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

By | All, Behavioural Science

How to convince someone who believes the exact opposite?

We all are influencing people every day. On a small scale (could you pass me the salt) and on a larger scale (choose me, my business or sales proposition). But how do you get people on your side who happen to believe the exact opposite of what you’re trying to convince them of? Or how do you get people to engage in behaviour that is better for them, communities or the planet if they don’t believe that behaviour is the right thing to do or too hard to perform? Often, we resort to convincing people with information, arguments and reasons. However, behavioural science sheds an attractive light on how we, as humans process information and, foremost:

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

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

Confirmation Bias: The godmother of information processing

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

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

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

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

Research conclusion in favour of the death penalty:

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

Research conclusion opposing the death penalty:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Confirmation bias in interpretation and memory

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

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

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

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

Why does confirmation bias happen?

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

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

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

Processing information in a way it confirms what we believe makes us feel good about ourselves.

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

How to convince someone with different beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bypassing confirmation bias (1): Find common ground

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

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

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

Bypassing confirmation bias (2): Provide proof not evidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Astrid Groenewegen

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

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Accelerating Behavioural Change: From pushing to easing

By | All, Behavioural Science

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


Behavioural change; from pushing to easing

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

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

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

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

Behavioural change; a matter of psychology, not physics

So, the message is clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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Behavioural change: Willingness and capability

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

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


The key to behavioural change: Take away bottlenecks

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

Start with taking away behavioural bottlenecks, the barriers.

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

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

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

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

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


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


Astrid Groenewegen



Blog header photo by: Lucas van Oort

Want to learn more?

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

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

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

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

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Why motivating people for climate action is problematic.

By | All, Behaviour in Organisations, Citizen Behaviour

Of all ‘wicked design problems’, motivating people for climate action and designing for sustainable behavioural change are topics many people at SUE are passionate about. When Tom recently suggested Futerra’s paper Sizzle to me, I dove right in, eager to find additions to our toolbox. It’s an excellent read and it makes a persuasive case for a new way of ‘selling’ climate action: instead of selling the negative necessity, we have to sell the positive results of action. Not the hunger, not even the sausage, but the sizzle. Being half-German it invoked lots of appealing memories of grilling bratwurst, so I was all aboard.

We know what dystopias look like, but we lack images of a green utopia.

Lame jokes aside (it’s a cultural thing), it reminded us of a podcast we made some time last year (sorry, Dutch only), in which we discussed climate inaction and stumbled upon the realization that we badly lack utopian visions of the future in popular culture for behavioural change in sustainability. I really don’t know of any book, film, game or piece of art from the last couple of decades that plays out in a positive future. Albeit in many different variations, it’s pretty much all cyberpunk or otherwise dystopian and apocalyptic visions and the message is simple: one way or another, in the not-to-distant future we’re gonna fuck it up. Big time.

That is a symptom of a lack of positive imagination within our cultural avant-garde and a serious problem for the rest of us. Why invest in a future that’s doomed? Why take part in process of change if you don’t have any mental pictures of the exciting and bright future that it could lead to? It’s hardly a surprise that indeed many people simply don’t: compared to where they fear change will lead them, they like where they are just fine, and inaction or worse is the result. So yes: I think Futerra makes a meritorious point. Climate action must be framed in a far more positive way if we are to motivate people for behavioural change.

Yet, for some reason it didn’t sit with me well.

Aren’t we just yet again preaching to the choir?

Isn’t this all a – granted, greatly – improved version of a still fundamentally flawed approach, which is that through communication we should try to achieve a level of aspirational motivation among the population to contribute to a sustainable way of life, and that behavioural change will follow from that? And won’t it, when that inevitably yields limited results, still turn out as a way of preaching to the converted, but with a nicer preach? Isn’t it therefore essentially still focused on fulfilling the emotional and social jobs-to-be-done of the activist, rather than purposefully designing large scale behavioural change? In other words, use behavioural psychology to drive real behavioural change?

Now, I don’t mean this to feel harsh. In fact, the authors explicitly invite a behavioural perspective on their approach. Here it comes.

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Masterclass: How to make Sustainability Simple

Want to truly learn how to apply behavioural science to shape choices and behaviours promoting sustainability? Tim will be teaching an exclusive online one-day masterclass ‘How to make sustainability simple’ on the 9th July 2021. Seats are limited (16); if you are interested in joining, you can reserve a spot for two weeks before turning it into a booking. If you want to do so, send us an email, and you’re on the list. Booking has been opened 1st May, and spots are running out. Here is some more information on the masterclass: UK version and Dutch version (direct download).

Tim will teach the masterclass in English in MS Teams unless we have all Dutch speaking participants. Do you want to enrol a group of 8 or more people in this masterclass? Then the masterlcass can also be taught in Dutch. Please contact us, if you want more information on this (in-company) edition of the masterclass.

Intention is a bad recipe for motivating people for climate action

One concept from behavioural psychology that’s particularly interesting in this regard to behavioural change is the intention-action gap. As a rule, people have a hard time acting up on their intentions. More than often, people even behave in a way that directly contradicts them. This happens at the level of individual behaviour (just think back to everything you’ve intended to do to live more healthily and reflect on how much of it you’ve actually accomplished), and definitely at the level of collective behaviour as well.

We love our local shops, but with every purchase on Amazon, we give them the finger

A good example is the struggle that local retailers have in their competition with the big webshops. Both individually and collectively, we all want flourishing city and town centers, with lots of locally owned shops and cozy restaurants and such, but with every passing day we buy more of our stuff at a small number of big webshops. With every purchase at Amazon, BOL or Zalando, we’re tightening the rope around those local entrepreneur’s necks, and yet we keep doing it – even employees of the local shops.

Why? Because it’s simply easier and cheaper. Individually it’s the better decision.

Even when motivation to support local entrepreneurs peaked during the first COVID-lockdown, Dutch online giants BOL and Coolblue did better than ever and Amazon managed to very successfully enter the Dutch market. We heedlessly make choices that completely contradict our intentions, let alone our larger aspirations. Behavioural psychology at work?

In other words, even when exactly the right messaging manages to build up peoples’ intention to contribute to climate action, it’s not at all likely that this will lead to matching behaviour. That’s a sobering insight which, especially when it comes to climate action, we must be very clear-eyed about. The stakes are too big.

How might we break this behavioural pattern?

Apparently, many behaviours emerge, even if they lead to an outcome that people aren’t motivated to achieve – in fact even if it’s an outcome they’re motivated to prevent. Current consumer behaviour will lead to a web-only retail sector, dominated by a handful of giants. Nobody wants it, but it’s the outcome of our daily choices, which are heavily determined by convenience and costs.

This can work to our advantage.

Many of the most fundamental changes in our way of life have occurred over time, without people having some clear end goal in mind, or even an expectation of what the end result of the road they were on could be, or even a desire to look further than the immediate short-term. When steam machines and electric light bulbs were first put to use, nobody had the ermergence of the industrialised welfare state in mind. When people ordered their first modem, nobody had their sights on the cyborg-like relationship we have with our smartphones a couple decades later. What kind of a way of life these first behaviours would eventually lead simply to didn’t matter. What mattered was that that machine, that lightbulb, that modem, and every small steps that followed, made those peoples’ lifes a little bit easier, more convenient, or in another way humanly more pleasing, in that moment.

Developing a climate neutral way of life is a fundamental change of a similar order, and for the population at large, climate neutrality will similarly be an emerging property: the outcome of their choices, rather than the goal of their choices. This is the only way forward is to influence group behaviour for climate change.

The solution: Make sustainable choices more desirable.

Hence to motivate people for climate action, we shouldn’t put too much of our collective creative energy into convincing people of the larger goal and building up their motivation to contribute to climate action, and put nearly all of it into simply designing those incrementally better everyday choices. If we want to design for genuine behaviour change, it means innovating on sustainable products, services and behaviours, so that they’re increasingly convenient or in many other possible ways the more fulfilling choice.

Tesla doesn’t want you to drive electric for the environment, but because they offer an exciting driving experience. Beyond Meat doesn’t want you to go vegan on your hamburgers, they want you to eat the juiciest hamburger in the world, which happen to be vegan.

That requires above all ruthless, methodical empathy for those humans whose behaviours and choices we want to change. Don’t wash away their anxieties, comforts, pains and deep-rooted human needs and desires in service of climate neutrality – start with them. In fact, I’d put it even stronger:

The only way to achieve climate neutrality in time is to be ruthlessly empathetic with the people whose behaviour we need to change.


Tim Versnel

Tim is a Behavioural Design Lead at SUE. In his spare time, he’s a councillor for the Dutch Liberal Party at the City of Rotterdam
He recently co-authored a book with Klaas Dijkhoff, Group Chairman of the Dutch Liberal, in which they plead for an optimistic renaissance based on the fresh liberal concept.

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

Photo by Markus Spiske

sue behavioural design