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Picking up a positive change through behavioural science

by Chris Nelson

As a company, we’re in the business of changing behaviours. We help our clients influence and change their customers’ behaviour on many pressing topics, such as reducing water consumption, choosing greener forms of transport, staying safe at work, and making more sustainable choices around food and clothing.

Our deep knowledge of behavioural science underpins all of the work we do. We understand the hundreds of cognitive biases and mental shortcuts that drive human behaviours and decision-making, and we leverage this knowledge through behavioural design to help ‘nudge’ actions and shape habits in more positive directions.

Potent drivers

You might imagine then that being aware of these personal behavioural drivers might, in some way or to some extent, insulate us as individuals from their effectiveness, or strip them of their power. We have peeked behind the curtain, and perhaps, as for a magician who knows how a trick is performed, the effect is lessened?

Speaking personally, this isn’t the case at all.

It seems that even an awareness of exactly which behavioural drivers are in play, and the certain knowledge of exactly why you’re feeling compelled to act a certain way, doesn’t insulate you from that response. It’s clearly powerful stuff.

Why we act

To give you an example; I’m fortunate to live near a beach, and quite often walk there of a morning. Recently, I bought a litter-picker, which I now take with me daily, to pick up plastic bottles, tin cans and other detritus from the beach as I go.

What’s interesting about that is why. Why after living here for over ten years, have I suddenly decided to do this?

The main answer, among a few factors, is that I’d observed other people doing it. Over the past year, as the pandemic changed all our lives, I’d seen more and more people on the beach, picking up litter. In fact, I realised that I’d seen it so often that eventually, something in my mind clicked.

A potent combination of social norming and good old-fashioned shame compelled me to act. “Those people are doing it,” my mind said. “They are unselfishly making a difference to the environment. It looks easy. Maybe it’s something I should do too?”

Innately powerful

What’s interesting about this is less that I’m a ‘do-gooder’ now, but that I thought I was a do-gooder before. As I gradually became aware of more litter pickers, the social norm shifted. My self-consistency bias was no longer convincing enough. Thinking I was a do-gooder wasn’t enough to make me believe I was a do-gooder, now I actually had to do good! And even though I was aware of the influence that social norming was exerting upon me, I still couldn’t help it. I had to get involved.

Our innate biases and heuristics are powerful drivers of behaviour. When we’re able to identify and harness them to work in our messages and communications, we create something that’s difficult to ignore for any audience.

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