Influencing behavior in the name of humanity!

September 28, 2015

Influencing Behavior

Behavior change is a daunting idea especially for matters related to social causes. For the majority, the issues are not personal and therefore it can be hard to inspire action and participation. Ask anyone and no one would ever say no to supporting a larger cause related to the betterment of humanity. However when it really comes down to action there is always a discrepancy between what people say and what they actually do. Why so? From procrastination to a lack of urgency the reasons are numerous. What’s even more surprising? You can easily influence their action even if they intend to or not. Sounds crazy? It is indeed. Lessons from behavioral economics point to many powerful heuristics that can influence behavior. Three of them have been captured here!

How “paving the way” is more powerful than intentions?

At a college campus a group of students were divided into two sets. One who had high intentions to donate versus another set with the least intent to donate. Half of each set were given a personalized letter with specific instructions and a map of what to do, when and how. While the other set was given a generic letter with a straightforward call to action. Mind you in both these sets there were people with high intent and low intent. So what happened? The set that received the generic letter had zero participation from the group with the lowest intention and only 8% participation form the group with the highest intention. On the other hand, the set which had clear instructions on how to act, 42% of the participants with the highest intention made a contribution. But guess what? 25% of the participants with the lowest intention also made the effort to contribute! It is not about just intentions. It’s about facilitating the behavior change by paving the way and guiding the desired behavior.

How “changing the default” option improved organ donation?

Organ donation is a big deal right? If you were to decide on something so major like this you would think twice. It’s not an easy decision and therefore most people tend to procrastinate or not take a decision at all. But guess what certain countries like Austria and Belgium have managed to get over 95% participation towards organ donation while certain European countries like Germany and England have less than 20% participants. Are Austrians more philanthropic vs. their neighbors in Germany? Not really. The higher participations can be attributed to one factor alone. The format of the form. Countries that ask you to opt-in had less than 20% participation but countries that were opt-in by default had over 90% participation. Why? People had to consciously opt-out and that again would led to uneasiness and indecision so the majority just went for the default. Simple.

How the “plight of one” is bigger than the misery of millions?

From the Red Cross collecting donations for the earthquake victims in Haiti to the American Cancer Society doing research on finding a cure for the most pervasive cancers in the world. They are millions of charities out there looking for your contribution. The market for charitable work is very competitive. In the end if credibility is assured they are all doing good work. But funds are limited. How do you choose where to put your money? Don’t pitch the plight of the millions. Pitch the plight of one person. Our brains our not wired to feel the misery of a million people. However we can be moved to act when our emotions are evoked as we learn of one specific person’s pain. Ever wonder how the Syrian refugee crisis caught worldwide attention when a single image of Aylan Kurdi washed up at the Turkish beach went viral. That one single image made the crisis personal. The idea here is not to manipulate but to evoke empathy and the way to do it is to share impact and actions that address the sufferings of specific individuals.

To sum up behavioral economics has opened up powerful venues to drive behavior change. Application of the above can have profound implications not just on cause related marketing but to life in general. The bigger question is the ability of these techniques to manipulate behavior for commercial gain. A topic I sure hope to cover more in future posts. Let me know what you think about the above and if you have had any experience trying them out.

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