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Behavioural Science Insights

What is Behavioural Design

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

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

 

1. Behavioural Design is about influence

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

2. Behavioural Design is a method

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

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

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

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

More about Behavioural Design as method:

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

Feel free to contact us. We are happy to tell you more about our consultancy or academy. Helping you innovate, transform or grow levering insights from behavioural science in practice.

Contact us

No worries, no strings attached!

3. The ethics of Behavioural Design

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

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

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

 

Doctor Evil

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

More on the ethical side of Behavioural Design:

4. Behavioural Design is about designing choices

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

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

Thinking fast and slow

This simple list of influence levels teaches us that:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Our hard-wired tendency to persuade

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

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

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

Want to learn how to design behaviour?

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5. Behavioural Designers think ‘outside-in’

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

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

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

The SUE | Influence Framework©

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

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

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

 

More about outside-in thinking:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

7. Behavioural Designers research, prototype, test

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

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

The importance of doing the research yourself

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

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

More about prototyping and testing:

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

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

Download the brochure

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

8. Domains of Behavioural Design

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

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

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

 

9. Start to learn more about Behavioural Design

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

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

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

sue behavioural design

The SUE Influence Framework© explained

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

The SUE | Influence Framework© is a powerful mental model we developed at SUE to analyse the forces that shape behaviour systematically. The framework will provide you with all the human insights you need to develop ideas for behavioural change. A deeper understanding of the forces that prevent people from change or boost behavioural change is essential to influence minds and shape behaviour. In this blog post, we explain the model step-by-step and illustrate it with lots of examples.

 

1. How does influence work?

For a complete overview of the essence of behavioural design, I want to urge you to read our blog “What is behavioural design“. For this blogpost, it suffices to understand that you need three ingredients for successful behavioural change: 

  1. Understand how people think and how they make decisions. (cognitive psychology)
  2. Know how you can analyse the forces that shape people’s behaviour (SUE | Influence Framework©)
  3. Learn how you can come up with ideas for behavioural change 

One of the biggest misconceptions of behavioural design is that it’s limited to this third ingredient. Think about all the persuasion techniques in the field of interface design and UX to boost online sales. Booking.com has turned these techniques into an art form

However, if you don’t consider what happens inside the human mind you try to influence, you can use as many persuasion tactics as you want; you’re not going to be successful. 

Let me illustrate this with an example: You can use all the scarcity, authority, social proof in the world to persuade me to make my next city trip with Flixbus. But as long as you haven’t addressed my (probably irrational) prejudice that travelling by bus coach will be a social nightmare, full of annoying people, my brain will stay locked for every attempt to change my behaviour.

Flixbus

 

2. The forces that shape behaviour

The best way to think of the SUE | Influence Framework© is to think of it as a tool that brings the dynamic forces to the surface that shape behaviour. With this framework:

 

You will understand why people do the things they do and what prevents them from changing their behaviour.

Understanding these forces helps you to spot opportunities for behavioural change. Only when you have armed yourself with these opportunities you can start to come up with ideas. 

To illustrate this with the example from above. Only when you consider that I have anxieties, doubts and prejudices that prevent me from travelling by coach will you have the proper insight to come up with ideas to influence my decision-making. You will ask yourself how we might take away the prejudice that cheap coach travel equals a social nightmare. 

If you want to design a successful strategy for behavioural change, you will have to work outside-in. You start with learning what happens inside people’s minds, and you adapt your intervention to this understanding. 

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

Feel free to contact us. We are happy to tell you more about our consultancy or academy. Helping you innovate, transform or grow levering insights from behavioural science in practice.

Contact us

No worries, no strings attached!

The SUE | Influence Framework© has three parts, with a total of seven elements. We will delve into these three parts below.

  1. Part 1: Current and Desired Behaviour 
  2. Part 2: The Job-to-be-Done
  3. Part 3: Pains, Gains, Comforts and Anxieties

3. Current and Desired Behaviour 

The best way to think of behavioural change is that you need to have someone (or yourself) switch from a current to desired behaviour. This sounds obvious but is actually quite challenging. Because people need to stop doing the things they do and start doing something new. Stopping is hard because your current behaviour is full of comforts. You don’t need to think about it, and your behaviour is more than often driven by habits that are difficult to control. 

Furthermore, there are several difficulties associated with new behaviour too: Am I able to do this? Do I want it? Do I trust it? Do I get it? Can I afford it? What will others think of me? 

You immediately sense that, if you want to get someone from A to B, you will have to deal with several forces at work that lock us in our current behaviour and prevent us from switching to the desired behaviour. The SUE | Influence Framework© is nothing more or less than a tool to uncover these forces.  

4. The Job-to-be-Done

If you want to understand why people do the things they do, then the Job-to-be-done framework by Clayton Christensen is essential. In a famous Harvard Business Review paper, Christensen argues that people “hire products and services” for a job that arises in their life. Understanding the “job” or “task” is the key to understanding what motivate people to do the things they do. If you want to know how to get more people to buy milkshakes in a fast-food restaurant, you need to understand the job-to-be-done for which people would come in and “hire” a milkshake. In the famous lecture below, Christensen argues that most people who buy milkshakes at a fast-food restaurant buy them because they have a long and tedious drive to work. They want something to fill their stomach while keeping the commute interesting. The milkshake does this job better than any other product. It keeps you busy for at least 10 minutes, it doesn’t crumble all over you, and you can easily keep it in your hand while steering the car. 

 

Job-to-be-Done thinking unlocks a deeper understanding of the human behind the customer.

A while ago, we discovered in a Behavioural Design Sprint we did for a health tech company that the real Job-to-be-done for people with diabetes is to live everyday life. They want to be reminded as little as possible by their disease. People with diabetes look at every product and service through the prism of this Job-to-be-done. The unconscious question they ask themselves is: Does this product help me to approach my Job-to-be-Done to live a care-free life in which I am bothered as little as possible by my disease? This insight was crucial because, until that point, our client always communicated to people as patients.

Case: Zoku Amsterdam

The founders of Zoku Amsterdam had given themselves more than two years to figure out how they could design the ultimate hospitality experience for people who needed to stay longer in a city because of their job.

 

Zoku Amsterdam - Hotel Room

 

The Job-to-be-done that Zoku took as the critical opportunity for their prototyping is that people want to feel at home. They want to feel part of the community of the city. And this experience is precisely what most hotels don’t offer you. Every hotel reminds you in everything of the fact that you’re just a passenger. Zoku designed the room with this Job-to-be-done in mind. The centrepiece of the room is a dining/working table, not the bed. Lunch and dinner at Zoku are to be consumed at a long communal table. You can invite your customers for meetings, and they have daily activities in which you can participate. More about Job-to-be-Done:

Want to learn how to design behaviour?

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

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5. The forces diagram

We already argued above that the biggest challenge with designing for behavioural change is that people need to stop doing things. Furthermore, they have all kinds of insecurities and discomfort about the new behaviour we want them to perform. We have also argued that the best way to motivate them to embrace new behaviour is to connect with their deeper goals in their life (called Jobs-to-be-done). 

The third and final component of the SUE | Influence Framework© is four dynamic forces that push people towards or pull people away from the desired behaviour. The Influence Framework works with these four forces: 

  1. Pains of the current behaviour
  2. Gains of the desired behaviour
  3. Anxieties, doubts, and other barriers to the desired behaviour 
  4. Comforts of the current behaviour

Force 1: Pains

Pains are what people experience as shortcomings and frustrations related to their current behaviour.

Pains are often the problems to which a behavioural designer designs a solution. Pain and frustration trigger a propensity or willingness for change. The better you can connect with people’s pain, the higher the eagerness to change their behaviour.

In our behavioural design sprints, we often discover that they reward you with their trust if you can articulate people’s pain quite well. They appreciate that you understand their world. Every populist in the world knows that people are not interested in what you want to do. They want to feel instead that you get their pain. It’s a meme in every sales training that the best salesmen sell pain.


Force 2: Gains 

Gains are the positive consequences that people will experience when they perform the new desired behaviour.

Whenever I stay at Zoku, I can at least work in my room if I want. I can eat healthy without having to go out. I can enjoy hanging around in the big co-working living room with my laptop. I can impress my clients with the view, etcetera. These are all gains you will experience if you book at Zoku. 

However, these gains only make sense relative to the Job-to-be-Done. You appreciate the Gain of the design of your room, the shared breakfast table, the healthy food kitchen and the co-working living room because they all contribute to the Job-to-be-done of feeling at home in the city you have to stay in for work. 

Important to remember: Always connect the Pains and Gains with the Job -to-be-done

 

Case: Pains and Gains and travelling by train 

I often need to travel between Amsterdam and Belgium. I have stopped taking the car, and I only go by train these days. My Job-to-be-done is to spend my time as purposeful as possible. The Pain of driving my car is obvious: I can’t answer e-mails, write blogs, or finish reports. I’m utterly exhausted after a six-hour drive, of which I regularly spend two hours in traffic jams (Belgium is a traffic jam inferno). The Gain of travelling by train is also apparent: Travel time equals working time. I can read, write, or answer e-mails. For travellers like me, a power socket and a little table for my laptop are worth a lot.


Force 3: Comforts

Comforts are the routines and habits that get people to stick to their current undesired behaviour.

It’s not that I wouldn’t like to work out more often. And if I’m honest with myself, I do have the time to go to the gym in the morning. My only problem is that I have too many bad habits that stand in the way: I want to wake up slowly. I need to have breakfast. I need to bring my toddler to school (and she adores not cooperating). By the time I dropped her at school, my window of opportunity to go to the gym is closed. It’s already late, my stomach is full, and my mind is already at work. 

You could argue that everything is in place for me to start working out. I desire to have more energy and lose a couple of kilos (my JTBD). I feel the pain of not being fit. I know how much I enjoy the feeling of being healthy (gain), and I only have to walk 200 meters to my gym, so I can’t blame it on an inability to get there. As the co-founder of SUE, I’m pretty free to decide how I run my schedule (no anxieties). I can’t break through my comforts/ habits. What works for me is that my gym organises a 10-minute abs workout every hour. If I can make it in time to join this 10-minute class, I will probably stay a bit longer.


Force 4: Anxieties 

Anxieties are fears, doubts, prejudices and other barriers to the desired behaviour.

Anxieties could be all the things that prevent you from changing behaviour Anxieties could be related to: 

  • The desired behaviour: Too complicated, too hard, too socially uncomfortable, etc. 
  • The supplier: can I trust this supplier? 
  • My own capability: I’m not sure if I can do this or if it matches with my self-image. 
  • My environment: I don’t know what my significant others will think of this behaviour

Taking away Anxieties are often underestimated in a strategy for behavioural change. However, they form a crucial piece of the puzzle. Sometimes taking away anxiety is the last puzzle piece needed to turn an intervention into a success. Like in the Flixbus example I wrote about earlier: taking away my fears and prejudices towards coach travel and address the most critical force between me and the desired behaviour. 

Case: De Porsche Pitch

In The Perfect Pitch, a book by advertising legend Jon Steel about the art of pitching, the author shares the story of a pitch his agency won for the Porsche account. The killer insight that got them to win the agency competition was that advertising doesn’t need to persuade Porsche drivers. It needs te to convince non-drivers that Porsche drivers are not cars for men with a middle-crisis. They called it the “asshole factor” of a Porsche driver. Taking away these anxieties and prejudices towards the Porsche driver became the most genius advertising strategy ever for the brand.

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

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

Download the brochure

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

6. Working with the SUE | Influence Framework©

 The Influence Framework helps you to build empathy for your target audience. Our Behavioural Design Sprints always kick off with five or six interviews. If you interview five or six people from the target audience, you will be able to fill in your Influence Framework©. For a proper Behavioural Design interview, there’s only one simple rule of thumb:   

Past behaviour never lies

When we conduct interviews, we always try to map human journeys. What we’re looking for is how real humans think, feel and behave. How does a successful journey look like? What about a failed journey? Why did people fail? What made them feel uncertain or uncomfortable? Why didn’t they do the things they wanted to do?  

In 5 or 6 interviews, you’ll get a clear idea about the Jobs-to-be-Done, the Pains and Comforts of their current behaviour and the Gains en Anxieties of the desired behaviour. It can also be gratifying to interview extreme users. Experienced people can tell you a lot about Jobs-to-be-Dones and gains. People who are struggling can teach you a lot about pains, comforts and anxieties. When you have mapped out these forces, you can spot opportunities for behavioural change by asking yourself these five questions: 

  • How might we help people to achieve their goals? (Jobs-to-be-Done)
  • Can we come up with solutions that solve pains or frustrations that people experience (Pain) 
  • Can we break into an existing habit? Or do we need to change a problematic habit? (Comfort)
  • Which anxieties, doubts, prejudices, and other barriers do we need to take away? (Anxiety)
  • What could be the psychological value that we can create for people (Gain)

More about this topic: 

 

7. Examples

  • The best way to think about the success of Uber and Lyft – aside from a nearly unlimited supply of cheap investor capital – is that they successfully eliminated all the pain from the taxi experience. Not knowing when your car is going to arrive, not being confident about whether the cabbie will rip you off or having to negotiate about the price. They brilliantly help you to achieve your job-to-be-done to experience the city. An Uber-Gain is that you never have to worry when you go out: You order an Uber when you leave the club, and within 5 minutes, you’re back on your way home.
  • Airbnb is a much more gratifying way to experience new places. This is the ultimate traveller Job-to-be-done. The pain that is associated with hotels is that they’re anonymous. They make you feel like an outsider-tourist. The Gain of AirBnB on an emotional level is that you can feel at home abroad. This feeling gets even strengthened on a functional level: Since you do your cooking and supermarket shopping, you can feel what it is to live like a local. There are some anxieties Airbnb needs to take away, like whether the place is as good as advertised (that’s why they always demand professional pictures). A relatively new anxiety is the worry that the neighbourhood might be sick and tired of Airbnb tourists.

7. The ethics of Behavioural Design

We have argued above that a successful behavioural design strategy consists of three ingredients:

  1. A deeper understanding of human decision-making.
  2. Understanding the forces that shape behaviour.
  3. Using principles from the science of influence to come up with ideas and interventions for positive behavioural change.

The SUE | Influence Framework© is a powerful mental model for understanding why people do what they do and what prevents them from changing their behaviour. It is also the best guarantee that a strategy for behavioural change will be human-centered.

Behavioural Designers always ask themselves what they can do to help people become more successful at what they do or help them overcome their anxieties or help them break bad habits.

Suppose you take your time to build empathy with your target audience, and you use the Influence Framework to analyse their behaviour. In that case, you will always spot opportunities to design positive choices. 

PS: The mission of SUE is to unlock the potential of behavioural science to help people make better decisions in work, life and play. We use this mission as our guiding principle for everything we do. We’re very conscious that behavioural design can be a ‘dark wisdom’ and that those who master it are often the ones with the worst intentions. We don’t want to be naive that people will abuse this knowledge to manipulate people. Still, we firmly believe that the world would be much better off if we can inspire more people with a better understanding of how influence works and do positive things with this knowledge. Please check out our Behavioural Design Ethics Toolkit here.

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How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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Marketing, Leadership, Design? Everything is applied psychology.

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

I’m a clinical psychologist by training. When I stumbled into the marketing profession about 20 years ago, ‘psychologist’ was something you better kept for yourself. Back then, I’d much better confessed at a party that I rented out some windows in the red light district than to admit I studied psychology. At that time, psychology was considered to be ‘the sinkhole of the university’. But things have changed…

Applied psychology: Things have changed

This perception profoundly changed in the last 10-15 years. The first trigger event was the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. This was the first time that the field of economics fully acknowledged the importance of psychology to understand better how humans make decisions in markets.

 

The second trigger event was the astronomical takeover of Silicon Valley of the world. Tech companies perfectly understood that psychology was the key to world domination. They figured out how to leverage psychology to get people hooked to their apps and services.

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In the slipstream of Kahneman and Tversky’s Prize and their best-seller “Thinking Fast and Slow“, behavioural psychology got reframed brilliantly into Behavioural Economics. A friend of mine, a professor at a Dutch Management School, told me that ever since he changed “psychology” into “behavioural economics” in his research grant proposals, he won every grant for which he applied.

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The insaturable appetite for psychology caused an explosion of books that promised to provide deep insight into turning deep human understanding into persuasive products and services.

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Tech companies perfectly understand that behavioural science is the ultimate competitive edge.

Applied psychology: critical sectors are not using it

And yet, on the other hand, it’s still shocking to observe how many critical domains of society still didn’t get the memo on how the brain works. If you think about it:

 

 

The housing market is a great example. Every time policymakers develop a strategy to stimulate the buying power of starters, the problem gets worse. You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to understand why: The more bidding power you give in the hands of people, in a market of scarcity, the more people will raise their bid, and the faster prices will rise.

 

Another fascinating example is a particular Covid-policy here in the Netherlands. A weeks ago, the Dutch government did something brilliant. They launched the “Dansen met Janssen” campaign. The campaign proposed an offer young people couldn’t refuse: If they got vaccinated with the Janssen Vaccine – of which you only require one jab – they would be able to go out on the same day with a valid COVID-passport. Youngsters and Young adults took the bait in hordes. The only problem: within three days, we had a couple of ‘super spreading events’ due to young people spreading the virus at parties.

 

The fierce debate today is about whether this proofs that the policy was stupid and irresponsible. We would argue it’s not. People desperately wanted to go out, so many of them who were still a bit sceptic now found a very motivating reason to get a jab. Who cares that the vaccine wasn’t working properly yet  – it takes about two weeks -, and that they still had a pretty good chance to catch the virus. However, the chances that they would up at Intensive Care are not that high.  The policy did a beautiful job in motivating a high-risk group to get vaccinated. The problem is that this is a tough argument to sell to policymakers who think in terms of risks and simple cause and effect relationships. They figure that since the policy caused an outbreak, it must be a bad policy.

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Summary: Applied psychology

Behavioural Science still has got a long way to conquer the hearts and minds of policymakers, leaders and managers. But given the size and the (intended or unintended) impact of policies on human behaviour, it better start to find its way into the boardroom fast.

 

Tom De Bruyne

Featured cover image by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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Behavioural economics 101: We’re only human.

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

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

 

behavioural Design

The difference between economics and behavioural economics

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

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

According to an economist, the answer is:

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

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

Behavioural economics put emotions into the economic equation.

Bounded rationality: critical concept of behavioural economics

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

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

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

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

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

Behavioral Design is applied behavioural economics.

Want to shape behaviour and decisions?

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

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Behavioural economics: a game of choice architecture

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

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

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

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

Summary: What’s behavioural economics all about

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

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

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

 

Astrid Groenewegen

 

Cover visual by Red with the Red Hat on Unsplash.

BONUS: free ebook 'Behavioural Economics: the Basics'

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

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Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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How to make better financial decisions: mental accounting

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

Mental accounting: How humans violate the economic theory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mental accounting: The sunk cost effect

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Price bundling affects the decision to consume.

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

Mental accounting: Using it for better decision-making

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

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

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

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

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Summary

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

Astrid Groenewegen

 

Cover visual by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash.

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

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

Download ebook

Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

sue behavioural design

Accelerating Behavioural Change: From pushing to easing

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

 

Behavioural change; from pushing to easing

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

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

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

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

Behavioural change; a matter of psychology, not physics

So, the message is clear:

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

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

 

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

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

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

Want to learn how to design behaviour?

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Behavioural change: Willingness and capability

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

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

 

The key to behavioural change: Take away bottlenecks

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

Start with taking away behavioural bottlenecks, the barriers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Groenewegen

Blog header photo by: Lucas van Oort

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How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

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

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

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

Confirmation Bias: The godmother of information processing

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

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

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

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

Research conclusion in favour of the death penalty:

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

Research conclusion opposing the death penalty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confirmation bias in interpretation and memory

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

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

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

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

Why does confirmation bias happen?

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

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

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

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

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How to convince someone with different beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bypassing confirmation bias (1): Find common ground

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

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

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

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Bypassing confirmation bias (2): Provide proof not evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summary

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

Astrid Groenewegen

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

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

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Go ahead, it’s completely free of charge!

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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How to design a choice: The art of choosing

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

How to design a choice: The paradox of choice

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

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

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

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

How to design a choice: The phenomenon of choice overload

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What works to design a choice: Bounded choice

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Before we design a choice: Ethical considerations

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

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

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

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Designing a choice: Behavioural change interventions

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid Groenewegen

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

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

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

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Why data scientists and conspiracy theorist have a lot in common

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

The psychology behind Conspiracy Theorists.

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

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

Once you are searching for patterns, you will start finding them everywhere.

Your players might encounter some scraps of wood on the floor that accidentally form an arrow, and they will become convinced that this must be a clue and can’t be a coincidence.

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

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

Still not convinced that liberals run satanic networks? Well, why do all these Hollywood stars use the 666-symbol, the number of Satan? Once you start looking for it, it’s so damn obvious! How can we all have missed this? Of course, all of this is an illusion. An illusion fostered by wishful thinking, selective attention and the addictive thrill of finding patterns.

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Data Scientists are a bit like conspiracy theorists.

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

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

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

 

Why you should have a healthy distrust for data.

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

Tom De Bruyne
Co-Founder SUE Behavioural Design

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

How do you do. Our name is SUE.

Do you want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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Applied Behavioural Science Series pt. 2 – Mere exposure

By All, Behavioural Science Insights

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

Behavioural science 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 science translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of mere exposure

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

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

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

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

 

The Law of Unintended Consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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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 preference.

Therefore, 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.

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