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Behavior Change: 5 Powerful Ways To Nudge People To Behave Better

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In 2010, the British government created a unit called the Behavioral Insights Team or “Nudge Unit.” Their goal was to drive positive behavior change among people in the UK. The team uses behavioral psychology to “nudge” people on several policy issues that are for the common good.

If you are looking to change the behavior and attitudes of people around you, many of these techniques will provide you with powerful ways to motivate behavior change. They are based on social psychology approaches to persuade people to change their behavior patterns through subconscious cues.

Why It Is Difficult To Drive Behavior Change In People

Changing behavior in people is far from easy. Everyone thinks they are right and they find ways to justify their behavior. And reasons to continue doing what they’ve always done.

If you have difficulty driving positive behavior changes in those around you, it’s because we’ve been taught wrong. What we’ve been led to believe is effective, actually hinders the process. Plus, our natural instincts to reason with people, trigger resistance in them rather than acceptance of our logic for adopting new behavior.

Common Methods To Change People’s Behavior Don’t Work

Too often people try to influence others to move away from negative behavior through direct means like reasoning. Far worse is to threaten and shame people. But little is achieved with these approaches. You can’t force people to change. Convincing a stubborn person to change their mind is a delicate art.

When you start to reason with someone, they shift to a more defensive and argumentative mode. Their conscious mind starts to look for ways to resist you. In this condition, you will have little influence over them.

The Psychology Behind Behavior Change Theory

The Behavioral Insights Team is a group of cognitive and behavioral scientists who have studied simple ways to affect behavior change. Using A/B testing and social psychology they test which variants of a message most influence the public’s decisions.

Their insights, derived from many years of careful study, have shown that the most effective way to change behavior is to do it subtly (nudging) and not directly. People take their cues for changing their views based on how they feel. To change their behavior pattern, you need to tap into this subliminal, emotional part of their brain. And luckily for us, the science is now providing the answers for how exactly to do that.

How To Change Behavior Patterns In People

The key to getting people open to changing something about themselves is to stay under the radar and engage their subconscious mind.

Done correctly, their subconscious mind will not even detect that you are influencing them. So, sometimes a gentle nudge, using proven behavioral sciences techniques, can yield the most effective results for changing someone’s behavior.

These are easy, but powerful, ways to nudge someone’s emotions and mindset just prior to presenting them with the choice of altering their attitudes. This is how real behavior change can be done on even the most intractable of people.

1. Overcome Obstacles In The Process Of Behavior Change

Sometimes the first step to convincing a stubborn person to change their behavior is where most stumble. We either directly or indirectly blame the person for the bad behavior. The result is an immediate mental block to the rest of our persuasion approach.

But doing the opposite — letting them know they are not to blame — will open the door to them being open to the need of behavior change. If they don’t enter the process of behavior change voluntarily, it is almost a lost cause.

Father in gray crew neck shirt giving a high five to his son to drive behavior change while sitting at a table in the kitchen.

Find some truthful way to put the blame for their negative behavior on something or someone else. The best place to look for examples of this approach how the pharmaceutical industry markets their drugs: “Your erectile dysfunction is no fault of yours. It could be caused by prostrate surgery or other medical conditions (Viagra).” Or: “Are you overweight? Your slow metabolism could be to blame.” No mention of overeating.

Once you grasp the basics of deflecting blame from the people whose behavior you are trying to change, you will find this introductory approach second nature. Try it and see how much easier it is to get the initial momentum going and making them open to the need for change.

2. Use Social Proof To Motivate Changes In Behavior

Social norms can also be effective in behavior change. A famous example in which the Behavioral Insights Team found success was related to tax compliance in the UK.

The British government would typically send letters to people who had not paid their taxes. The Nudge Unit changed the wording of the letters using the concept of social proof (one of Robert Cialdini’s 7 principles of influence). In addition to the regular wording, the letters also stated correctly, that 90% of the residents of that town or area pay their taxes on time.

This simple addition to the letter increased the rate of tax compliance by 5% compared to the previous wording. This 5% was not trivial, as it translated to many millions of pounds recovered from back taxes.

The people getting these letters were made to feel part of a minority that does not comply. Through pressure to adhere to social norms, they felt more isolated as tax evaders and this nudged their decision enough to achieve compliance. We are both, consciously and subconsciously, influenced by the actions of others to a large extent.

A similar tax experiment was conducted by the state of Minnesota in 1995 with the tactic of social proof also giving the highest compliance.

Group of smiling people sitting at an office table with two of them shaking hands.

How To Use Social Proof To Persuade People To Change Their Behavior

If you want someone to change their behavior, highlight to them how their actions put them on the outside of the social group. Show them that the opposite behavior is adhered to by the majority. Their inner desire to fit back in the group will automatically start their behavior change.

For example, don’t spend time explaining to someone the importance and virtues of being on time for meetings in your company. Simply point out to them that a large majority of employees of your company arrive on time for meetings.

3. Behavior Change Driven By Reciprocity

To increase the rate of organ donations when drivers licenses were renewed, the behavioral insights team used the influence principle of reciprocity. They made a simple addition to the DMV form – “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.”

This small change in the wording of the form resulted in about 100,000 extra organ donors per year compared to the control group that contained the standard language.

Man in a blue suit making a thumbs-up sign with his hand.

When you highlight to others what benefits they themselves receive, they experience an unconscious obligation to give back. In this motivated frame of mind, they will be influenced to say yes to your other requests for changing their behavior.

4. Commitment And Consistency In Behavior Change Examples

Achieving a big behavioral shift in someone can be challenging. Their resistance could be too much to overcome in one shot. For cases like these, try getting them to make a smaller, but related, initial commitments.

The best examples here will be diet and exercise. If you convince someone to start going for short walks first, they will start to see in themselves a person who cares for his or her health. Now they will be more willing to agree to a more intense workout routine such as running, since they will want to stay consistent with their initial commitment.

Blond girl in a red top looking out of a gym window and drinking from a white coffee cup.

5. Influence People To Change Their Behavior With A Simple Model

The Behavioral Insights Team came up with an easy-to-remember acronym and approach to ensure even more success in getting people to start changing their behavior.

To nudge people towards positive behavior, make it Easy, Attract Attention, Social, and Timely (EAST).

Make It Easy

Never over complicate a behavior change approach on someone. It has to be simple for it to succeed. The easier the approach or path to compliance that you give them, the greater the likelihood that they will adopt the new behavior.

Attract Attention

Use imaginative language when persuading someone to change their behavior. Draw attention to your request by highlighting rewards.

White egg on a red background.

Make It Social

As was discussed earlier, using social norms can push people to feel an inner need to change their behavior on their own. And become a part of the group again.

Make It Timely

Wait for the right time to make your request. People are more receptive to behavior change when they are experiencing the right emotions. If you find someone feeling alone or left out, that will be the best time to use social influences to get them to change their behavior.

Effective behavior change in those around you can be easy if you apply the right techniques. Many of these small changes cost us nothing but have a big influence on how people respond.

Further Reading On Successful Behavior Change Theory

Behavior change starts with a small nudge at the right time and in the right direction. You can read some of the other influence principles that can help nudge people here.

The book that inspired the formation of the behavioral insights team was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Penguin Group, New York, NY 2009. Richard Thaler was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics mostly for his work discussed in “Nudge” and for creating the field of behavioral economics.

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

And if you are looking for books to improve your persuasion skills to nudge people better, this list will help you do exactly that:

Influencing And Persuasion Reading List

Keywords

Behavior Change; Stages of Behavior Change; Behavioral Economics; Social Psychology; Nudge Unit; Behavioral Insights Team; Social Proof; Reciprocity; Commitment and Consistency

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