Behavioural Change Through Habit Formation:
Why is it when most people make New Year resolutions they don’t succeed in changing their behaviour? According to the psychologist BJ Fogg, the reason most attempts at behavioural change fail is that we don’t create new habits. However, marketing is all about behavioural change as if we don’t influence behaviour we have failed. Marketing campaigns often fail for the same reason as our New Year resolutions, we don’t create new habits and so the behaviour peters out.
Habit formation is crucial to behavioural change because most behaviour is automatic as our brains largely rely on our fast, intuitive System 1 to conserve limited cognitive energy. But how should we go about creating new habits given the growing body of data from the behavioural sciences that indicate people often appear to make sub-optimal or irrational decisions?
Some governments and organisation have recognised the power of the behavioural sciences to influence mass behaviour by establishing teams of experts to develop interventions designed to change people’s habits. The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team for examples has helped government departments improve health outcomes, reduce late payment of taxes and raise compliance with health and safety standards.
Why should marketers use the behavioural sciences to create new habits?
The behavioural sciences provide marketers with a framework and language to design interventions to change the behaviour of groups of people. This can be staff, customers, prospects, stakeholders or any other group with a shared interest of some kind.
In 2012 the advertising group Olgivy UK established Olgivy Change to design and implement behavioural strategies across multiple disciplines. The team of behavioural strategists have for example saved a business £1.9m in retained customers by improving call centre scripts and created a hand-stamp to reduce the incidence of dirty hands in a food factory by 63%.
How do you create strategies for behavioural change?
Behavioural science covers a range of specialist fields from behavioural economics, social psychology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Due to the need to develop interventions on a regular basis using insights from these diverse and specialist fields the Behavioural Insights Team and other behavioural change units have developed frameworks like MINDSPACE and SIMPLER to provide an easy set of guidelines to follow.
I have previously covered BJ Fogg’s behavioural change model, but here I would like to concentrate on frameworks developed for public policy interventions to see what marketers can learn from their experience. These heuristics offer conversion optimisers and behavioural change strategists a simplified framework for designing interventions to nudge an audience towards preferred actions.
These kinds of heuristics are a simplistic method of applying insights from the behavioural sciences to a problem. However, they enable practitioners to make quick decisions and so improve the efficiency of behavioural change analysis. Heuristics also allow for non-experts to learn a new set of skills and encourage collaboration and involvement of stakeholders from different business areas.
Behavioural Change Frameworks For Habit Formation:
The SIMPLER framework was developed by the Behavioural Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project in the United States. BIAS undertook 15 randomised controlled experiments in child care, child support and work support programmes. Although each intervention was developed according to the specific problem encountered, seven behavioural concepts were common to almost every trial. These concepts resulted in the “SIMPLER” framework of:
- Social Influence: The persuasive power of society, peers, or an individual of influence on a person’s decisions and actions.
- Implementation Prompt: Encourage people to plan actions need to complete a task.
- Mandated Deadlines: Setting a fixed deadline reduces the likelihood of procrastination and frames action to emphasize its urgency.
- Personalisation: How to personalise information or provide personal help with a difficult task.
- Loss Aversion: Frame incentive or communication to capitalise on preference for avoiding a loss rather than making a gain.
- Ease: Try to make behaviour automatic through defaults or through simplification.
- Reminder: Minimise the mental effort needed to undertake an action by giving prompts and feedback (see Goal Gradient Effect) to encourage completion.
The MINDSPACE (Messenger, Incentive, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego) framework was developed by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team. It allowed them to help categorise a large amount of information and research on behavioural change into a simple mnemonic. The order of the categories is purely down to the mnemonic and has no special meaning.
- Messenger: The person or source communicating a message can heavily influence the weight given to the information. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the authority of the communicator of a message can have a significant impact upon whether it results in complaint behaviour.
- Incentives: People often respond to incentives but behavioural economics indicates that everything is relative and so the reference point matters (i.e. where it is seen from and how large it is perceived to be compared to the reference point). People also have a strong preference for avoiding a loss rather than making a gain of identical value. This means framing an incentive as a potential loss may have more impact than a positive reward of the same size.
People also over-estimate the probability of rare and easily recalled events (e.g. lottery wins). The accessibility effect indicates that a person’s evaluation of the likelihood of an event are also influenced by the ease with which a similar phenomenon occurs (e.g. due to media reports of a rare crime or natural disaster).
People allocate money to separate mental accounts and so spending is limited according to the amount held in these different pots of money. However, because people are reluctant to move money between such accounts the effectiveness of identical incentives can vary according to the relative value of each account. People can be encouraged to spend money or save by explicitly referring to an account for the activity concerned.
Hyperbolic discounting means that people seek immediate gratification. We prefer a smaller, immediate payment to a larger sum in the future. This means the immediacy of a reward can have a significant influence on how effective it is at encouraging a targeted behaviour.
- Norms: Social and cultural norms have a strong influence on our behaviour as they set expectations of standard or acceptable behaviour. People are social creatures and may take pleasure from conformity as we often dislike being seen as different from the crowd. Social norms are powerful because the can lead to automatic behaviours as we are often unaware being influenced by others. Further, they provide a positive feedback loop in behaviours. This is a form of the bandwagon effect as the more people who conform to a norm the greater the desire of everyone else to also comply.
Social norms can be used in a number of ways. If the norm promotes a desired behaviour then tell people about it. The ‘Most of Us Wear Seatbelts’ campaign is a good example of this as it helped to counter a myth that only around 60% of people did not wear seat belts. Relating a generally accepted norm to a specific behaviour can increase compliance (e.g. telling people that most people recycle towels in hotels). People also respond to reminders about norms as the impact of an intervention can often decline over time.
However, when norms are communicated in a way that indicates that some people are behaving worse than you this can backfire and lead to lower levels of compliance. This boomerang effect can sometimes be minimised by including some kind of indication of social approval or disapproval (e.g. adding a happy or sad face to the communication). The research suggests what we see or think others are doing has the strongest influence on our behaviour as this provides a genuine signal about what others see as the best option and we may get direct pleasure form being part of the in-group.
- Default: Most choices have a default option where no active selection has to be made. Defaults can have a big impact upon behaviour because they are often accepted without any conscious thought. This happens for a number of reasons including status quo bias, loss aversion, hyperbolic discounting and a presumption that it implies a recommended option. The advantage of changing the default is that it can influence behaviour without limiting individual choice.
- Salience: Behaviour is heavily influenced by what our attention is drawn to. This can either be voluntarily controlled or triggered by an external event (known as exogenous or stimulus-driven). As we are constantly inundated with information and stimuli our brains unconsciously filter out much of what it receives to avoid information overload. This means people are much more likely to notice novel, accessible and simple stimuli or messages as most other things are filtered out as background noise.
Communications that are simple, easy to understand and relate directly to our personal situation or needs are more likely to get our attention than more complex and generic messages. People only take notice of information that is salient, especially when cognitive resources are becoming exhausted.
When we have no past experience of a situation to guide us we look for an initial ‘anchor’ on which to base our decision. It’s been shown for example that displaying the minimum payment amount on credit card statements acts as an anchor for how much we repay. Even totally random anchors such as a social security number have been shown to influence the amount people bid for items (Ariely).
- Priming: Research has shown that people’s behaviour can sometimes be influenced by introducing certain words, sights or sensations that activate related knowledge or experiences in our long-term memory. Priming works by making these associations more accessible and appears to operate sub-consciously.
Priming can be activated by many means, including the use of words, stories and images. Even asking people what they plan to do in the future makes it easier to recall and mentally process a new behaviour.
The broken window theory indicates that if a broken window in a vacant building is not repaired it encourages vandals to break a few more and this can lead to an escalation is anti-social behaviour. Experiments have indicated that graffiti or littering may result in an increase in the same or other anti-social behaviour because people notice that others have ignored certain social norms of behaviour.
However, it has been difficult to replicate many priming studies and this often appears to be due to the Law of Small Numbers or the publishing effect. This former is our over-reliance on research based upon small sample sizes. For this reason be cautious about priming studies that are based upon small samples or where researchers have been unable to replicate the propose effect.
- Affect: Research indicates that affect (having an emotional response) is very influential in our decisions making. Some researchers argue that all decisions require some emotion. Indeed, experiments by Damasio on patients who had suffered brain damage which only prevented them from feeling emotions found that they lost the ability to make decisions that were in their best interests.
This means that people often make decisions not for the obvious rational reasons that they might like to refer to when discussing a choice, but rather because of their ‘gut instinct’ or the visceral feeling they get when considering a decision. This helps to explain why advertising content that introduces purely emotive language or images can have a significant influence on product sales.
Communications that provoke strong emotions such as fear or disgust have been found to influence behaviour because our brains are still geared towards protecting us from dangers that could threaten our survival. In a study in Ghana researchers attempted to increase the use of soap by initially promoting the benefits of soap. This resulted in only 3% of mothers using soap after going to the toilet. However, when the message focused on toilet use being associated with concerns about contamination and disgust it resulted in a 13% rise in soap use after going to the toilet and a 41% rise in reported soap use prior to eating a meal (Curtis, Garbrah-Aidoo & Scott, 2007).
Indeed, visceral states such as hunger, disgust and sadness have been found to influence purchase decisions. This means context can trigger affect and this can then influence the perception of the price for goods and services. Such prices become anchor prices which then influence prices for other goods and services.
- Commitment: People often procrastinate and put off decisions that will benefit them in the long run. However, if people make some kind of commitment to a goal, especially if it is in the public domain, this can improve outcomes because breaking the commitment will result in significant reputational damage.
The use of penalties on themselves can also be effective to encourage commitment and the simple act of writing down a commitment can further improve the likelihood that it will be completed. Reciprocity, where someone provides us with something of value (e.g. buys us a coffee), also acts as a powerful commitment to do something to return the favour in the future.
- Ego: Our ego is our conscious brain’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance. Our behaviour is strongly influenced by a desire to project a positive and consistent self-image. So when things go well we assume we are responsible for it, but when things go wrong we blame other people or the circumstances we were placed in. This is known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’. This means that people often automatically compare themselves against other people and believe that they are superior to the average person.
Self-esteem can be used as an effective strategy for behavioural change as people are attracted to behaviours that enhance their self-esteem and avoid behaviour that might reduce it. However, for those people with a low self-esteem it may be more appropriate to create a sense of self-efficacy.
People also have a strong desire for consistency (see commitment and consistency) which is why marketers often use the foot-in-the-door technique to get a small commitment by making a little request. Once people have complied with a small request they are much more likely to agree to a more substantial request. This means that a small and simple behaviour change may be the trigger for a much larger change.
The creators of MINDSPACE, the Behavioural Insights Team, found that policy-makers often struggled with nine elements and so they developed an alternative framework to ease the process. This resulted in EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely).
- Make it Easy: This about using defaults where possible, minimising friction to take an action, simplifying communications and breaking up a complex goal into simple easier actions.
- Make it Attractive: Get attention as people are more willing to do something if our attention is drawn to it and create rewards and penalties to incentivise the desired behaviour.
- Make it Social: Humans are “super social” apes and are strongly influenced by what we see or think others are doing. Demonstrate that most people are completing the preferred behaviour and avoid reinforcing a problematic activity by informing people how common it is. Social networks can be used to encourage and spread behaviour as people have a strong herd instinct. Social norms set standards of behaviour and can be used to encourage or discourage certain activities
- Make it Timely: People are more responsive to changing their behaviour if their habits have already been disrupted and so the timing of an intervention can have a huge influence on its success. Due to hyperbolic discounting people are more motivated by costs and benefits that take immediate effect rather than those received at a later date. To improve the impact of an intervention it is worth bringing at least some costs or benefits forward to allow for this bias.
People are prone to procrastinate for various reasons and so there is a significant gap between people’s intentions and actual behaviour. Help people identify factors that prevent them from taking action and encourage them to create a plan to successfully complete the desired behaviour.
Are Behavioural Change Frameworks Too Simplistic?
The frameworks for behavioural change outlined above are useful heuristics that can help us develop strategies for nudging people towards ideal actions. However, there is a danger that people apply heuristics in a prescriptive way without sufficiently understanding the underlying context of a problem. Heuristics are most useful in stable environments where the relationship between independent variables is not changing and where the variables themselves are relatively constant.
When independent variables are fundamentally different or the environment is dynamic so that the relationships change over time heuristics can result in erroneous conclusions. In a 2007 study (PDF) researchers examined the “duration” heuristic which is the tendency to evaluate services based upon their duration rather than their content. This simplifies the evaluation process and appears to be widely used by people to assess various services.
The heuristic is less appropriate for services which work towards a specific goal. The researchers conducted an experiment with locksmiths where you would expect the opposite to be true as people would want the lock to be opened sooner rather than later. However, because people sometimes misapply the heuristic they make sub-optimal evaluations and choices. Indeed, the researchers found that participants often preferred locksmiths that took longer to open locks than those that completed the task in less time.
Using A Behavioural Change Framework:
Before beginning any behavioural change project it is essential that we first understand the nature and context of the challenge. To ensure this stage is not missed out the Behavioural Insights Team created a standard methodology for developing projects. This comprises four steps:
- Define the behaviour that is to be targeted, how it can be measured accurately and how big a shift in behaviour would make the intervention economically viable.
- Immerse yourself in the problem by observing the location and people engaging in the behaviour to understand the context. It’s important to understand how the people involved perceive the problem and use this to help you identify insights and create appropriate and practical interventions. Practitioners sometimes create behavioural maps to assist with this process.
- Develop interventions using your chosen behavioural change framework and seek feedback by returning to step two.
- Test, learn and iterate. Just like conversion rate optimisation experiments behavioural change practitioners recommend using randomised controlled trials to assess the impact of interventions. The use of a control group allows you to measure the size of the change in behaviour caused by the intervention.
Implications for Conversion Rate Optimisation:
Marketing has to be successful at behavioural change as otherwise what is the purpose of marketing? These behavioural change frameworks give marketers a proven methodology for creating new habits, whether it is for optimising call centre scripts, boosting website or app conversion rates, increasing email marketing effectiveness or getting more responses from advertisements.
Conversion rate optimisation consultants can apply these heuristics to help clients to develop more effective strategies for habit formation as they force webmasters to consider the wider context of customer decision making. The advantage of these behavioural frameworks over more conventional marketing models is that they are based upon the behavioural sciences and they have been applied successfully in the real world. They are not based on the latest marketing fad or a psychological study that no one is able to replicate.
Conversion rate optimisation can benefit from using behavioural change frameworks for developing more holistic strategies for influencing visitor behaviour. The danger of relying on individual A/B tests to inform you about what changes behaviour is that this can be a piecemeal approach to optimisation.
For example whilst Booking.com is regarded as one of the most optimised sites on the web when you go to the site it can feel that you are being bombarded with psychological interventions. Although each individual intervention may work in isolation, their effectiveness may be reduced when combined with multiple psychological techniques. By using an appropriate behavioural change framework it may be possible to create a more joined-up and strategic approach to digital experience design and persuasion.
Behavioural change frameworks you to structure your conversations with peers to make projects more focused on what really matter. Without habit formation marketing is just noise.
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- About the author: Neal provides digital marketing optimisation consultancy services and has worked for brands such as Deezer.com, Foxybingo.com, Very.co.uk, partypoker.com and Bgo.com. He uses a variety of techniques, including web analytics, personas, customer journey analysis and customer feedback to improve a website’s conversion rate.
- Neal has had articles published on website optimisation on CXL and Usabilla.com. As an ex-market research and insight manager he also had posts published on the GreenBook Blog research website. If you wish to contact us please send an email to email@example.com. You can follow us on Twitter @conversionupl, see Neal’s LinkedIn profile or connect on Facebook.