Category

Citizen Behaviour

boredom

We are the product of the stories we inhabit

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

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

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

boredom

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

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

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

Jacques Lacan

Who we are is produced mainly by the stories we inhabit

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

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

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

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

 

Being human is exhausting.

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

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

 

Why the current story sucks. 

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

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

The story is broken.

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

 

What the new stories should look like. 

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

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

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

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

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

Tom De Bruyne
Co-founder SUE Behavioural Design

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

Image Courtesy: Joshua Rawson Harris via Unsplash

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Why our obsession with identity is a problem

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

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

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

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

Trump fans wearing MAGA hats

Both the left and the right are sharing the same obsession

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

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

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

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

cancel culture

Where does this obsession come from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is what’s at stake.

Tom De Bruyne

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

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
Amsterdam

The Behavioural Design of Cities

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

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

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

Office Garden

The lockdown uncovered a disturbing truth

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

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

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

I think this bubble is bursting. 

Here’s why.

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

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

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

This changes everything.

The importance of being thrown of a cliff

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

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

Implications for living

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

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

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

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

Lunchmeeting with MJ

Implications for working

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

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

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

Implications for retail 

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Tom De Bruyne

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

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
Mark Blyth

Why Government Spending is about Designing Behaviour

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

In this blogpost,  I want to shine the Behavioural Design lens on economic thinking. I believe that how governments deal with the crisis has got everything to do with Behavioural Design.

The choices they make all have one intended goal: To positively influence the behaviour of the players in the economic ecosystem: citizen, entrepreneurs, investors, etc. Their interventions matter a lot because if they are based on wrong thinking about how incentives shape behaviour, they will result in worsening the crisis.

Mark Blyth

The economy is the sum of our beliefs of what it is

The health of an economy is nothing more or less than the collective believe we have about the future. If we are collectively convinced that things will go wrong, we will together cause the economy to contract. If you use this frame to look at the behaviour of the players in the marketplace, then the first thing you’ll notice is that the stock markets seem to be drunk with optimism again. Investors bet massively on a belief in a sharp recovery.

However, I’m not sure if we can use this signal for the real economy. Financial markets and the real economy don’t seem to have much in common these days. The stock exchange reflects more a collective belief in which companies will dominate markets in the future, and these dominating firm don’t correlate well with employment, prosperity and tax-income for the countries that host them.

 

‘Austerity is the dumbest idea ever.’

In the past, I have written about the Scottish Political Economy professor Mark Blyth, the author of the book ‘Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea’ (and the man behind the picture above). This lecture was the first lecture that made me understand fiscal policy-design and macro-economics (bonus: he’s a great speaker).

He makes the case that austerity is the dumbest idea ever. An idea that is gaining new momentum now since economy professor Stephanie Kelton published The Deficit Myth . The central idea that both economists propagate is that countries are not households. Countries can print money and can profit from negative interest rates, which means they get paid for lending. In other words: Countries that spend during crises, recover much faster. I wrote about this before in the blog “When accounts rule the country: On irrationality and politics“.

If this is true, then we can be hopeful that we can rebound soon, given the fact that the EU, as well as national governments, are pumping nearly unlimited amounts of capital into the economy. The question remains if this money eventually trickles down to citizens, employees, and SME’s, or if they end up filling the unlimited pockets of multinationals, and their investors. If you have inspiring sources on this topic, please share them with me.

The stimulus package debate, as seen through the lens of behavioural design

Why am I writing a newsletter on economic thinking? Because I think the choices governments are making to save the economy have every to do with behavioural design and behavioural economics.

Here’s why:

  • First of all, a lot of the debates around fiscal policy seem to be completely irrational, something I have written about in the past. The fact that the Nordic countries keep insisting that the southern European countries need to feel the pain for their sinful spending behaviour in the past hasn’t got anything to do with solid economic thinking, but everything with moralism.
  • When you read Mark Blyth, a thriving economy is an economy where people have money to spend. A contracting economy follows from people who are afraid to spend. European Countries so far have been doing a great job to make sure that people can keep on spending. They seem to have learned the lesson from the financial crash of 2008. This is possibly an excellent indicator for a fast rebound. He summarizes this argument very eloquently in this 5-minute video.
  • Third, every intervention in the economy is a behavioural intervention. The way governments design their funds will trigger intended and unintended behaviours. Quite often, the money is not being used by those who could benefit the most from it. Quite commonly, the money is being used by ‘smart’ investors who use cheap capital to fill the war funds of technological disrupters so they can conquer the market and kill all competition. And the reason why they love these companies is that digital companies, in the end, deliver a far higher ROI, because the cost of reproduction of digital products is near zero and they rely far less on physical labour. In other words: If the rules around the abundance of cheap capital are not designed with a greedy capitalist in mind, they will only make things worse. For more on this topic: see this blog I wrote last year on The Behavioural Design of The Economy, on incentives and rewards.

I hope this gives you a new view on how to think bout these abstract concepts like Eurobonds or recovery funds. In the end, they are designed to shape the behaviour of players in the economy. If you understand how they shape behaviour, you can start thinking about the question if they are designed well or if they don’t make any sense at all.

Tom De Bruyne

You can e-mail me at tom@sueamsterdam.com, or follow my Behavioural Design Mini-courses on LinkedIn, or learn more about behavioural design on our website and blog.

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Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design

Where to start? This is golden era for Behavioural Design

By | Behavioural Science, Citizen Behaviour

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change
at an unprecedented scale

Amsterdam empty streets during Corona

Abandoned Zeedijk street in Amsterdam during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A tiny creature with massive powers

One tiny microscopic creature did something to humanity what no other animal was capable of doing:

It stopped us.

Everything we thought about the present and the future has been shattered to pieces in just a matter of three weeks.

The future turns out not to be as positive as we anticipated.
The present turned out much more fragile than we assumed.

It took a tiny little virus to evaporate the profits of the last ten years in a matter of days. It squeezed out a sizable chunk of your pension. It might kill your job, and it might turn the debts you took in optimistic times, into serious liabilities.

The Covid-19 crisis requires behavioural change at an unprecedented scale. In this blog we explore the wicked design challenges for behavioural change.

Make Behavioural Design work for you

Join our virtual Behavioural Design Academy from home and see how you can effectively change behaviour and habits to cope with this crisis.

This changes everything

This virus has  thrown us abruptly into a forced behavioural change experiment, and we are struggling to adapt:

  • We need to figure out how to stay in quarantaine without making each other’s life miserable.
  • We have to find a way to be productive and creative while isolated from our teams.
  • We need to stay in mental and physical shape.
  • We’ll have to use our mental strength to avoid anxiety and depression and to be grateful for what we have.
  • And we’re going to get back in financial shape after this crisis. Surviving this one will provide us with valuable lessons for the future.

A Classic Wicked Behavioural Design Problem

If this is not a wicked Behavioural Design problem, then what is?

(Ok except for the climate crisis, which, by the way, is getting temporary relief from our ferocious efforts to finance our progress by pumping the CO2-byproduct of that progress into the atmosphere and the oceans, whereby we turn it into a problem the future generation will need to fix).

This forced social distancing experiment challenges us to change our beliefs and attitudes, change our behaviours and build new habits.

This crisis has all the characteristics of the ultimate behavioural design challenge:

  • It involves new behaviour.
  • We will need to break existing habits,
  • The behaviour we want to design will probably pay off in the far future,
  • While at the same time, we need to to be disciplined in the present.

In other words: although most people will want behavioural change, their habits, their context and their relative inability to resist instant gratification, will make it extremely difficult to succeed.

But isn’t this the characteristic of every exciting behavioural design challenge?

All behaviours that matter are difficult to change.

Amsterdam empty street 2

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Wicked behavioural challenges to work on

Behavioural Designers always design interventions with these barriers for change in mind. We believe that behavioural change can only be achieved if we start with irrational humans. We’ll need to take into account the forces that prevent them from changing their behaviour. We need to find Jobs-to-be-Done that matter to them, and we need to try to make a connection with those jobs. We’ll need to discover the hot trigger moments, where motivation and ability are high and use those moments to let them commit to something small.

We then need to find ways to keep them engaged and to help them to build and sustain new habits.

We’ll need to leverage our psychological understanding of behaviour to help people to build the habits that:

  • keep them in a positive flow
  • get them to experience deep work
  • harvest the creative, social and intellectual capital of their team
  • be creative and productive
  • get them to experience gratitude, joy and wellbeing
  • contribute positively to the life of others
  • get them to learn new skills
  • trigger a curious and optimistic mindset
  • get them to grow as a person
  • get them to try new ideas and embrace uncertainty

 

Change behaviour and the rest will follow

This crisis forces us to practice virtue in the face of gigantic obstacles.

It provides us with a unique opportunity to practice calm, to inspire others with optimism and re-program our brain away from anxiety into fascination and desire for action.

All these positive outcomes can only follow from changing our behaviour first. We firmly believe that we will find calm, experience joy, get creative and feel the power of great collaboration, only if we act first. Our emotions and experience follow from our behaviour. Only if we can get ourselves to commit to new habits; only if we can prime ourselves into thinking differently; only if we infatuate others with our energy and excitement, we will be able to come stronger out of this crisis.

In the upcoming weeks, you’ll hear much more from us. But we also urge you to apply the behavioural design method to influence the minds and shape the behaviour of yourself, your beloved ones and your colleagues. Use the SUE | Influence framework to analyze behaviour, use the BJ Fogg method to come up with interventions for behavioural change, prototype, test and adapt.

There’s so much good work to do.
Let’s get it on.

The team at SUE | Behavioural Design

More blogs on Designing Citizen Behaviour

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

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The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

By | All, Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I just finished reading “Midnight in Chernobyl“. A chilling and magnificent book on the world’s greatest nuclear disaster. But as much as it is a book about Chernobyl, it’s above all a book on behavioural design. The book provides a fascinating peek into how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union profoundly shape the behaviour of its constituents.

The leadership of the Soviet Union created a magnificent illusion that the ultimate workers’ paradise of True Communism was on the horizon if everyone stuck with the plans of the Party. The best way to understand the behaviour of the people inside the Party is to look at it through the lens of a sadistic game. The higher you got in the ranks, the more effort you had to put in defending your position. Inversely, the most dreadful thing that could happen to you is to fall out of the Party’s grace.

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

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It’s, therefore, no surprise that the Communist Game Design produced only ruthless and sociopathic men who made it to the top. It also created a culture of lies, secrecy, and false reporting for the simple reason that no one in the communist hierarchy wanted – or could afford – to hear bad news.

Why they didn’t want to hear bad news had to do with the two obsessions of the former Soviet Union: ludicrous targets and the competition with the West. Goals that were not going to be met, triggered fury and outrage at the top, and creative corner-cutting at the bottom of the pyramid. The Soviet Union leadership always had to prove that they were able to pull off the impossible. They had to do this to maintain the illusion that it was far more capable than those bloody western capitalists. Not being able to meet the impossible was the equivalent of treason.

Being loyal beats being right

In a culture like this, rational decision-making becomes impossible. Every fact will be interpreted through this obsessive lens: “Could this fact hurt my reputation”? or “Could the Party lose face if this fact were true”? You don’t want this decision-making process when you’re building a nuclear reactor, operating one, or when you’re trying to contain it after the explosion. Reactors got built with lousy material, and prototype tests were skipped, because deadlines were sacred. Known critical errors in the design of the reactor were discarded (because it could hurt the reputation of the Soviet nuclear community), safety protocols were overruled, because deadlines had to be met,… And at every stage there always was a bullying chief who made sure people didn’t step up.

Adam Higginbotham writes:

“The accident and the government’s inability to protect the population from its consequences finally shattered the illusion that the USSR was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world. And, as the state’s attempts to conceal the truth of what had happened  came to light, even the most faithful citizens of the Soviet Union faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham”. (p. 276)

Societies shape behaviour

Midnight in Chernobyl is a fascinating story of how behaviour of a whole nation is shaped by the invisible rules of the game. Everyone is trapped inside the rules of this game, not in the least those at the top.

When you approach it from this angle, then the book pairs surprisingly well with Life.Inc. In this book, Douglas Rushkoff argues that we in the West have entirely internalized corporate thinking. We’ve become obsessed with success, we have started to see everything as assets, and we divide the world into winners and losers.

If you need to bring two books with you on holiday that will teach you a lot without being boring business books, then these are the ones.

Update February 17th 2020:

It’s also quite interesting to observe that a similar pattern is taking place in China in the context of the Corona virus outbreak.. The Chines Government is trying to contain the virus, but are now experiencing unpleasant surprises, due to  overly optimistic reporting from the local governments. People just didn’t want to report bad news, because it could hamper their changes for making career. This is a perfect illustration of Goodhart’s Law:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

In other words: When your promotion depends on the things you measure, you start cooking the numbers.

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How one buddha statue transformed a community

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

This story began in 2009. Dan Stevenson, a resident of Oakland’s Eastlake Neighborhood, was fed up with people littering garbage in a traffic-diverting median at the intersection of two streets. He was used to drug dealing and prostitution in the neighbourhood, but as long as they didn’t cross a line, he didn’t feel the urge to act.

But the new median in the road turned out to become an open invitation for people to dump their garbage. And the moment one item got dropped, it signalled social proof to other people to follow the example, and this triggered more undesired behaviour.

Dan Stevenson came up with an idea: “What if I would put up a Buddha Statue?” He figured: Buddha is pretty neutral. A Jesus Christ statue is too controversial. But with Buddha, you can’t be offended. His idea was that the gaze of the Buddha might have a second-thought effect on criminals and litters.

What happened next, according to the The San Fransisco Gate is the following:

“He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.

What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.

I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none”.

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Hostile Design 

The makers of the 99%invisble-podcast, where I heard the story, framed this intervention as an example of hostile design. Design that aims at deterring bad behaviours. A bit like the paint in Hamburg’s party district that bounces off your pee when people urinate against it. Similar to the park benches that were designed in such a way that homeless people cannot use them as a bed.

I wouldn’t exactly call this intervention hostile. What I really like about this intervention is that one single attribute redefined the perception of the physical space from a trash bin to a sacred place. And once it was redefined through this statue, it started to shape people’s behaviour. It quickly became a holy shrine for the Buddhist community. And they began to take care of the place. Once they figured out that Dan Stevenson was behind it, the Vietnamese community started to bring him presents and paying him their respects.

What I also love about this story is that it’s such a powerful example of how little our brain needs to alter the experience of what we see. We don’t need many cues for our mind to attribute a completely different meaning to what we see. One Buddha statue from a home depot store sufficed to transform the perception, the experience and the meaning of place. And it redefined the behaviours that were expected and those that were forbidden.

As Charles and Ray Eams once summarized one of the essential lessons in design: The design is not in the details. The detail is the design.

Psychological magic is everywhere.
We have to learn to see it.

You can hear the whole story on the 99% invisible podcast

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Pissing in the well

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

Have you ever been to Ubud in Bali? Ten years ago it was the closest you could get to paradise. Today it transformed into a mass tourism nightmare. KFC’s next to McDonalds, an abundance of yoga studios and a plethora of overpriced organic restaurants, carefully catered to get the last dollar out of the pockets of the sophisticated soul searcher.

Vang Vieng in Laos is even worse. Once a little hidden gem on a river transformed itself into a binge-drinking paradise for English and Australian youngsters. The number one activity in Vang Vieng is tubing, which comes down to descending the river on a tube while being drunk. The view that made Vang Vieng so incredibly beautiful is now gone because they built backpacker huts in front of it.

These are just two classic examples of the concept of “pissing in the well“. A well is a common good in a community that – if managed well – provides prosperity for everyone. If a community in a remote village manages its access to water well, everyone will be able to thrive. If one person decides to damage it for personal gain, the well will dry up and everyone will suffer or die. This phenomenon is also often referred to as the tragedy of the commons.

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We’re pissing in every well we find

The wrongness of the core idea of capitalism that progress is made when everyone pursues their self-interest is never better illustrated than in the tragedy of the commons. The list of tragedies is endless:

  • We live in Amsterdam. It’s a beautiful city, but real estate speculation and mass tourism are gradually turning it into Disney-like attraction.
  • Watching a Frozen-movie with the kids on TV can be a joyful family experience until they ruin it with five advertising blocks.
  • We want to drive our cars as fast as we want to while musing about the beauty of the countryside. But while doing this, the quality of what’s left of nature is rapidly declining, precisely because we’re slowly suffocating it.

I can go on and on. We, humans, tend to piss in every well of beauty and prosperity we find.

I don’t know the solution to the problem, but I do know that the psychology of happiness points to some exciting directions. The key to living a happy life is not about consuming the things you want to have or to buy experiences. Life long happiness is all about living a meaningful life. It’s about forming deep relationships with others, through which your sense of self transcends. Happiness is about learning new things. And it’s about contributing to a more significant good.

Find happiness in restoring the wells in 2020

So instead of pissing in the wells we visit, why not dedicate ourselves to joining forces to restore the wells that we are in the process of destroying:

  • bring back the sense of belonging in the communities we live
  • restore the wildlife in our regions
  • join forces to speed up the transition to a carbon-free world
  • restore the opportunities for kids who grow in poverty to get access to good education, proper role models and enough opportunities to climb the social ladder

These are the wicked behavioural design challenges for 2020 we are going to focus on. To restore the wells of beauty, meaning and prosperity, what a great mission for the next years.

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A cunning plan to nudge people into electric driving

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

The climate change issue is by far the most wicked behavioural design challenge in our lifetime. In about 10-20 years we will need humanity to change the fossil fuel motorblock under the hood of prosperity. And we will need to do this while we’re all high on consuming everything our carefully manipulated desires are told to want. This is the daunting taks for our generation.

There’s going to be a big need for behavioural designers to answer questions like: How are we going to get people, business and politicians to change their behaviour?

Let’s zoom in on cars to begin with: How do you get people to switch to driving electric? It’s actually much simpler than you think.

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There’s a big debate going on in the Netherlands right now. The Dutch government was forced to come up with measures to lower the level of CO2 emissions urgently. They came up with the idea to reduce the maximum speed on all highways from 130 till 100 km/hour. The argument seemed more than fair: It’s a relatively small effort, and it saves thousands of jobs in construction. You can read more about it in this article from The Guardian.

The country went bonkers, and the resentment was both fueled and harvested by the far-right populist parties. People don’t want to be told how fast they can drive. The topic is consistently being framed as a complot from the urban elite against the hardworking people.

At the same time, the government decided to stop giving tax incentives for buying electric cars. By the way: it was also brilliantly framed by the opposition as the Tesla-tax. A tax-cut that would only benefit people who are rich enough to buy a Tesla.

What if they would have approached both problems as behavioural designers?

As is all too often the case, the measures were taken with a lousy understanding of human decision making in mind. You don’t have to be a behavioural scientist to understand that taking away a privilege will backfire, no matter how good the intentions. Bas Erlings and Sophie Hermans, the campaigning masterminds behind the Dutch Liberals did a masterful job in framing the issue. They immediately framed it as a “lousy measure they only made to prevent thousands of people working in the construction business would sit at home at the Christmas table without a job”. The “lousy measure”-frame was repeated in national and international media.

But with a little bit of creativity, this could have been a fantastic opportunity to boost the transition to electric driving. The only thing they needed to do, was to allow electric cars to drive 130 in the fast lane. Every time you would see an electric car passing you on the highway, you would essentially see a riding billboard for electric driving. If you combined this with free parking and free chargers in the city-centres, where parking space costs a fortune and are challenging to find, that would spark a rush on electric cars.

However, this requires policymakers to think human-centered instead of looking at the problem through the traditional rational frame. You don’t need to incentivise humans if you can tap into psychological value: The desire to outsmart traffic, to have comfortable parking space and even the desire to be part of a smart group of people who outsmarted the masses by going electric.

But the problem, of course, is that these measures are just a little bit too exotic to say yes to if you are a policymaker. And therefore it’s a lost opportunity. As I argued many times before in this newsletter: policymakers should at least hire behavioural economists or behavioural designers to spot golden opportunities for behavioural change.

Read more about this topic in a blog post I wrote a couple of months ago: How Norway nudges its citizen to drive electric.

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How can you trust an expert?

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

Skin in the game

The problem with intelligence is that smart people doubt all the time, while stupid people (or con artists) are full of confidence because they don’t know they’re dumb. In psychology this is also know as the Dunning-Kruger effect. For most of our decisions in life, we don’t have enough information at our disposal. So we rely on people who are at least able to cast the illusion that they know what they’re talking about.

To be clear: there’s nothing wrong with outsourcing your thinking process when you have to make a decision about which mortgage to take, which house to buy, how to invest, which holiday destination to pick,… We don’t have the time, experience and mental capacity to do all the research ourselves.

But how do you know whom you can trust? An expert could be an overconfident nobody who happens to be great at bluffing? Or you might be dealing with an imposter who has a lot to gain from getting you to choose a specific option. Some people are very good at making us believe they know what they’re talking about. They are masters at designing the perception, from the self-confident posture, to the way they dress to impress, to the glasses that make them look smart. They throw in business lingo to signal sophistication and – this is the best trick in the business – they throw in a ‘why’-explanation. Nothing is more persuasive than explaining what you think with why you think it. Your explanation might be completely nonsensical, but most people will think “I have no idea what he’s talking about, but it sounds reasonable”.

We use self-confidence as a shortcut for competence simply because we don’t have the time to think about every choice we have to make.

…(continue reading below)

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Skin in the game

So how could you become better at making decisions? Nassim Taleb argues that the best shortcuts for good advice is if someone has got “skin in the game”. Skin in the game has got everything to do with accountability. When you have skin in the game, you can suffer from negative consequences. When you have skin in the game, you have your own money, reputation, time and future at stake if the choices you make or the advice you give don’t pay off.

This is precisely the reason why it’s utterly bonkers that corporate CEO’s make so much money. They don’t have skin in the game. They will benefit a lot when their actions turn out positive, but they won’t suffer if things go wrong. BTW, this is in a nutshell the explanation of the 2008 financial crisis. If you don’t suffer from bad decisions, you will make reckless and stupid decisions. Or decisions that will affect your bonus, and those aren’t necessarily aligned with the longterm goals of the corporation.

My co-founder Astrid and I are entrepreneurs (and married). This means we have all our money, our reputation, and our ability to have a pension, invested in SUE. If we screw up our reputation, we will end in poverty. This results in a huge incentive to work very hard to have satisfied clients. When you have skin in the game, you can’t afford failure.

Come to think of it. This is a useful shortcut for all kinds of decisions. If you need a banker, financial advisor, accountant, coach, or think of every professional service that you can rely on: go for the entrepreneurs. The big organizations might have the brand and the reputation, but often they will throw in their best people to get you as a client, and then they’ll hook you up with the junior staffers.

If you like this topic: Subscribe to the podcast “Naval”. Naval Ravikant is the co-founder of Angelist and the smartest geek on applying mental models to better decision making. The density of his thinking is mind-blowing.

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