Behaviour change, part 3: Pushing and prodding

Behaviour: the act of balancing life...

We’ve already had a brief look at the reasons why we act the way we do, as well as the factors which maintain the status quo when it comes to personal and group behaviour. In this third and (possibly) final instalment, I’ll outline a few of the important factors which can induce behaviour change, along with how they’re applicable in modern life.

First, I’d like to make a distinction between conscious and unconscious behaviour change. The sum of our behaviours will drift over time, influenced by our environment, social group and other similar factors. These changes are often incremental and largely go below our radar – unconscious change. There’s also conscious changes; taking up a new sport, donating to a charity or giving up smoking. These are  often characterised by a specific behaviour, rather than subtle modification of a range of behaviours. Of course, there’s grey areas between conscious and unconscious behaviour change, but it’s a convenient distinction.

Unconscious influences on our behaviour are everywhere. In our social interaction, we all influence, and are influenced by, each other. On a broad scale, social norms are important, but what shapes these? Many factors feed in: tradition, attitude, desirability of being part of the norm, the perceived benefit of the behaviour and a suite of others.

The comparison to the idea of evolutionary selection is a tempting one for unconscious behaviour changes. The variation in our environment – in the widest sense of the word – leads to behaviours which ‘fit’ with the environment. Even subtle scents can alter the way we act. In many modern societies, there’s a large amount of individual freedom within each person’s environment, but behaviour which falls too far outside the (blurred) boundaries of acceptability will lead to negative outcomes.

The social part of this ‘environment’ is particularly crucial. Advertisers play on innate human desires, fears and attitudes to facilitate behaviour patterns favourable to their clients. A car company have recently been running a particularly insidious series of TV ads, which picture concerned friends claiming things like “Since they got their new (4WD), they’ve been spending more time with it than with us. They’re always off on some kind of adventure…” The ‘friends’ are sitting on a drab couch, in drab clothes, looking boring. A swift cut then shows the lucky couple with the new 4WD in a range of colourful, happy situations. The other ads in the series are similar. While it’s not a new advertising strategy by any means, it’s a good example of trying to tie a suite of desirable, enjoyable behaviours with a product (even if the link between the product and lifestyle is dubious or nonexistent). Coupling that with the flipside – that not having the product makes you a drab, boring couch potato – completes the one-two punch. It’s a false dichotomy: they’re setting up the idea that if you have their 4WD, you’re fun and interesting, and if you don’t, you’re not.

In a less pointed manner, and maybe without a specific agenda, people manipulate each other in a similar way. I’ve little doubt that the binge drinking culture among young people taps heavily into a kind of false dichotomy; that going out and getting wasted is perceived as fun and admirable, but doing something fun without alcohol is less ‘cool’. As usual, it’s not that simple, but relating a story about how you came up with an amazing improvisation in a game of Theatresports last Saturday night is unlikely to go down as well as a story of getting drunk and doing something vaguely amusing (to a majority of my peer demographic, at least!).

Before I get too far off the point, our physical and social environment feeds into our unconscious behaviour. Our conscious choices are informed by that, so to make a decision which doesn’t go with the flow can be difficult. Manipulating an environment – a workplace, for instance – to create cues for behaviour change can be a highly successful way of bringing about change which would otherwise require direct effort. This is done by looking at the specific barriers and basically, making it easier to perform the new behaviour than an undesirable old one.

One of the most interesting drivers of both attitude and behaviour is commitment. A public commitment to a position or action is extremely important; it not only places the onus on us to follow up the commitment, for fear of appearing hypocritical or dishonest (a brief look at the world of Australian politics will give you plenty of evidence of this), but it can also change our own opinion on the issue. An example from CBSM illustrates this well:

“Imagine being approached and asked to have a large, ugly, obtrusive billboard with the wording “DRIVE CAREFULLY” placed on your front lawn. When a researcher, posing as a volunteer, made precisely this request, numerous residents in a Californian neighborhood flatly declined.(1) That they declined is hardly surprising, especially since they were shown a picture of the billboard almost completely obscuring the view of another house. What is surprising, however, is that fully 76% of another group of residents in this study agreed to have the sign placed on their lawn. Why would over three-fourths of one group agree, while virtually everyone in the other group sensibly declined? The answer lies in something that happened to the second group prior to this outlandish request being made. The residents who agreed in droves to have this aberration placed on their lawn were previously asked if they would display in the windows of their cars or homes a small, 3 inch sign that said: “BE A SAFE DRIVER.” This request was so innocuous that virtually everyone agreed to it. Agreeing to this trivial request, however, greatly increased the likelihood that they would subsequently consent to having the billboard placed on their lawn.”

Definitely unroadworthy...

There were twin behavioural drivers here: the people who agreed didn’t want to be hypocritical, but also, the small sticker on their car genuinely altered their attitude toward road safety. In general, we expect people’s behaviour to match their attitude, which is why it can be surprising when, for example, it turns out that an anti-gay US senator is actually gay. In such extreme cases, there’s an unexpected divide between the individual’s action and personality or stated attitude.

Most of us can think of behaviours we engage in which don’t match up exactly with how we’d like to behave, but the more public our attitude is, the more expectation there is for that attitude to be reflected in what we do.

I fear I’ve gone on too long already, and I can sense another post’s worth of ideas brewing, so I might end this instalment with a quick summary of where we’ve been so far. Our behaviour is driven by our physical and social environment, and our stated beliefs and public attitudes can push our behaviour one way or another within that environment. However to facilitate major changes, the physical and/or social environment feeding in to the behaviour will often need to be modified, in addition to a concious and stated desire to adopt a new behaviour. If you want to be a vegetarian, you might not want to hang around with Sam Neill and his sponsors too much anymore…

Categories: environmentalism, Thoughts | Tags: , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Behaviour change, part 3: Pushing and prodding

  1. My files are all disorganised (still) so I can’t give you any good references right now, but there’s been some interesting TED talks on ideas such as these; have you seen them?

    Basic theses being that it’s pretty easy to trick ones brain to make decisions or interpretations wildly divergent to their “natural” instinct. Which, in my opinion, can be used to great effect for both good and bad causes.

    I’ll let you know if I can remember which specific videos I have in mind :)


    P.S. I think your “concious” is missing an “s”?

    • Thanks Will – and argh, I can’t believe I got that spelling wrong! Now that you’ve pointed it out it’s quite glaring…

      I’ve seen a couple of TED talks on issues like this – one springing to mind was about how people manufacture happiness about what they have, whether or not it’s what they initially wanted when given a choice. A common theme I’ve noticed with anti-environmentalism is the idea that environmental initiatives (such as CF globes) are impinging on their rights (to use incandescent globes – and no, I’m not kidding), even though I’m certain that it would be a non-issue in terms of their lifestyle or personal satisfaction.

      I’ll have a browse through the TED site though – my ideas on this topic are fairly disorganised (as you can see from the rambling nature of the post) so it’s good to hear what various experts say about it.

  2. Yep, that’s one of the TED talks I was thinking of. There’s a couple more along the same lines; interesting stuff.

    I’ve got a friend who thinks it’s unfair that she can’t use old-fashioned light globes any more. “Just because she isn’t environmentally unconscious shouldn’t mean she’s penalised for the non-energy-saving habits of others.” You’re right — people just don’t like change.


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