Sparking behaviour change - a five step process for strategists

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Sparking behaviour change - a five step process for strategists

Changing processes is easier than changing minds.

When attempting to change behaviour, we often focus too much on trying to change people’s attitudes rather than changing the processes that spark the behaviour in the first place.

Ajzen’s theory of planned behaviour shows us that attitudes alone do not result in behaviour, and people often behave in ways that conflict with their expressed attitudes.

So, in order to truly enact behaviour change, focusing purely on trying to change people’s attitudes can be folly.

Balancing friction and fuel - Dan Ariely’s five step process

Effective behavioural change was central to the Behavioural Exchange 2019 conference last week at London’s QEII conference centre.

The event saw people from over 65 countries across the world come together for two days of talks from the best minds in behavioural science.

Prof. Dan Ariely presenting on stage

Day Two’s keynote address from Prof. Dan Ariely was particularly relevant for marketing strategists.

Ariely shared his rocket ship metaphor for decision making and behaviour change: too much friction and the rocket won’t fly, not enough fuel and it will not fly either.

 The idea of friction and fuel form the central part of Ariely’s five step process to help people make better decisions and spark behaviour change.

The process, which I’ve outlined in more detail below, mirrors many of elements of strategic planning. But crucially, it offers a way to build in behavioural science considerations at each stage.

Step 0: Discovery

As strategic planners our job is to get to the root of the problem. But as Ariely pointed out, we don’t always know what the obstacles are.

During discovery it’s important we define exactly what the problem is, find the appropriate data to investigate the problem and hopefully achieve insight from its analysis.

Step 1: Friction

Once the problem is well defined and any obstacles identified, we then need to consider how we can decrease friction and remove or change any obstacles.

Ariely demonstrated this by talking about an experiment that attempted to reduce the amount of cash that people withdraw from ATMs. Several approaches were trialled such as having a default withdrawal amount, and changing the fee from fixed to variable.

Both approaches dealt with the friction involved in making a withdrawal, and both proved successful, especially in combination.

Step 2: Fuel

Alongside decreasing friction we also need to add fuel, i.e. motivation for people to perform certain behaviours.

When trying to decrease no-show rates for medical exams, Ariely discussed how ‘fuel’ was added to pre-existing SMS reminders. For example, reminding people that another person could use their appointment slot, or highlighting that it is important to their family members that they go to their appointment.

These very simple changes to the messaging decreased no-shows from 21% to 14%, demonstrating the power of motivational cues in sparking behaviour change.

Step 3: Scale

In 1747 James Lind conducted one of the first control trials in medical science ever recorded, and discovered that lemon juice prevented scurvy in sailors. It took until 1795 for lemon juice to be compulsory on Navy ships but despite this sailors kept getting scurvy. What the Navy didn’t realise was that the method of preservation (boiling the lemon juice) destroyed the vitamin C which was preventing the scurvy.  

Ariely used this example to demonstrate that different considerations come into play when trying to enact behaviour change at scale. A principle that works in small tests may not have the same effect when rolled out to larger populations and could have unintended consequences. It's important to remember that this doesn’t mean the principle is flawed, just that its execution may need to be tweaked. 

Ariely focused the majority of his talk on the first few steps. However steps 4 and 5 involve equally important considerations for strategists:

Step 4: Trade Offs

Often we have multiple possible paths to choose between, and trade-offs have to be made when deciding which path to take. How we make these trade-offs is dependent on our goals and priorities. 

Step 5: Retest

Social Science ≠ Physics. Social Science is much more dynamic, and can change both across cultures and within. Our social world is changing, and fast. What works today may not work tomorrow so we need to keep retesting and adjusting.

A useful framework for strategists

Dan Ariely concluded by expressing his views of the future of the field of behavioural science.

In his view, a lot can be (and has been) achieved by applying these principles to existing strategies and making small tweaks. But it is even more effective if the above five steps are baked into process design. And sometimes that means starting from scratch.

Though Ariely focused largely on improving technologies for governments, it still rings true for the marketing world. The principles he shared give us a useful framework for strategic analysis - and a reminder that we need to continue questioning why we do things the way we do, and constantly be considering if they could be done better. 

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Indya Barefield, planner at Signal

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