a ‘pastopia’, an idealised version of the past.

Meanwhile, the left has gradually fallen back into a similar toxic obsession with identity. All the anger and resentment around cancel culture (see picture below), Black Pete, transgender rights, and wokeness, are all about a deep craving for respect for this particular part of their identity.

Whereas the radical right is craving for a monolithic group identity around conservative Christian values, are the left craving for recognition of their niche identities. It’s pretty much the same story, only a different flavour.

cancel culture

Where does this obsession come from?

The Dutch philosopher Bas Heijne, recently published a beautiful essay on identity and liberalism, called “mens/nonmens”, roughly translated as “human/inhuman”. In this essay, he asks himself the question of why liberalism has such much difficulty to deal with ‘nationalpopulism’. I found his answer quite surprising. The problem with liberalism (and moderate politics in general) is that they stopped having a seductive vision about the future. They act as if the current society is the pinnacle of human achievement, and that our only task is to manage it properly. But more and more people understand perfectly well that the deal that their parents had with society isn’t working for them anymore. The essence of this deal was that if you work hard, you will be able to have a house, your kids can get a proper education, and when you finish your career, there’s going to be a nice pension waiting for you to enjoy the last part of your life.

Historian Philip Blom argues that for more and more people, this contract with society is broken. No matter how hard you work today, you can’t make ends meet, while the rich are getting richer. Buying a house means entering a world of lifelong debt, just like trying to get a proper education. It seems that the wealthy have re-written the rules to benefit their interest.

The reason why ‘nationalpopulists’ have such an appeal, even when they are flawed or openly corrupt individuals themselves, is that they do a far better job in harvesting these feelings of anger for being left behind. They offer something precious in return: a utopia from the past, where society was structured amongst clear lines, where life was simple, where you derived part of your pride from your place in that society, and where virtues and values still mean something. Populists like Putin and Orban are romantic nostalgia. They reject – in the words of Philip Blom – a technocratic world that has been stripped away from all of its magic.

The liberal world that people reject is the cold and hypercompetitive world that consists of individual consumers.  A world that keeps reminding you that no matter how much you buy to express your deeper needs and desires, there’s always a group of better people than you: more prosperous, more successful,… No matter what you do, you will still feel insecure and failed.

Bas Heijne observes that identity only comes into play when it’s under threat. When your world is neatly structured, and your future is bright, you don’t need to think about identity. Only when your identity is under threat, you will start shopping for new answers.

Both the radical left and radical right are more than happy to supply answers to this ‘market demand’ for identity.

Why this is problematic, and what to do about it?

Already in the 1930s, the English psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion observed in his famous book “Experiences in Groups” that groups can only overcome their unconscious tendencies for fighting, flighting, and their dependencies on leaders, by forming what he calls “working groups”. If a group succeeds in joining forces to solve a problem, they will be able to overcome the irrational and destructive forces that the group will revert to by default. Put us in groups, and we still are hardwired to act like a band of primates.

This vision about what kind of society we would like to become is the key element that is missing in politics. We need a story about the sort of community we want to create, not in terms of wealth, but also in terms of the quality of life. Wealth – although important, when there’s not enough of it – turns out to be an empty dream. The market has a big appetite for ideas and stories about how we could design a society in which you can live a qualitative life in a qualitative ecosystem.

More and more thinkers come to the same conclusion. Leading economist Mariana Mazzucato argues in her book “the value of everything” that societies need big hairy audacious projects to bundle excitement, energy, capital and innovation towards solving a wicked problem like eradicating poverty or achieving a CO2-neutral economy.

Does this mean we have to get rid of identity politics? Not at all. We need even more of it. People crave more than ever for a sense of identity, belonging and meaning. Liberals or moderates need to start telling a compelling story about how ‘a society worth living in’ should look like and how we’re going to get there by joining forces and becoming a working group. If not, they will leave the market for identity to nostalgics, frustrated Millenials and radicals.

This is what’s at stake.

Tom De Bruyne

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog. Learn the Behavioural Design Method in the Behavioural Design Academy or invite us to facilitate a Behavioural Design Sprint to improve your product, service or marketing with psychological intelligence.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
sue behavioural design
Amsterdam

The Behavioural Design of Cities

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I have been thinking a lot lately about how spaces shape our behaviour. I believe that COVID-19 crisis might change something profoundly about how we feel about living and working, and this could have a dramatic impact on how we think about living spaces, office spaces, public spaces and retail spaces

PS: While you’re here: Yesterday we had the first post-corona offline Behavioural Design Academy Fundamentals Course. It was great! You can still decide to enrol in the online or offline edition in August, or – if you are an alumnus of the BDA – you can become a certified Behavioural Design Lead by attending our 5-day summer course in August. 

Office Garden

The lockdown uncovered a disturbing truth

Until the COVID-19 crisis hit us, we were collectively trapped in a narrative about living and working: Cities are the places where the opportunities are, so you need to live near or in a city to find a job. Commuting from the countryside became more and more insane. The psychological price you had to pay for living in an affordable house away from the city was having to spend 3 hours in traffic jams or being crammed in public transport during rush hours. 

So we ended up collectively fighting for the scarce spaces in the big cities. To give you an idea of the consequence: the value of our apartment in Amsterdam has doubled in 5 years. Completely unsustainable. 

The same thing has happened with office spaces. The more a city attracts talent and entrepreneurs, the more office space they need, the more prices were soaring. The same thing happened with retail spaces. As long as a city is growing in popularity, landlords could increase their rents to ridiculous levels (and a lot of them did), because if the current tenants couldn’t pay the rent, then there were ten others desperately waiting to give it a shot. 

I think this bubble is bursting. 

Here’s why.

Since two years it became more and more apparent that all the young people I know are leaving the city in large numbers. They loved Amsterdam, but they felt that the cost of living had reached a tipping point where they couldn’t afford it anymore. With pain in their heart, they had to give up their dream. 

And then came the lockdown. And suddenly people living in cities are starting to realise that the reason why they were sitting in overpriced tiny apartments and expensive office space is that they are collectively trapped into thinking that they needed to be in the office from 9 to 5. 

However, within less than four weeks into the lockdown, a big hole was blown into this illusion. We all discovered that we can be productive and creative and can get to high-performance team output using a laptop, videoconferencing and collaboration software. 

This changes everything.

The importance of being thrown of a cliff

I cannot stress enough how significant this forced experiment is from a behavioural point of view. 

Despite all efforts in the last decade to introduce “the new way of working’, in reality, we all kept each other locked in the old way. Managers felt it was more convenient to manage and control teams on an office floor. Employers invested heavily in office space, so they thought it should be used properly. Employees felt that they were better able to manage their reputation while being in the office (hence all the meetings). It was a stalemate, and the lockdown made us overcome this stalemate.

Implications for living

Why would you buy a 65m@ Appartement for € 450.000 in a big city, if you could buy a much bigger house with a garden within 30-60 minutes commuting distance? It makes so much more sense, since you can work from home for most of the week, and only show up at the office for creative sessions with your team. You and your team can carefully plan these sessions after rush hour.

I had a lunch meeting with a fellow entrepreneur yesterday. We met at about 30 minutes driving from Amsterdam, where – to my surprise – he picked me up with his boat to take me to his summer house on an island in the middle of a lake. He was running his company of 25+ staffers from his summer house and only went to the office once or twice a week. Later, when I grow up, I want to be him 🙂

Could it be that we will massively start to re-appreciate living in the countryside? If we can do our work from home, why wouldn’t we live close to nature or close to outdoor recreation? This could be the beginning of new ways of thinking about real estate development. If the home office is the centrepiece of people’s daily activity, how would you design new houses or new neighbourhoods? It would make much sense to be able to work from your garden, and to have leisure opportunities nearby: boating, fishing, biking, walking, boot-camping, playing golf,… 

If I had to design a new village from scratch, I would start my design with home-working professionals as my first design principle. 

Lunchmeeting with MJ

Implications for working

Why would you pay an exuberant price for office space if you could flip the default: What if the new default way of working is that you work from wherever you like to work and that you visit the office only for creative workshops with your team? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have smaller offices and offer your employees subscriptions to make use of co-working spaces all over the country (if they don’t like working from home)? 

Instead of investing in employee mobility, why wouldn’t we incentivise companies to include perks for people working from home, like comfy chairs, big screens, (virtual) gym subscriptions, etc.   

(Wouldn’t it be great if every time we meet in the SUE office Marjan – see picture below – is there to take care of us with her vegetarian magic ?)

Implications for retail 

What will happen to retail space if the number of people who live and work in cities stops rising? Retailers are already suffering from the e-commerce boom. At a certain point, there’s simply no way to make a profit if 1) their rent is sky-high, 2) they’re getting out-competed by Amazon, and 3) the number of people coming into town is decreasing. How can we re-think the way we design retail spaces?

The problem with shopping streets is that they have become so expensive that only international retailers can afford the rent. The effect is that these places have transformed into mono-cultures. If you want to excite people for retail spaces, you need to think outside-in. They are not there only to buy stuff. They want to have a great time with their partner, mum or friends. They want to have a great afternoon together and feel great about themselves. That’s their deeper motivation. So you need to think about how you can help them to fulfil this deeper need by offering them things to discover or to explore, opportunities to be indulged and spoiled, spaces to connect and be playful, etc.. 

There’s an exciting story about the city of Mulhouse, on the border between France and Germany. They were able to bring their high street back from the deaths. One of the interventions that blew back live into the retail streets was that 75% of new shops were independent. Their presence transformed the place into a place for excitement and discovery. Within 3 years the commercial heart of the city was thriving again.

Conclusion

Both inhabitants, retailers and entrepreneurs have reached the limits of their capacity to keep up with inflating prices. I argued that the psychological conditions are ripe for the bubble to burst. This will force us to fundamentally re-think the way we design our spaces for living, working, and leisure, with the working-from-home professionals and their needs and desires at the core of how we create. 

Tom De Bruyne

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog. Learn the Behavioural Design Method in the Behavioural Design Academy or invite us to facilitate a Behavioural Design Sprint to improve your product, service or marketing with psychological intelligence.

Want to learn more?

If you want to learn more about how influence works, you might want to consider our Behavioural Design Academy masterclass. Or organize an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our masterclass we teach the Behavioural Design Method, and the Influence Framework. Two powerful frames for behavioural change.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. 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
sue behavioural design