Category

Government & Politics

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.

Discover the missing layer of behavioural design

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

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
The Prime Minister and the Chief Scientist

Thoughts on the setup of a Corona Advisory Team

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Government & Politics

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

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

 

Kahneman system 1 and 2

From Intelligent lockdown do smart OpenUp.

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

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

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

Principle 1: The method is as important as the people

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

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

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

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

Principle 3: Establish rules for good judgement. 

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

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

Principle 4: Prototyping and testing before implementing

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

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

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

Principle 5: Select people with skin in the game. 

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

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

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

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

Discover the missing layer of behavioural design

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

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

sue behavioural design
sue behavioural design
Nassim Taleb

How to be anti-fragile when the virus hits the economy? (update 22/03)

By | Government & Politics, Health & Fitness

Update 18/03

We are now 8 days further into this crisis and the world has gone into various forms of lockdown. There’s a big debate on whether this is the right strategy. It could be the worst of two worlds: We will harm the economy and when shit will hit the fan, we’ll be even more vulnerable. Nassim Taleb takes – as always – a radically different approach. He argues in this paper that lockdown could literarily wipe the virus out in 2 or 3 months. Hopeful.

Update 22/03

I have added a couple of nuances at the end of this blog on austerity.

Update 23/03

Nassim Taleb (the subject of this post) argues that this pandemic is NOT a Black Swan. This doesn’t contradict this blog below. I have included the implication of this argument below.


 

As I’m writing this piece (March 10th 2020), the virus is raging through the economy. Stock markets are heading towards catastrophic losses, and governments are forced to take draconic measures. The virus is going to hit the economy hard. How do we make sense of this all? And what’s the best way to respond as businesses and as a society?  The most useful mental models that come to mind are the concepts of ‘Black Swan Events’ and ‘Anti-fragility’ by Nassim Nicolas Taleb.

Nassim Taleb

Nicolas Nassim Taleb

Covid-19 s a classic Black Swan Event

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicolas Taleb argues that we humans assume that the world is a fairly predictable place. We believe the stock market will keep on growing. We act upon the belief that the world will keep on evolving towards more prosperity. We assume interests will remain so low; you’d be crazy not to borrow. We keep pumping CO2 into the atmosphere because we believe that nature will keep on absorbing most of the damage we inflict upon her. Taleb argues that we all think we live in Normalistan, and we make all of our decision based on a firm believe in Normalistan. This conviction works very well,… until it doesn’t.

Taleb argues that Normalistan is an Illusion. Once in a while, an extreme and unexpected event happens that turns everything on its head. The classic example is a crash of the stock market. In 2008 everyone was drunk with optimism about the ludicrous profits they could make on the stock market and in the housing market, until the day that Lehman fell.

Taleb calls these events’ Black Swan Events’: Highly improbalistic events that instantly reshuffle everything we thought we knew about the world. People always thought all swans are white until one-day explorers brought a black swan from Australia. This urged us to revise our understanding of the world instantly. Taleb himself made a fortune as a trader betting against ‘black swan events’. He took insurance against the crash of stocks, waited for years until the stock market crashed and got incredibly rich. For a similar story; Watch the Big Short on Netflix.

Poster of the film The Big Short

The Big Short – On Netflix

 

How to deal with black swans: Anti-fragilty

After writing the Black Swan, Taleb followed up with the book ‘Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder‘, in which he came up with strategies to deal with Black Swan Events. He argues that most systems cannot cope very well with disorder or unexpected events. Big corporations, for instance, are very robust, which works very well in times of economic booms. However, robustness becomes highly problematic in times of crisis or the face of technological disruption and rapid market transformation. A big corporation is like a tanker, that has a significant advantage in calm, open waters, but is hopeless when it needs to manoeuvre fast and agile.

The opposite of a fragile system is a system that gets stronger from disorder. For instance: Netflix runs the Chaos Monkey on their servers. The chaos monkey is a script that attacks servers or groups of servers. Netflix inflicts constant unexpected attacks upon itself to get stronger when it has to deal with attacks from the outside world. Taleb calls these systems anti-fragile.

Antifragile systems benefit from disorder, obstacles, unexpected events, or change. Silicon Valley, for instance, is very anti-fragile, because it counts on lots of startups to fail because they expect a tiny group of startups to become massively successful. By allowing lots of failure to happen, it increases its chances of stumbling upon success.

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Antifragile by Nassim Taleb

Covid-19 is a Black Swan Event

This brings me to the Corona virus. This is a classic black swan event. Out of nowhere, it suddenly threatens the global economy, the unstoppable rise of China, the American elections, etc. Trillions of dollars of values already evaporated in the course of days. And we’re just getting started.

The virus is ruthless in bringing to the surface which systems are anti-fragile and which ones are not. Let’s look at some observations of how obviously fragile our economy is:

  • The world economy, with its just-in-time delivery of goods and services, is very vulnerable. All industries that depend on Chinese production capacity are now screwed.
  • The obsession with ferocious growth through enormous amounts of corporate debt, suddenly becomes highly problematic, now that investors want to get out of high-risk value papers as soon as possible. Debt-filled companies don’t have reserves for dealing with crises.
  • Most health care systems in the world are utterly unprepared for a pandemonium. In our collective free-market obsessions with cutting away redundancies, we optimized to cope with Normalistan. If the spreading of the virus continues as it does today, the US will run out of hospital beds within two months. 
  • Lot’s of SME’s are rapidly getting into trouble: Orders get cancelled, and incomes drop sharply, while at the same time it’s not that easy to cut costs quickly. You can’t fire your staff with a snap of your fingers.
  • The travel industry is not anti-fragile. Airlines are getting big blows. The first airline Flybe has already gone bankrupt. Airline margins are very low, competition is killing, and the business model can only function through continuous growth.

The efficiency maffia holds a firm grip on the economy. And they usually get away with it, until they get surprised by a black swan event. They collectively shout in despair that they had never seen in coming.

The problem is: There are always going to be Black Swan Events. You never know when, but they’ll happen. We have to design our systems – society, work, our personal lives,… – with the expectation of black swan events at heart.

 

Anti-fragility in the face of Corona

What do anti-fragile systems look like? Who will get stronger from this virus-induced economic recession in the making? Here are a couple of principles

  1. The ability to change course fast: anti-fragile systems benefit from a capability to coordinate for rapid change. Singapore got much credit for being the world standard for how to deal with the virus. The government has set up a massive fever-surveillance system, so nearly nobody can remain under the radar for too long (and infect others). Their capability for massive mobilization makes them slightly less fragile.
  2. Companies that have no debts and healthy cash reserves: In times of optimism, it’s very tempting to listen to your accountant and pay dividends. I’m glad we nearly always politely listen to our accountant and then do the exact opposite. We try to protect ourselves against our own optimism bias. We expect bad times to happen and plan for it.
  3. A diversified product offering: Airlines are very vulnerable because, in the case of a pandemonium, people will stop flying for business. But they’ll still need to talk to the business partner they were going to visit in the first place. If airlines would have invested in high quality video conferencing, they might have helped a lot of companies and event organizers to solve a huge problem. The Job-to-be-done of business traveling is not the journey, but to facilitate high-value meetings. It’s not because people stop traveling, that their underlying motivation for traveling has disappeared. For more on Job-to-be-Done: See our post on The Influence Framework.
  4. A Culture of Experimentation: This is a unique moment in time to experiment with video conferencing and collaboration software. Companies that are already used to working from home and video conferencing have an advantage. We are now rapidly experimenting with software tor virtual classrooms and for virtual sprints. If people can’t travel, then we’ll have to redesign our learning experience within a couple of weeks.
  5. Speed up innovation: If your staff now suddenly has time on their hand, then use this opportunity to invest in your content, brand, reputation. Never waste a good crisis, because it allows you to invest in the things you usually don’t have the time for while the economy was going strong.
  6. Take a lot of small risks, instead of one big risk. When the world becomes highly unknown, embrace fast experimentation. Prototype ideas, run pilots and try to get promising signals as soon as possible.

I don’t know how this crisis will evolve, and of course, we didn’t see this one coming. And to be honest, there’s no way to tell if this will play out well. We have to embrace it and practice anti-fragility.

Update 22/03/20

On several occasions I have been writing against fiscal austerity. In my argument, I followed the classic Keynsian argument that governments should do the exact opposite of what people need to do when in debt: spend more. This argument has been defended by Nobel Prize Laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman and has been argued for, both with strong data-support and with a highly entertaining Scottish accent by Mark Blyth, the author of the book “Against Austerity”. (must watch lecture).

However, in the wake of this epic crisis, you could also argue that running a surplus in good times wasn’t a bad idea after all. Both the Dutch and the German government now turn out to have deep pockets for both supporting their economy and lend astronomical amounts of money. The Germans are waking up with the realisation that Merkel wan’t crazy after all.

This is what Economics Professor Tyler Cowen writes on his blog (which really is the essential go-to place during their crisis):

Of course the content of the spending matters a great deal, but this is in principle the right thing to do.  But here is the catch: out on social media, and in the old days of the blogosphere, there was so much Merkel hatred: “the austerity queen who killed thousands,” etc.  But now she has been vindicated.  We all can agree that a government should (on average) run surpluses in good times and deficits in bad times.  Well…2011-2012…those were the good times.  Yikes.

Merkel goes up in status with this, big time.  And of course it is no surprise that a bunch of Germans would have a better sense of what the bad times really can look like.

Update 23/03/20

Nassim Taleb insists that this is NOT a black swan. For the simple reason that the outbreak of a  global pandemic was a highly probable and predictable event. We were warned for it by leading scientists for decades, and we had multiple occasions where we could have tested our capacity to deal with it  (e.g. the SARS-outbreak). He is therefore very harsh on companies that decided to use the abundant availability of cheap capital in the last decade to buy back their own stocks, which would drive up the value, that in turn lead to bonuses dividends for management and shareholders. Taleb on Twitter:

“Explain to me why we should spent taxpayer money to bailout companies (airlines) who spent their cash buying their own stock so the CEO gets optionality, instead of having a crisis buffer. We should bail out individuals based on needs, not corporations”.

BTW: this is the theme of his latest book, called “Skin in the Game”, in which he argues that a lot of terrible decision making could easily be avoided if the ones who took the decision can be both awarded and punished for their decisions. This crisis might teach shareholders something about expecting more skin in the game from the management of the companies they invest in.

Also read: Live like a Hydra: how to practice antifragility in your personal life.

Watch the complete overview of our blogs on behavioural design.

Contact me: tom@suebehaviouraldesign.com.

 

When Accountants rule the country

When accountants rule the country – irrationality and politics

By | All, Government & Politics

The dangerous economic myths
underlying political decision-making

When Accountants rule the country

Picture by Neil Moralee, shared under a Creative Common license

This is going to be a slightly longer post than usual. I want to share a couple of thoughts on a subject that fascinates me: irrationality in governing. I want to argue that billions of Euro’s are being spent by governments, based on bad economic ideas. These ideas are very pervasive, because they provide politicians with the illusion that they’re working very hard. But in reality, they’re making things worse.

How do you want your tax money to be spent?

As a tax-payer, you want to assume that your government uses its tax-income to make smart, rational decisions. You would like political debates to be about which investments would yield the highest societal return. Should we invest more in education? In infrastructure? In the military? Should we invest more in stimulating entrepreneurs to develop thriving businesses that generate jobs? Or should we focus more on redistributing wealth to encourage the poorest to get out of poverty? Should we accelerate spending in green energy, or is it better to remain addicted to burning cheap fossil fuels?

Spending billions based on irrationality

Your average Western government has to make a yearly decision on how to spend billions of Euros, Pounds or Dollars. So you want that decision to be based on evidence and facts. You don’t want it to be based on irrationality. 

The problem is: this is how governments think. 

In the book “Money and Government: The past and future of economics“, History Professor – and Keynes biographer – Robert Skidelsky argues very eloquently that governments worldwide use bad economics to make big decisions on government spending. And some problematic myths form the foundation of these lousy decisions.

Behavioural Design is the missing layer

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

Myth 1: Whenever possible, leave things to the market. 

The underlying idea is that governments are not productive and bureaucratic, whereas markets tend to create increasingly better service for less money. This cliche is very pervasive and very wrong. Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates in “The Entrepreneurial State” that every piece of innovation that sits within an iPhone has been funded and developed with governmental funding. And vice versa: Markets have a deep tendency towards monopolies, profit maximization and obsession with shareholder value. This market tendency becomes problematic when it concerns critical services like health care and public transport. 

Myth 2: Governments need to be prudent with money

Our Dutch government loves to compliment itself with having one of the best budgets in the world. Our national debt is rapidly decreasing due to the disciplined cost-cutting efforts of our government. Every European government decided that the best answer to the financial crisis was austerity. Sounds reasonable. If you’re in debt, you have to stop spending and start paying back. But ‘reasonable’ is not the same as ‘rational’. The rational thing to do to prevent the economy from further contracting, as many economists have argued, is precisely the opposite: increase spending. Economies are not the same as households. The reason why this myth is so powerful is that there’s a lot of signalling power in it: Being strict on the budget allows politicians to signal that they are working hard and responsible. 

Two fascinating stories illustrate the point how wrong this myth is: 

  • Belgium suffered far less from the financial crisis than other Western-European countries. The Reason: They weren’t able to form a government for more than 1,5 year – rewarded with a Guinness World Record mention – so they didn’t have the opportunity to make stupid decisions.
  • Portugal, one of the worst economies in Europe defied the European Austerity-doctrine and started investing in wages, pensions and work. To everyone’s surprise, it quickly became one of the best-performing economies in Europe. Read this background article: “No Alternative to Austerity? That lie has now been nailed“.

Myth 3: There’s no magic money tree (spoiler: there is)

In an excellent essay on Robert Skidelsky, David Graeben shares a shocking statistic: Almost 85% of all Members of Parliament in the UK has no clue about how money is created. And yet they have to decide upon billions, even trillions of Pounds/Euros/Dollars. He writes:

 “There is no magic money tree,” as Theresa May put it during the snap election of 2017—virtually the only memorable line from one of the most lackluster campaigns in British history. The phrase has been repeated endlessly in the media, whenever someone asks why the UK is the only country in Western Europe that charges university tuition, or whether it is really necessary to have quite so many people sleeping on the streets.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way. Not only is the public largely unaware of this, but a recent survey by the British research group Positive Money discovered that an astounding 85 percent of members of Parliament had no idea where money really came from (most appeared to be under the impression that it was produced by the Royal Mint)”

Because nobody knows how money is created, Richard Werner, a German Economist, decided to go and find it out for himself, by applying for a job at a bank. To his disbelief, he discovered that bank tellers don’t balance out the loans and mortgages they issue against a reserve. They simply create the money out of thin air and expect it to be paid back with interest.

What happens when accountants rule the country

So, if banks can create money out of thin air, purely based on the confidence that it will return one day with interest, why couldn’t governments do this? It’s called investing. The big crisis of today is a crisis of imagination. Governments have come to think of themselves only in terms of accountants, or as the instance that only takes money and prosperity away instead of creating it. 

It reminds me of my own experience with accountants years ago. Our accountants always used to be very proud and satisfied when they looked at the quarterly numbers. In the mind of the accountant, a great company is a company that performs well on a balance sheet. I hated these conversations. I still do. Because what accountants don’t see is that an excellent looking balance-sheet can mask all kinds of deep problems: terrible clients, 80-hours work weeks, a significant dependency on junior staff, unhealthy competition, etc.

An accountant could be looking at a company that is terminally ill, and still think it’s doing great. And since they talk numbers and spreadsheets, I tended to think they knew what they’re talking about. You don’t need much imagination that the same thing is going on on a government level. Dutch politicians recently lamented that they are performing well, and yet people keep being dissatisfied and disappointed. Voters are such ungrateful bastards. 🙂

Tom De Bruyne, February 2020.

Read more

More Behavioural Design Blogs on society, government and politics:

Or watch the complete overview of our blogs on behavioural design.

Or contact me: tom@suebehaviouraldesign.com.

sue behavioural design

Learn how to make the science of influence work for you

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and master the skills to shape minds and influence behaviour. We trained people over 30+ countries and have a 9,2 satisfaction rate. Check out our free brochure. Don’t miss out on making your growth a success.

sue behavioural design
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

Learn the Behavioural Design Method

Learn how influence works in our monthly two-day masterclass Behavioural Design Fundamentals in Amsterdam

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.

Want to read more?

More blogposts on the design of citizen behaviour.

All our blogs

Book a 60-minutes with SUE

Do you consider hiring SUE to learn how we could help you to imrpove your product, service or marketing through behavioural psychology? Book 60-minutes with SUE. Get a Behavioural Design perspective on your challenge. Who knows where it could lead to…

How Norway nudges its citizens to drive electric

By | Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

The surprising story behind
Norways spectacular rise in EV’s

Did you know that in Norway more than 60% of all newly bought cars are electric? Here’s the surprising story of how they used smart Behavioural Design Thinking to fight climate change and achieve their aggressive CO2-zero ambitions. They came up with a couple of interventions that provide people with daily reminders of how awesome it is to drive electric.

Principle 1: Trigger selfish motives

The Norwegian Government doesn’t want to turn you into an eco-fanatic. Neither don’t try to convince you to make the transition because of the environment. They just make it much more attractive for you to drive electric. The brilliant part of their strategy is that they didn’t stop at your typical tax cuts – although they are enormous. They turned the benefit in something far more system 1: Electric cars get a free passage at the Toll Gates, get free parking in a lot of municipalities and get permission to drive on the bus lane. In other words: they get to experience the benefits every day.

This brings me to the second principle.

Principle 2: feedback

A driver of an electric car gets constant positive feedback on their behaviours. Every time they use the bus lane to skip traffic jam, or every time they pass a toll gate for free, they get a chance to look at all those combustine engine suckers. They get visual reminders on a daily basis of how stupid one must be to drive the old school way.

The opposite is also true: Every time you get stuck in a traffic jam, and you see a Tesla or an electric Kia legally using the bus lane to cut you off, you get a painful reminder that your not part of the priviledged class of the country.

Principle 3: Take away barriers

The big challenge is still to tackle “range anxiety”. More than often, people in Norway buy an electric car for their second car, with which they commute to work. For the long distances, they still don’t feel secure enough that they could travel comfortably without having to freak out about finding a re-charge station on time. Norway is investing rapidly in charging infrastructure. Ability is not a detail.

Add the missing layer to make your growth happen

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and in just two days master the practical Behavioural Design skills to make growth hacking actually work. You’ll know how to influence behaviour and shape minds to boost your growth hacking tactics.

What can we learn: Re-think incentives

First and foremost, we can’t compare apples with pears. Norway can issue this enormous tax cut because the country can afford it. The state – ironically – lives of the export of oil. Furthermore: they have – unlike most other countries – a heavy taxation in place on imported cars. A tax cut on the imported electric car quickly makes a significant financial difference.

But what we can learn is that there are far more clever strategies to get people to switch to electric driving. Instead of using the traditional taxation-stick, we could come up with benefits that have a much higher psychological value:

  1. Legalize autonomous-driving asap: Last week I saw a guy driving his Tesla while reading his newspaper. I realized I just saw the future. And it looked frikking cool.
  2. Give visual priviliges in traffic: To be allowed to cut traffic Jams by using the emergency lane, especially in a country like the Netherlands, will give you a guaranteed daily dopamine rush to the brain.
  3. Replace most parking spots in big cities like Amsterdam with parking spots that are exclusive for electric vehicles. Having to park your diesel on the outskirts of town, while having to take public transport to the city centre, meanwhile having to watch Electric Vehicle owners parking their car next to the canals for free: priceless.

The green revolution is coming.

We’re only using the wrong incentives to make it attractive.

Update: This post is the first in a series of a posts on how to use Behavioural Design thinking to tink about the climate crisis.

Want to learn more?

If you want to master the science of influence yourself, you could consider enrolling in our two-day course Behavioural Design at our SUE | Behavioural Design Academy. You can download the Academy brochure.

Or maybe you currently have a challenge in which you want to influence choice or change behaviour. Please, take a look at our Behavioural Design Sprint. It might be the answer you’re looking for.

Or could be you just would like to get to know us a little better. We happily introduce ourselves here.

sue behavioural design

Without influence your customer won't do what's needed for growth

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and master the skills to shape minds and influence behaviour. We trained people over 30+ countries and have a 9,2 satisfaction rate. Check out our free brochure. Don’t miss out on making your growth a success.

sue behavioural design
Pitcture depicting the Kock Brothers

The behavioural design of the economy. On incentives and rewards

By | Behaviour in Organisations, Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

To get the rich and powerful to change their behaviour,
is the most wicked design problem of our time

Pitcture depicting the Kock Brothers

I have been thinking a lot lately about society’s inability to tackle the biggest challenges of our time. I don’t know about you but climate crisis, income inequality and radicalisation is scaring the hell out of me. We can’t seem to change the behaviour of those who are running the show. This is the most wicked problem of our time. I want to argue that the solution to change the course of history can be found in applying some Behavioural Design Thinking to this wicked problem.

The economy is a behavioural design

The best way to think about behavioural design is to think of it as the design of choices. The way you design a choice will largely determine the behaviour that follows from that choice. This simple and powerful first principle of Behavioral Designworks on all levels of human decision making, from small consumer decisions to big societal decisions. Let me illustrate this with a couple of examples:

  • If you want to sell an item, it matters a great deal if you give two or three options. You can change the value perception of a cake + coffee of € 5,- in comparison to a € 2,5 coffee instantly if you would introduce a decoy option of a € 4 cake in the middle. The introduction of the € 4 cake makes the € 5 coffee + cake suddenly look like a bargain.
  • You can change the value perpection of something if you don’t call it “cheap” but “great value for money”.
  • If you want to get a sales team to run like hamsters in a treadmill, introduce sales targets and continuously give them feedback on how they’re performing in comparison to their colleagues. With these simple interventions, you will have designed a choice system that triggers hyper-competitive game behaviour.

These applications of the lens of behavioural economics to human decision making is nothing new. What fascinates me is the idea that could also look at the economy through this lens. The economy is a behavioural design system that rewards particular behaviour with power and profits and punishes other behaviours with taxes and fines. If you want to transform the economy, you have to tweak the behavioural design in such a way that it rewards and incentives different behaviours.

(BTW: In this post we explore the concept of Behavioural Design in dept)

Behavioural Design is the missing layer

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

It’s all about the incentives.

The problem with the current behavioural design of the economy is that it consistently rewards destructive behaviours, both with money, power and social status.

Society glorifies being rich and being powerful. To the extent that it rewards sociopaths like Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel and Charles and David Koch (see picture above. BTW: David died this week) with power, prestige, admiration, etc.… The summit of social status in western capitalist society is “being rich”.

Society also rewards them with unlimited power to do whatever they want. Think about how Bezos played out communities against each other to fight for hosting the next HQ of Amazon. Amazon was offered 2.2 billions in tax cuts by the city of New York.

The third reward is financial. If you’re rich, you have access to all the tools to get even richer. The (capitalist) behavioural design of the economy offers unlimited financial rewards to people with capital. Every valuable thing in the marketplace is being sucked dry by the owners of capital. There’s so much cheap capital in the hands of investors that they can buy everything to help them to grow their wealth even further: They buy up houses in cities, they buy kindergartens, elderly homes, entertainment franchises, etc. They own more than 90% of all fortune 500 companies through the stock market, and instead of using profits to reinvest them in the companies, they use it to pay themselves high dividends.

This process is called the financialisation of the economy and explains why everything of value is rapidly becoming more expensive.

 

The solution: Change the incentives


If you want to understand the economy, understand incentives. If we’re going to change the economy, we’ll have to change the incentives. It’s as simple as that. If we want to fight inequality and climate catastrophe, we will need to change the social, financial and power rewards.

Governments and economist only tend to focus on tax incentives today, but I think we could have a far more significant impact if we work on the psychological rewards of social status and power.

We will need to challenge the social status of those who are destructing the planet and extracting wealth out of the economy. We will need to reward those with bold and brave ideas about the future with power.

A great example of this behavioural design change is the work that the Sunrise Movement in the US is currently doing. They are the movement that came up with the New Green Deal. They did a fantastic job of reframing the climate crisis story. Instead of talking about “saving the planet” and scaring the hell out of people, they turned climate action into a narrative about investing in wealth creation, job creation and the investment in thriving communities where kids have access to good education, clean water clean air and health care. That’s a story for which they’re getting bi-partisan support.

As a consequence, this broad support incentives politicians to embrace the New Green Deal, because it increases their chances of being elected. Meanwhile, they do a great job in glorifying business and community leaders who step up and take action and vilify those who are bringing the world on the verge of climate catastrophe.

Even the very rich are suckers for social status and recognition


In the end, no matter how rich we are, we all crave for recognition and social status. If we as a society succeed in taking those away from the current “heroes” of financial fame and instead reward the new heroes that bring society further through investing in a sustainable economy and a sustainable planet, we might succeed much faster in turning things around.  Saving the world is all about redesigning the incentives.

It’s as simple as that.

sue behavioural design

Learn how to make the science of influence work for you

Join our Behavioural Design Academy and master the skills to shape minds and influence behaviour. We trained people over 30+ countries and have a 9,2 satisfaction rate. Check out our free brochure. Don’t miss out on making your growth a success.

sue behavioural design