How to change behaviour.

By Jason Dunstone, Square Holes Market Research.

Getting someone to change their behaviour is near impossible. Be this to buy your product or give up smoking.

“Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of” Proverb

By the time one becomes an adult, habits are formed and they continue to build, and it is hard to budge the stubbornness in us all. Every new year, the resolutions come out, often the same as the last — lose weight, avoid stress, recycle more responsibly, save money, travel and prosper. Then as the year proceeds, we are back to our old ways.

How does our community shift negative social behaviours? What needs to be done to reduce road fatalities? Where are the opportunities to reduce obesity, abuse and drug dependency? Or, increase charity giving?

And, there is surely a message in this for our products and services. How can our big and small businesses entice new customers without selling their soul? Businesses in the hunt to entice new customers can spend humongous budgets advertising their products and services with the hope someone who cares may be interested and buy. But, the sale is typically only ultimately achieved by offering a cheaper price than competitors.

For the past two decades I have had the fascinating task of researching human behaviour and applying this to support clients to drive behaviour change. Be this to drive social impact (e.g. anti-smoking, health checks, problem gambling, using public transport, recycling etc) or business impact (e.g. sales growth, retaining customers, brand switching etc).

It is has been so interesting to observe the adoption of psychology principals in business strategy and amongst marketers (traditional and digital). And, a greater focus on driving action rather than aimlessly hoping that the marketing will build propensity to buy and hopefully, one day, hopefully, maybe, hopefully, they might actually encourage new customers to buy. However, unfortunately, even with the best intentions, the old rules of changing behaviour are still applied often with minimal success.

Some businesses still run ads with significant budgets, that have limited or  ‘no measurable impact’ on behaviour change. While good intentioned, the ads don’t translate to impact in the short, medium nor long term.

Behavioural economics has become en vogue. Much like many cool new phrases such as design thinking, big data and flash mobs. However, I fear that most marketing thinking still remains very old school, marketing 101, with a splash of Facebook thrown in to be on trend.

There are lessons in behavioural psychology and behavioural economics for social and commercial enterprises in impacting change. Where behavioural psychology has a focus on shifting attitudes, with the ultimate aim of moving behaviour, behavioural economics is more impatient and focuses on how to influence change TODAY.


Please allow me to unpack this.

Behavioural psychology

In the traditional behavioural psychology framework, the audience moves from …

  1. Precontemplation where they are not even thinking about the behaviour (e.g. mobile phone usage while driving or buying product X); to
  2. Contemplation driven by marketing and other activity encouraging the audience to ambivalently start thinking “perhaps I should change?”; to
  3. Preparation to act following a balancing of the pros and cons and risk-reward analysis triggers a desire to change;
  4. The audience will then attempt action to change their behaviour; and
  5. The final stage is maintenance of the desirable positive behaviour.

However, there are challenges along the path.

  • Ensuring that the apathetic audience actually cares enough about their behaviour to move from precontemplation to contemplation. From studies I've been involved with, while a strong marketing campaign may gain strong recall and even message take-out quite rapidly, attitudes will likely change much slower, if at all, and behaviours are even more difficult and slow to shift.
  • Even with acknowledgement that behaviour change may be worthwhile, there is generally strong resistance to move from contemplation to preparation and action. There are many barriers and excuses that occur at this stage, from “I’m Okay” to “I’ll do it another day” or “it is too hard.”
  • The final and perhaps most significant barrier for behaviour change is maintaining the new behaviour. The motivations (or ease) of the old behaviour outweigh the new behaviour. Accordingly, human nature is to revert back to old and comfortable behaviours or cycle between contemplation and action even with a strong desire to change.

Behavioural psychology makes some assumption that humans are rational and that a solid marketing and education strategy as to why it is worth changing behaviour will ultimately drive change.

A very rational argument is made that …

“Individuals, groups and organisations are assumed to act rationally, have multiple desirable ends in sight, limited resources to obtain these ends, a set of stable preferences, a definite overall guiding objective, and the capability of making a choice.”

Behavioural economics

Behavioural economics has a focus on driving action at the forefront of the strategy, and ensuring there is a strong focus on reinforcing such behaviour. Rather than attempting to educate the audience as to why a new behaviour would be beneficial over the current, behaviour economics does not assume that the audience is rational and will determine other strategies.

A strategy based on behavioural economics principals may have the following considerations as to what influences human behaviour change.

  • Messenger: We are heavily influenced by who communicates information.
  • Incentives: Our response to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses.
  • Norms: We are strongly influenced by what others do.
  • Defaults: We 'go with the flow' of pre-set options.
  • Salience: Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us.
  • Priming: Our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues.
  • Affect: Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
  • Commitments: We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts.
  • Ego: We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. 

Heuristics help explain why we make irrational decisions on a day to day basis. They are experience-based techniques for problem solving, learning and discovery. People often make decisions based on approximate ‘rules of thumb’ and ‘mental shortcuts’ rather than being totally rational.

The challenge in behaviour change is to find the optimal strategy to be noticed, while offering substance of message and a clear reason to change now rather than later.

Rather than a bank spending passive budgets aimlessly hoping that the advertising hits potential first home buyers, building brand awareness, and assuming that this will increase contemplation that “perhaps I should change?” They will understand human behaviour and challenges and use this to identify triggers and focus on early interventions (e.g. encouraging first home buyers to visit sooner rather than later) and strategies such as incentives to contact the bank ‘today’ such as easy registering for special deals and/or gamification strategies.

Rather than a social ill being promoted as wrong, strategies to normalise and make the appropriate behaviour the default and coming with a level of self pride, is more likely to have the desirable impact. 

From a strategic perspective, it is critical to recognise that people make 10,000+ (often competing) decisions every day. As strategists we might hope that the ones that relate to what we do are rational. But they generally are not, or at least are not completely so. There are many other competing priorities and messages. Accepting that, and thinking a bit deeper about how we shift behaviours, may just see change, rather than a whole lot of wasted effort.

So, how can behaviour change be influenced?

The answer to how to change behaviour is likely a combination of behavioural psychology (BP) and behavioural economics (BE) principles. BP is worthwhile from a medium to longer term perspective — building brand awareness, reputation and propensity to buy. BE is worthwhile in driving and maintaining action in the short-term and making corresponding shifts in attitudes.

For example, rather than the advertising campaign focused only on brand building and increasing propensity to buy over time, incorporate a strategic pillars built on behavioural economics heuristics.

Robust human understanding and research is critical, as is a clear process to unpack the problem (or opportunity), better understand people, guide priority ideas and act and iterate over time. Most importantly, it is about building a strategy without preconceived notions, with a beginners mind.

For example, don’t assume the problem is understood, and definitely DO NOT assume the solution is what you’ve always done or what others and competitors are doing. Too often the solution is assumed to be an App, an advertising campaign or a discount strategy. Perhaps there is a better way?

There are four critical steps in defining behaviour change strategies:

  1. Problem (or opportunity) definition: Allowing adequate time to discuss, debate and consider the problem (or opportunity) including why it matters, where it originates, current understanding and where gaps and opportunities exist. This is likely to involve discussions and workshops to unpack the problem and the best way forward.
  2. Insight collection and analysis: Building on a clear understanding of the problem, is a need for insight (both analytical and intuitive) to explore the audience, test hypothesis and gather a rich understanding of motivations, barriers and other factors. It is critical that this provides a good mix of review of existing information / understanding / evidence, as well as secondary quantitative and qualitative analysis. For example, using a mix of data collection approaches such as data analytics, in-home discussions and ethnography to build a robust picture of real people and how they engage with your product or issue. Build an evidence based path to purchase map to allow for gaps and opportunities to be identified. Taking a helicopter view of humans is vital. Test and critique hypothesis — Are our theories correct or not? Where does the problem lay?
  3. Ideas prioritisation: A process to build on an evidence base to drive strategic ideas generation is critical. It is important that this involves divergent thinking (i.e. generating creative ideas with limited constraints) and convergent thinking (i.e. logical steps, seeking the ‘correct’ solution best fitting the required outcome) to define priority ideas (both simple and easy to introduce quickly, and more complex ideas requiring greater funding and time). Which are the ideas that will be easy to implement to drive behaviour change? How can we use our existing tools and incorporate new models and thinking?
  4. Agility and action: The biggest impediment to strategic growth is inaction, so it is critical that ideas — both simple and more complex — are launched with as much speed and agility as possible. New innovation concepts such as agile strategy and design thinking (aka user-centred design) can and should be applied to drive change. Critical in this relatively new approach to strategy is the need to fail fast and move on and learn quickly and evolve. Human-centred feedback and research is critical to test, refine and even flag the dumping of poor performing idea. Defining ideas, building and launching them, learning, iterating and actually impacting behaviour, rather than aimlessly dreaming that one day change will come.


The world has always been uncertain, yet it appears to be increasingly so. And, unfortunately the consequence of uncertainty is indecisiveness, which has the repercussion of further increasing uncertainty. This presents complexity to business and government leaders. Businesses grow from increasing revenue. Economies grow from increased confidence and action, not procrastination. Behaviours change from overcoming innate human stubbornness.

There has never been a greater need for reflecting on how we develop strategy to drive behaviour change in the short, medium and longer term. How well we understand humans is of vital important in driving behaviour change, be this social impact or growing businesses, and working towards making the world better through driving change from embracing fresh thinking.

Want more?

MINDSPACE a great guide to BE

TED talks on BE

Square Holes presentation re BE

The Fun Theory

Dan Ariely - Experiments

Or contact me and we can have a coffee and chat on this fascinating topic. And, I'm ever happy to share human behaviour trends and insights from on-going Square Holes studies  each year across wide and varying topics (social and business), and how these might influence your strategic thinking. Square Holes and I are also available for tailored studies, workshops and consulting or to help gather an analyse of strategic insights about your target audience, identify behavioural economics opportunities and wrap these into your planning.

This post originally featured on the Square Holes Think! Blog.