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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.

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Reading books

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

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.

Tom De Bruyne

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Category: History

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

Rule 2: Design a Happiness Habit

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

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy: Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash. 

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
Tom De Bruyne @ NowFest

Transforming an ad agency through behavioural design

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

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

Part 1: The existential crisis as an agency

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

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

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

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

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

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Part 2: The path to transformation

(solution version 1)

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

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

Four principles or beliefs formed the foundation of SUE:

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

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

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

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

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

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

That sucked.

Big time.

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

 

Part 3: When we finally got it right.

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

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

 

What have we learned so far:

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

 

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

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

How to design team behaviour?

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations

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

How do individuals morph into groups?

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

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

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

 

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

The behavioural rules of a group

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

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

(continue below)

Unlock the power of Behavioural Design

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

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

How to transform organisational culture?

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

Want to learn more about designing group behaviour?

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

Download the report here.

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

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
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. 

Unlock the power of Behavioural Design

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

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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
behavioural Design

Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 1 – Chunking

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘How to break-down behaviour to make it easier to perform’.

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 chunking

One thing we all want more of in life is simplicity. In fact, mostly, our brain loves simplicity. We all have a very ingenious decision-making system in between our ears that helps us make decisions with as little effort as possible. Even now, your brain is continuously working hard for you to do as little thinking as possible. Most of the choices we make are based on automatic shortcuts. To save brain bandwidth for the decisions, we do have to contemplate rationally.

This so-called two systems thinking, that was discovered by Kahneman and Tversky, is actually a lifesaver if you imagine an average person is making 35.000 choices a day. Varying from minor decisions, such as should I step to the right? To decisions that have a greater impact, such as should I hire this person? Making all these decisions consciously would go beyond our cognitive abilities, so we need our subconscious mind.

But the truth is, sometimes we want to be consciously aware and remember things. We want to have the capability to learn, for instance. And well, you need some conscious awareness for that. That’s where the technique of chunking can help you out. In Behavioural Design, a very important notion is the fact you can boost desired behaviour if you make the behaviour easier to perform. In our SUE | Intervention Model, this is referred to as your capability (can you perform the desired behaviour).

So, let’s get back to learning and remembering. How can we make it easier for you to learn and remember? If you take the way our brain operates as a starting point, we need to start at the notion that our brain loves simplicity. By chunking or grouping separate pieces of information into chunks, this is exactly what you will be doing. Let me give you an example. Read these three sentences once and then say them out loud by heart:

Remember far is to information easier
Pieces is divided into up it if
Our logical are head that patterns in

Quite hard, right? Now, try these three sentences:

Information is far easier to remember
If it is divided up into pieces
That are logical patterns in our head

I bet; this time it was no problem at all. Fact is, it was exactly the same information only represented in another way. Our brain is a pattern-making machine, as soon as we can discover patterns it is much easier to make decisions or to remember things. I read this very interesting book by David Epstein called Range. In one of the first chapters, he dives into what makes up for a savant. Those chess players or piano virtuosos that stun everyone from the age of 3 with their talent. You probably have heard of the 10.000-hour rule: you need to practice something for 10.000 hours to become really good at it. Only that way you can reach the savant or elite level.

Kahneman and Klein found this only holds true for domains that are characterized by predictable patterns and logic. Like playing golf, playing classical music or a game of chess: ‘There are rules, and boundaries and patterns repeat over and over, feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid’. Now, you probably don’t have the ambition or are a tat late age-wise, to become a savant, but still, something very interesting was discovered with savants that can be relevant to you and it has everything to do with chunking; The plot thickens George Villiers would say.

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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 contact with fellow curious-minded professionals.

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Change in perception: you don’t need 10.000 hours.

It was often thought that next to the 10.000 hours of repetitive exercise, savants had another characteristic. Savants must have a photographic memory. A logical conclusion if you witness young children who play symphonies by heart or four-year-olds that beat chess players ten times their age with impressive high-pace gameplays. But the truth is, savants in the predictable domains are masters at chunking.

Several savants were put to the test by different researches. Epstein refers to an experiment National Geographic TV did with Susan Polgar, the world’s first female chess grandmaster; they printed a mid-game chess play with 28 pieces on the side of a truck. Susan glanced at the truck and then recreated the game flawlessly. When they printed a random play with fewer chess pieces on the truck, she could barely recreate the play. It lacked existing chess patterns. Chess players don’t have photographic memories and remember every single chess piece; they chunk meaningful pieces together that form familiar patterns. Chunking may seem like magic, but it comes from the patterns savants have locked into their memory in those 10.000-hour repetitive study. Interested to know more about how to optimise your learning experience? Here’s were you can read sone more on spaced repetition. A variety of chunking applied to learning.

Chunking is all about presenting information in a way that it is easier to process for people.

So, the good news is: you don’t need a photographic memory to remember things. Better news still, you don’t need to put in 10.000 hours to be a chunking master. The world we live in is often far less familiar and predictable than golf, chess or classical music. ‘Our rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns, and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate or both’. So, focusing for 10.000 hours on patterns in daily life is less relevant.

Chunking can help people make sense of the complex world they live in.

You can use chunking to help someone make sense of what you are offering them or what you want them to do. But chunking is more than just providing someone with a logical pattern. If you chunk information or to do’s or goals, you are breaking-up a larger whole. Chess players don’t remember a whole game strategy; they remember parts of the tactics. So, when looking at behaviour:

Chunking can work as a way to break-up a harder to perform behaviour into smaller, manageable steps.

 

How to change habits using chunking

Some practical examples that may help you boost your sales, change the attitude in consumer behaviour or effectively design a customer experience or user experience. Let me start by telling you how to change habits using chunking: If you want someone to quit smoking, a sticky habit, that CAN be very difficult to change.

You can make it simpler by breaking up the quit-smoking-behaviour behaviour into chunks. The NHS has introduced a perfect example of this thinking. They help people stop smoking by not by focussing on quitting smoking at once but by helping someone step-by-step. First, you can apply for a free ‘stop smoking kit’. It contains things like nicotine patches and a squeezy toy to give you something in hand to replace your cigarette. But they guide you towards the end-goal of quitting smoking easily. By for example, first sticking on the patches and sending you motivational emails.

NHS

Visual: NHS

 

If you break down a goal into smaller steps, people feel more confident that they can reach the end-goal.

Therefore, chunking is also very effective in helping someone reach their goals. But also consider using chunking if you are trying to achieve a goal. Don’t focus on running the marathon at once, but start at 1K, 5K, 10K. You will get there in the end (and if not, running is just not your thing which I can relate to completely but that’s a different story).

 

How to improve sales conversion using chunking

Let’s check out some more examples of companies who do a good job adding chunking to their offering and who combine this technique from behavioural economics in marketing or advertising. The first example is the blogging platform Ghost which shows that chunking may help you improve your sales conversion and get you more online sales. Maybe you have ever heard of the ‘aha moment’ describing that point that people start to get value from a product and keep on using it. Ghost introduced a simple five-step process to guide users to the essential steps to get value out of the platform. These steps are laid out for users, and they see a satisfying green check mark and a strikethrough for tasks they’ve completed.

Behavioural economics chunking - Ghost 1

The only challenge with having someone takes steps on your website is that they have to be online to see the site. This was solved by Ghost by sending users who had left the online set-up process conditional emails depending on where they left off in the process.

Visuals: ghost.com

 

These emails gave clear guidance on how to finish the step. Eventually, they were able to boost the efficiency of their conversion rates with 370%, only by chunking the behaviour into smaller steps and guiding people through them.

 

How to shape behaviour using chunking

Another company who helps people develop good financial behaviour by chunking tasks is HelloWallet. They do this via a weekly Sunday email that contains just one small manageable financial task for users to focus on – perhaps merely setting up a holiday savings fund, and no more. HelloWallet points out that it takes just three minutes to set up, and by dividing up savings behaviour into smaller weekly chunks, people begin to develop better financial habits and are more likely to meet their goals. HelloWallet’s research shows that success in these small tasks builds people’s confidence and make them feel more able to tackle their finances.

Visual: HelloWallet

 

How chunking helps us remember things top of mind

Another upside of chunking is that our capability to receive and retain information improves. You probably have experienced it yourself: have you ever better remembered a phone number by chucking it? For instance, the SUE | Behavioural Design phone number is (+31)202234626. But I remember it by chunking it: 223 4626 (the country and area code are in my automatic brain already so I don’t have to chunk those). This is why our phone number is also displayed in chunks on our website: To make it easier for visitors to remember it.

Why chunking works psychologically is that the chunks are seen as one ‘unit’ of information.

So, instead of remembering all separate digits, I just have to remember four chunks. Making the cognitive steps smaller. There now maybe is a question that comes to your mind. Is there anything known about the optimal number of chunks? Well, this has been researched. Early behavioural research revealed that humans best recall seven pieces of information plus or minus two. However, more recent studies show that chunking is most effective when four to six chunks (or steps) are created.

Conclusion: chunking is applied behavioural design

To conclude, chunking is a practical user-centred design approach that helps people to make hard behaviour easier to do. By limiting steps or units of information, someone has to do or remember you help them lower their cognitive needs. At the same time, you boost their confidence, memory and capability to perform the desired behaviour. 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.

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Leading Distributed Teams Report

Leading Distributed Teams – Behavioural Research Report

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations

Today we published a report called “Leading Distributed Teams“. The report is the output of a behavioural research project did in April 2020. We wanted to learn how working as distributed teams affect team behaviour in terms of productivity, creativity and wellbeing. From a scientific point of view, the COVID-19 crisis is a god gift. It’s nothing more than a gigantic A/B test that offers us a unique opportunity to learn how office-work and home-work have an impact on team behaviour.

The Corona-Crisis provides us with a unique learning opportunity for designing the ultimate gratifying work, combined with the perfect work-life balance. This report offers a deep understanding of how distributed working contributes to this. More importantly, it gives managers and leaders lots of practical insights into how they can coach their team to benefit the most from distributed working. 

Leading Distributed Teams Report

The one insight you need to take away

The essential idea from the report is that if you want to understand team behaviour, you need to take the human behind the professional or manager as your point of departure. If you want to understand the humans in professional teams, you need to understand their deeper needs and desires they wish to see fulfilled, and their more deep-seated fears and anxieties they want to be tackled. 

That’s why the question “Is working from home better than working in the office?” is not the right question. It’s much more interesting to turn this question outside-in and ask ourselves:

How might ‘working from home’ or ‘working in the office’ help people to

  • be more successful in achieving their goals
  • overcome bad habits like being distracted
  • take away fears and uncertainty about their performance?

The answer to this question can pave the path to a very near future in which we can experience the joy of being part of a high-performance team while having more than enough time left to pursue our personal goals. Instead of wasting too much time in our lives on traffic-jams, pointless meetings, highly distracting office spaces and patronising managers.

What you will learn in the report

The big challenge for the managers and leaders who need to manage their teams will be to promote the positive behaviours that contribute to high-performance output and wellbeing while suppressing the behaviours and habits that stand in the way of achieving these outcomes. 

This research paper will give you a deep understanding of: 

  • The behavioural forces that make or break team success
  • How offices both promote and kill high-performance team behaviour
  • How working from home solves some negative office dynamics
  • How working from home create new challenges that need to be solved
  • How managers can lead distributed teams successfully

Download the report or executive summary

There are two ways for you to digest the findings of the report:

  1. Read the executive summary if you want to pick up the most critical insights and recommendations.
  2. Study the full report If you want a deeper behavioural understanding of the forces that boost or inhibit high-performance output.

We understand that reading this report requires a bit of a time investment (probably 30-45 minutes). But I promise you will learn a lot if you do. You will have a more profound understanding of the problem if you take the time to read the quotes that people gave to express their feelings and thoughts.

Download the Report.

 

Are you interested in turning these insights into action?

There are several ways in which you can hire our services. Contact Susan de Roode if you want to learn more: 

  • Behavioural Research: Hire us to do a behavioural analysis of the behavioural forces at play in your company
  • In-company training: Our new certification course on how to build lasting team habits. Three workshops of three hours, over the course of three weeks in which you and your team will learn the techniques to build better teams, and you’ll be able to implement them right away
  • Online Certification Course: Our first online certification course on designing team behaviour. Do the course at your pace, work an a fun assignment and get certified.
  • Behavioural Design Sprint: If you need to transform the behaviour or culture at your company, hire us to run a behavioural design sprint. 
Behavioural Design Academy goes virtual banner

Discover the missing layer of behavioural design

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and learn how to positively influence minds and shape behaviour

Want to learn more?

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

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

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

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sue behavioural design
Credits: Photo by Martin Sanchez on Unsplash

Thoughts on the setup of a Corona Advisory Team

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Government & Politics

The course of history for the upcoming decade needs to be written in a couple of weeks. Massive failure is not an option. The situation is too dangerous for dogmatic thinking. It’s time to let scientists, behavioural economists, designers and makers to join forces and embrace a build-measure-learn attitude to nudge people safely into the one-and-a-half-meter economy.

Here are 5 principles to set up a Corona Advisory Team that needs to shape society after the Big OpenUp.

 

Kahneman system 1 and 2

From Intelligent lockdown do smart OpenUp.

There’s a growing call in the public debate for the next group of scientists the government should rely upon, to fix the crisis. Up until now, most countries relied heavily on virologists and epidemiologists. With the opening up of society, it’s time now to shift gears and bring in the psychologists, economists, designers of public space, social geographists, etc. 

I think that’s a great idea. Just like we relied on smart people to guide us quite successfully through the intelligent lockdown, we will now need to rely on smart people to guide us through the intelligent OpenUp. The ultimate task of this board is to design behaviour on a massive scale. It needs to figure out the 1000 billion dollar question on how to reboot the economy, without re-activating the COVID-19 virus.

As a consultancy for behavioural change, I think we learned a few things on how to set up a projects like this . So thought it might be a good idea to draft a checklist of criteria for setting up these boards. 

Principle 1: The method is as important as the people

The fundamental principle for this board to run effectively is to have a creative methodology and an experienced facilitator that knows how to guide a multidisciplinary group through that process. If you need to come up with interventions to influence minds and shape behaviour on a massive scale, you need to go through a step-by-step process of gathering behavioural insights, generate hypothesises, prototype ideas and test them as fast as you can. 

There’s so much knowhow on how to guide teams to high-performance output in a context of extreme uncertainty: Lean Startup, Design Thinking, the Behavioural Design Method, to name a few. The team needs to agree to one method and stick to it.

Principle 2: Put human irrationality at the core of what you do

Your goal is to open up society again, while at the same time getting everyone to stick to elementary rules of precaution. Most people aren’t evil or anti-social; they simply forget to think. Or worse, they observe the spontaneous behaviour of other people and assume they can follow that norm. Before you know it, everything falls into pieces. To craft policies for the intelligent open-up demands a deep understanding of how people think, feel and behave. A lot of policies are designed with rational, disciplined people who act in their self-interest in mind. These interventions are doomed to fail. 

Principle 3: Establish rules for good judgement. 

I have written about rules for good judgement in a previous post “How to smell bullshit? Seven rules for good judgement“. The team needs to operate in a context of high uncertainty, flawed data, considerable risk and incredible public sensitivity. There’s a lot of science out there on how to get to better judgement in groups. To name a few principles I mentioned in my blogpost:

  • Superforcasting principles: a set of techniques to predict with fewer biases
  • The use of mental models for decision-making: the discipline to look at the problem through multiple scientific concepts
  • Blue team / red team approach: the discipline to set up a team that argues for counter-arguments, with the purpose of spotting flaws, wishful thinking or other biases in the reasoning

Principle 4: Prototyping and testing before implementing

Behavioural change requires experimentation. The success of an intervention is very sensitive to ‘little big details’. Sometimes it’s just the wrong word, a wrong timing or an unexpected second-order effect that could completely turn the intervention useless. Humans are complex beings operating in complex systems.

Every little act signals something to the group and vice versa: Everything their social network thinks or says, deeply affect their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. 

When your task as the Corona Advisory Team is to design behaviour on an unprecedented scale, there’s only one way to make progress: Rapid experimentation. Expect a lot of experiments to fail, with the simple idea to stumble upon winning strategies a lot faster.

Principle 5: Select people with skin in the game. 

I applaud the experiment that the Dutch Government had done last week. They organised a hackathon to speed up the process of finding an app that could work to track and isolate infected people, while at the same time respecting privacy. Although the hackathon resulted in a ‘failure’, in the sense that it didn’t produce a winning prototype, I think you can also think of it as a success.

The government went through a steep learning curve without having spent millions of taxpayers money. And they learned that the usual consultancy suspects – companies that are very good at understanding how to win tenders – are probably not the best builders. The reason is simple: They have no skin in the game. They don’t have the maker, builder, tweaker or hacker skills that are so desperately needed for this job. 

If the government wants to set up a Corona Advisory Team, I would urge the government to use the principles I outlined above. Don’t go with the usual team of pundits and advisors. Go for a board of practitioners. Or at least: Give them an equal share-of-voice: People who think in terms of understanding the problem and experimenting with solutions. People who move fast, know how to make, build, measure, learn and adapt. People who are humble about the fact that they operate in high uncertainty, but are willing to experiment their way out of it. 

If you want to read more thoughts on this topic on the Behavioural Design Blog:

Discover the missing layer of behavioural design

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and learn how to positively influence minds and shape behaviour

Want to learn more?

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

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective or your product, service or marketing in a Behavioural Design Sprint.  You can download the brochure here, or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design

The Behavioural Design Blog – overview

By | All

With this Behavioural Design Overview we want to help you to navigate through the Behavioural Design Blog. Our ambition with this blog is to explore how influence works by applying it to interesting real world problems. Most of these blogs appeared in  Behahavioural Design Digest, our weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page.

Everything we write is in line with SUE’s mission “to unlock the potential of behavioural psychology to nudge people into positive choices about work, life and play“. This is the guiding principle behind our Behavioural Design Method we teach in our Behavioural Design Academy and that we apply in our Behavioural Design Sprints.

You can read more about our mission on the “about SUE”-page.

Essential Reads and Videos

There are blogposts that are essential to our thinking on how to influence minds and shape behaviour.

Key Behavioural Design Concepts explained

Citizen Behaviour / Behaviour in public 

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

Behaviour in Organisations

Behavioural Design for teams, organisations and professionals

Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life.

Customer Behaviour

Thoughts on how to use behavioural design to shape customer behaviour

Society, Government and Politics

We like to think of a society as a behavioural design that shapes predictably irrational behaviour of its constituents

 Methodology

We dedicated a couple of posts on the methodological part of behavioural design