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The art of choosing, how to design choice to change behaviour

By | All, Behavioural Science, Citizen Behaviour

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 a 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 agency 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 mean 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?

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: ‘Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose, well, is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.

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 of 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. As a matter of fact, you had to decide to have coffee indeed, or did you decide to have something else? Or did you make the decision 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 decision 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. Now back to too many options to choose from. Why does it work against us? 

The three reasons too many options don’t work or bounded rationality

  1. First of all, having too many options causes apathy simply as it requires too much cognitive activity. This can lead to decision fatigue[i](and, for instance, depending more on defaults) or even not making any decision at all[ii]. This phenomenon is called choice paralysis (also referred to as choice deferral).
  2. 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 one cues, and we know they can be biased[iii].
  3. And finally, the more options to choose from we have, the less satisfied we are with the choice we did makeThe more options, the more we feel we ‘missed out on.‘ In his book, Schwartz described an experiment in which participants 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’, that taught us that ‘The existence of multiple alternatives makes it easy for us to imagine alternatives that don’t exist—alternatives that combine the attractive features of the ones that do 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[ii].

 

Just to come back to choice paralysis for a little bit. There is a cognitive bias related to this phenomenon called regret aversion. When people anticipate regret from a choice, they tend not to act at all. This can have grave consequences. A meta-analysis has shown that people’s behaviour to accept medical treatments are influenced more by avoidance of the regret of making the wrong choice than it is influenced by other kinds of anticipated negative emotions[iv]. Therefore, when designing a choice, you have to be aware that the number of options you present to someone also enhances the probability of regret, which enhances inertia. In the mentioned example, this has shown to impact behaviour concerning health seriously.

[i] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue

[ii] https://web.archive.org/web/20131130195656/http://www.columbia.edu/~ss957/articles/Choice_is_Demotivating.pdf

What causes choice overload

Different aspects can contribute to someone’s perception of choice overload. For example, the number of options or characteristics to choose from, time constraints, decision accountability or the number of complementary options[v]. Too many options to choose from could have a severe impact on the buying behaviour of your clients. Let me tell you about the so-called jams study. On a regular day at a local food market, people would find a display table with 24 different jams[vi]. On another day, at that same food market, people were given only six different jam choices. The effect on buying behaviour? The six choices showed a sales uplift of 1000%.

The difference between freedom of choice and reducing options

 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. This is the essence of nudging[i]. 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[viii]. Taking an option (in this case, large 16 oz. cups) helped people eat less and still feel satisfied[ix]. 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.

[i] https://suebehaviouraldesign.com/nudging/

 

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[vii] 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 (so fewer options help the consumer make a decision)
  3. When it’s difficult to compare alternatives

4. When consumers don’t have clear preferences

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Helping people choose in practice

How can you make that work for you in practice? Well, sometimes, it is a matter of framing. In other words, thinking about how you will 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 choice a different way. ‘Do you want to eat your peas or carrots first?’ This is a bounded choice. It can also work in our professional life. Let’s say you are in negotiation with a talent you like to attract for your team or organisation. Make sure you give them bounded choice that allows for agency. To make it more concrete: Often, negotiations come down to challenging the salary offer. Suppose you give someone the option beforehand to get awarded a higher salary and tie a condition to it; you design for a bounded choice. For example, 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 prevented setting the stage for a limitless salary/bonus battle.

 

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. You could also think about chunking. You can read about this here[i]. These are best practices from behavioural science, but it is always a matter of experimenting what works best in your situation. One thing remains the same for every situation: Less is always more when shaping decisions and behaviour. However,

 

You make people more capable of choosing from more options. You have to do it gradually.

A research team at a German car manufacturer ran an experiment[xii] 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. 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.

[i] https://suebehaviouraldesign.com/applied-behavioural-economics-chunking/

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

So, if you have many options, present them from a few to more. To conclude, there is, in fact, an art to choosing. By understanding a bit more about the workings of human psychology can 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

 

 

References:

[i] Schwartz, Barry (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less, Ecco.

[ii] Iyengar, S., & Lepper, M. (2000). When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79, 995-1006.

Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12189991_When_Choice_is_Demotivating_Can_One_Desire_Too_Much_of_a_Good_Thing

 

[iii] Johnson, E. J., Shu, S. B., Dellaert, B. G.C., Fox, C. R., Goldstein, D. G., Häubl, G., Larrick, R. P., Payne, J. W., Peters, E., Schkade, D., Wansink, B., & Weber, E. U. (2012), Beyond nudges: Tools of a choice architecture, Marketing Letters, 23, 487-504.

Link: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23259227?seq=1

 

[iv] Brewer, N. T., DeFrank, J. T., & Gilkey, M. B. (2016). Anticipated regret and health behavior: A meta-analysis. Health Psychology, 35(11), 1264-1275.

Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307949693_Anticipated_Regret_and_Health_Behavior_A_Meta-Analysis

 

[v] Chernev, A., Böckenholt, U., & Goodman, J. (2015). Choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 25(2), 333-358.

Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265170803_Choice_Overload_A_Conceptual_Review_and_Meta-Analysis

 

[vi] Iyengar, SS and MR Lepper (2000). When choice is demotivating: can one desire too much of a good thing?  Journal of Social Psychology, 995-1006.

Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/12189991_When_Choice_is_Demotivating_Can_One_Desire_Too_Much_of_a_Good_Thing

 

[vii] Alexander Chernev, Ulf Böckenholt, Joseph Goodman (2016). Corrigendum to choice overload: A conceptual review and meta-analysis. Journal of Consumer Psychology, Volume 26, Issue 2, April 2016, Pages 333-358.

Link: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1016/j.jcps.2014.08.002

 

[viii] Cadario, R., & Chandon, P. (2019). Which healthy eating nudges work best? A meta-analysis of

field experiments. Marketing Science.

Link: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318420196_Which_Healthy_Eating_Nudges_Work_Best_A_Meta-Analysis_of_Field_Experiments

 

[ix] Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press.

Link: https://www.amazon.com/Nudge-Improving-Decisions-Health-Happiness/dp/0300122233

 

[x] Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco.

https://www.amazon.com/Paradox-Choice-Why-More-Less/dp/149151423X

 

[xi] Iyengar, Sheena (2010). The Art of Choosing: The Decisions We Make Every day – What They Say About Us and How We Can Improve Them. Hachette UK.

Link: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Choosing-Sheena-Iyengar/dp/0446504114

 

[xii] https://www.ted.com/talks/sheena_iyengar_how_to_make_choosing_easier

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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Why motivating people for climate action is problematic.

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, 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.

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 the 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 councilor for the Dutch Liberal Party at the City of Rotterdam

He recently co-autored a book with Klaas Dijkhoff, Group Chairman of the Dutch Liberal, in which they plead for an optimistic renaissance based on fresh liberal concept.

He will talk about designing for Behavioural Change at Behavioural Design Week between April 19th and April 23th.

 

Photo by NOAA 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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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

PS: If you like this post, don’t forget to subscribe to our free Behavioural Design newsletter, in which we look at the world around us to decode how influence works.

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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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. 

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!

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.

sue behavioural design
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.

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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)

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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
behavioural Design

Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 2 – Mere exposure

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘Using the power of repetition not just to build memory, but also trust.’

Behavioural economics is fascinating. Understanding some of the fundamentals of human decision-making will give you far more control over successful outcomes of personal and professional goals than you might have ever expected. But how do you turn this science into practice? This is a blog series highlighting the best insights from behavioural economics translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of mere exposure

Don’t you wish you could remember things better? Every interesting article you’ve ever read, everything you’ve learned in school, wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could recite them by heart? Well, you know what you have got to do then right? Eat, sleep, and repeat. That’s the traditional approach to recognising and remembering. And it does work— sort of. If you repeatedly see or read things, you tend to remember them. Or put differently, the number of times you are exposed to something helps something to be captured in the memory structures of our brain

But the truth is our memories are not infallible. As Kahneman and Tversky have proven, our brain operates on two decision systems: system 1 and system 2. System 2 is a slave to our system 1, which is our automatic, unconscious operating system that uses cues and shortcuts (called heuristics) to form judgments and opinions. Judgments and opinions that our system 2 then turns into beliefs. As Kahneman puts it:

‘Very quickly, you form an impression, and then you spend most of your time confirming it instead of collecting evidence.’

People rewrite and reshape their memories, often to fit with their existing beliefs. I read this quote from Caroline Webb that summarises it perfectly: ‘The startling truth is that we don’t experience the world as it is; we’re always experiencing an edited, simplified version’. What has this got to do with your memory? We tend to see our memory as a recording device that captures facts, observations and information with accuracy. The truth is, our memory is highly subjective.

 

The Law of Unintended Consequences

That subjectivity of our brain also makes it very interesting though. As it brings one of my all-time favourite mental laws into play: The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ also known as second-order effects. Yes, you can use repetition or exposure to capture information, but this is only an immediate consequence of the action (repeat-remember). There is a subsequent effect of our repetition action as well. Behavioural science adds on a fascinating second-order effect on the concept of repetition that explains why using repetition can help you be more influential. 

If you repeat something, it doesn’t only activate memory; it also triggers trust and liking.

So, if you repeat things, you become trust worthier, hence more influential. In behavioural science, this is called the mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle. It describes a phenomenon that causes humans to rate or feel positively about things to which they are frequently and consistently exposed, including other people.

Just think about when you hear a new song on the radio. At first, you may not like it, but after hearing it a couple of times it starts growing on you, and you start loving it. As you grow more familiar with the tune and lyrics, you can even get quite fond of the song. It like the saying: ‘something grows on you’.

The first scientific study on the relationship between exposure and appreciation goes way back to 1960. Researchers first asked participants to rate several nonsense words on a good-bad scale. They were then notified that they were in an experiment measuring the effectiveness of repetition in learning to pronounce strange words correctly. Some of these words were shown once, others twice, five times, or ten times. Participants had to take a look at the words, and then pronounce them every time they were presented to them. Following this ‘training’, they had to rate the words again on the good-bad scale. A significant repetition (or exposure) effect was seen, with the words shown frequently increasing in positive evaluation

Strangely, however, words which were seen only once in training were judged afterwards not quite as ‘good’ as before the start of the training. Thus, as a result of 2, 5, and 10 exposures words improved in meaning, and as a result of but one exposure, they worsened. The study revealed the same effect with Chinese characters that people didn’t understand.

So, even when you talk bullocks like Trump (sorry, I could not let that one pass), but repeat it enough people may trust you anyway. But let’s leave the roaring research sixties behind and let us see this principle a bit more in the light of the present. 

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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.

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Using the mere exposure effect to create brand loyalty

I guess the most discussed application of the mere exposure effect can be found in marketing and communication. If you expose someone to a brand logo, slogan or communication vehicle often enough, it boosts recognition. People will even recognise brands with the brand name removed. Familiar stimuli require less cognitive effort. We don’t have to go to the trouble of reading brand names, but we recognise the colours, shape of the logo and font types that we were exposed to many times before. Just do a little test yourself. I guess you can tell me which soft drinks these are even if you aren’t fluent in Arabic:

Visual source: Google.

 

Studies have shown that recognition, whether correct or mistaken, enhances the likelihood of preferenceTherefore, mere repetition can boost brand liking and brand loyalty. I guess we have all been there. If you ask me why I buy a particular brand of toothpaste, I buy it because I am used to buying it. I couldn’t give you a clear-cut answer to the benefits of my toothpaste or on which features it outperforms other toothpaste brands. I just like it (or have grown to like it because of familiarity). It again all links back to the fact that:

Our brain is continually trying to lower our cognitive overload and repetition helps us make autopilot decisions.

There is all kind of tactics to use mere exposure in marketing and communication. Depicting familiar situations in your communication, presenting ads several times, developing a distinctive identity, playing by the sector rules (ever wondered why all hotel booking sites look the same? Now you know), and so on. To me, however, the far more impressive effect of mere exposure is the impact it can have on decision-making. 

 

Using mere exposure to make better decisions

It is essential to realise that the mere exposure effect substantially impacts human decision-making. People apply for schools, pick restaurants, favour people of which they heard the names more often or which they saw more frequently. So, if you commute by train to work every day and you see the same person making the same journey day in day out, you start to trust this person. The same goes for colleagues: the ones you see or interact with more often you tend to like more.

Liking people is one thing, but what if this mere exposure favouring affects your decision-making? To give you an example. If people apply for secondary education, they may consider a school, after reading the school curriculum and the school brochure, to be the perfect match but still apply for a school with a lesser fit because they have heard of it more often. Have you ever wondered why that blend, uniform looking global hotel chains are still in business? It is again the mere exposure effect at work. People may spend hours browsing hotel booking sites, checking out pictures and reviews of luxurious or boutique hotels. But often they tend to book a hotel which they are familiar with. Hence, settling with they already know. This is also known as satisficing instead of maximising. Most of us are satisficers.

Well-known brands give people comfort, especially in uncertain situations such as travelling to new surroundings. It’s like seeing your national air carrier on an airport across the world. It feels a bit like home in a strange kind of way. It is one of the pillars of success for fast food chains such as McDonald’s. Because you are exposed to them everywhere, all across the world, McD becomes familiar to you, and it makes many people tend to feel more secure to eat there instead of at the food stalls on the streets of Bangkok, which is a major mistake! Nothing, nothing beats eating Thai street food. I almost can’t make a better case than this that mere exposure sometimes makes you make worse decisions.      

This flaw in decision-making has to do with a cognitive bias: ambiguity or uncertainty aversion. This is the human tendency to favour the known over the unknown, including known risks over unknown risks. This is why stockbrokers tend to invest in domestic companies more often, even though international companies are showing better numbers. But it also prevents people like me and you to invest in stock markets because it has risks that we cannot conceive of understanding. Even more severe is the fact that people choose to withhold from medical treatments if the risks are unknown

If you want to help people to make better decisions, you, therefore, need to be very aware of their anxieties.

Please check out, our Influence Framework© if you want to learn more about the effect of anxiety on behaviour. It would be best if you avoided ambiguity whenever you can.

 

Using the mere exposure effect to reduce risk

You can also minimise risk perception by again using the mere exposure effect itself. We, as humans are social animals. We want to be liked, we want to be like others, and we want to belong to a group. This is an innate human desire: we all want to be part of something bigger and want to feel respected and accepted. This is the reason why people tend to favour but also trust people who are similar to them.

It will reduce someone’s uncertainty when you expose them to a similar other.

Preferably several times. Let me illustrate this with an example. We worked for an institution that provided a debt relief program for youngsters with serious debts. The program was free of charge, but the attendance rate was meagre. When we conducted Behavioural Research, we revealed that the youngsters had extreme anxiety. They didn’t feel the debt advisors were people like them. When we communicated and showed, truthfully, that the advisors were all people like them that used to have debts themselves, the willingness to attend the program skyrocketed. We merely exposed them (at several touchpoints) with similar and familiar others which reduced the uncertainty aversion and boosted the desired behaviour.

 

Using mere exposure to have personal influence

If you want to influence someone by using the mere exposure effect, you can do two things. First of all, repeat the message you want to convey over and over again. Of course, connecting the message to genuine human insights as you can unlock with our Influence Framework©. You can use literal repetition, but synonyms can also work. A ‘master’ in using repetition is Donald Trump. Just take a look at how Trump answered a question at Jimmy Kimmel live, analysed by Evan Puschak

Visual source: Evan Puschak

 

What do you think after reading this text? Do you think we have a problem or not? And do you believe it is a minor problem or one that could harm us? Unfortunately, this rhetoric works. But we can learn from it. Not only how we can influence someone (please don’t turn into a Trump) but also how we are influenced on a system 1 level by the mere exposure effect ourselves.

But there is another way to make this mere exposure work for you without you having to turn into a Dumb. You can also try to be visible yourself around the people you want to influence. Be repetitive exposure in person. In his book ‘How Brands Grow’. Byron Sharp delivers scientific evidence that brands grow not by positioning or differentiation, but by salience. He introduces the concept of ‘mental and physical availability’. The more people see a brand or the more it is evoked in people’s memory; the more people will trust and buy that brand. Again, it shows that:

Familiarity breeds liking.

I believe the same goes for you being influential, as the findings of Sharp make sense and connect with the mere exposure effect. So, know that you’re the brand called you. Make yourself familiar by merely being around and make it easy as possible for people to reach, see or talk to you. And use repetition in your communication.

Be careful not to overexpose.

Not in words, visibility or advertising. Overexposure maybe makes up for arty pictures, but it is an art that is only appreciated by a few. Just a small but essential side-note repeating is not the same as copying. To be perfectly clear. Some people kind of misunderstand what repetition is about and are more in the business of stealing. And not even as an artist I may add.

Visual source: CNBC

Using mere exposure to build better relationships

Now that you are familiar with the mere exposure effect, you can also use it to build better relationships with people. Familiarity is the foundation of every relationship. You share more with people you have seen more. Mere exposure builds interpersonal trust. So, whether you want to earn the trust of a friend or your partner’s friends, your family or your colleagues you need to show up more. Invite them over for drinks, talk to them more often, go to get-togethers or send them a message now and then. It’s how salespeople or the best account managers operate by nature. They remember birthdays, make house calls, and keep in touch regularly. In the end, the unconscious decision-making part of people’s brain will prefer who they are comfortable with.

 

Using mere exposure to help solve societal problems 

I briefly touched upon the relationship between anxiety and mere exposure. However, anxiety doesn’t always have to be a bad thing; you can also use it to your advantage. The mere exposure effect can help people become more aware and more willing to take action for severe problems. Researchers exposed participants to images of environmental risks and directed their attention repeatedly to a subset of these risks. When the participants were asked about those risk they were exposed to more often, they indicated to judge these risks to be more severe, more frightening, higher priority and more distinctive than risks they were exposed to fewer times. The researchers, therefore, suggest that mere exposure can increase the perceived severity of environmental risks because it increases the fear and distinctiveness of those risks.

I wouldn’t promote fear-mongering by the way, but this research does show that you need to expose people more often to a message to have an effect on memory and action. As we are facing some serious international issues today, it could be beneficial to see if we can leverage the effect of mere exposure. Sometimes people need to be shaken up a bit to care; I don’t know what the right balance is of the amount of fear. Just like a photograph can turn out wrong because of overexposure, the same goes here. Given is, you shouldn’t overdo it. 

Mere exposure: don’t overdo it

Not all exposure is good exposure. Too much exposure can lead to conflicting feelings. Whether it is a person you see too much, or a brand or a communication. It can cause indifference, or something called ‘audience fatigue’. People reach a saturation point. So, you have to find a balance in the number of exposures. But also, the quality of exposures matters. Take a look at this social thread on Tide adds that people seem to dislike much

Visual source: Reddit

 

When following Byron Sharp’s thinking, you could argue that the quality doesn’t matter and at least Tide has built mental availability. There’s certainly truth in that. But the fact is, too much exposure can decrease liking. Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt discovered that:

People’s enjoyment rises when an idea, experience or product is new, but when it becomes overly familiar, the joy will drop. 

Visual source: the Wundt Curve (see resources below)

 

The lesson we can learn from this is that yes, we want to build familiarity. But we can build sustainable relationships by changing a familiar product, service or even yourself just enough to make the experience new again. This is why making incremental changes can be a tactic to keep benefiting from the mere exposure effect. And by the way, Wundt also discovered this is the way arousal works. So, if you want your partner to keep longing for you need to get out that familiarity comfort zone. Time to dust of those worn-out habits and find some new excitement.

 

Using mere exposure to study and remember 

Next to the fact that exposing people to something multiple times is what will activate the exposure effect, there is also the question of timing. When do you expose someone? I guess we have all grown up with the habit to repeat, repeat, repeat to learn new stuff, remember it and reproduce it in tests. What we did back then (and maybe still are doing now) is using repetition to help us remember. But what we were never taught is how to apply this mere exposure effect on ourselves to get a maximum result. And this all has to do with the timings of the exposure.

The best learning experience comes from so-called spaced repetition.

It is one of the most powerful techniques to help your brain recall information (also check out my post about chunking). It would be digging a hole here to dive into the Behavioural Design of learning right now, but to bring you up-to-speed quickly. The benefit of spaced repetition is based on the research of Ebbinghaus who has discovered the Forgetting Curve. This curve shows we forget things over time. 

Visual source: Farnham Street blog

 

But we can change the curve by adding space between the repetition. Or as Ebbinghaus said himself:

With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.

Visual source: Farnham Street blog

 

I will dedicate a particular blog to the way you can boost your learning experience using spacing and achieve memory mastery by using repeated exposure. For now, this quote of John Medina, author of ‘Brain Rules’ wraps it up nicely:

How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid, it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

Conclusion: mere exposure is applied behavioural design

To conclude, mere exposure provides people with a shortcut that lowers their cognitive overload in deciding something is valuable or not. By repeatedly exposing someone to something or someone, you can build liking, trust and memory. And it can help people to make better decisions and to shape desired behaviours. How’s that for making behavioural economics work in practice? Not bad, not bad at all.

 

Astrid Groenewegen
Co-founder SUE | Behavioural Design

 

 

Resources (in order of appearance):

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