As social marketers, we at the Ad Council spend every day working on social issue campaigns that try to affect behavior change on a macro level. So when I saw the title of author and National Geographic show Crowd Control host Dan Pink’s SXSW panel, “Fear, Shame, Empathy and Other Ways to Change Behavior,” I knew I had to attend!
Dan was an engaging speaker with lots of awesome social psychology examples grounded in real research. I’ll share his seven key insights around behavior change below, as they are very applicable to any social marketer:
1. Use fear the right way
Negative emotions narrow the scope of the human brain. Negative emotions work well for emergency communication because we need to be focused. For example, shock tactics for in flight safety announcements (e.g. “You are 40 percent likelier to die in a crash if you don’t put your tray table up”) evoke a much better emergency response than incentivizing, quizzing, or humor. However, negative emotions like fear shouldn’t be used if you need an expansive focus. When you’re trying to elicit a creative idea from your team or agency, don’t say “you’re fired if you don’t come up with an awesome 30 sec. spot!” Not the best way to get the juices flowing and end up with outside the box thinking.
2. Use a question to persuade
In the 1980 presidential election, Ronald Reagan asked the famous question “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” The answer for the vast majority of people was “no.” When the facts are clearly on your side, you should persuade with questions. Questions elicit an active response, and when people have their own reasons for doing something they believe and adhere to it more. Another example is motivational interviewing, a therapy technique in which two irrational questions are asked to a recalcitrant person:
- On a scale of 1 to 10, how ready are you to stop smoking?
- Ok, why didn’t you pick a lower number?
Most people won’t pick zero or one. If, for example, a person picks a three, he will then have to rationalize why he didn’t pick two or one and therefore start talking about his own reasons of why he should quit.
3. Social proof is key
Enlisting the crowd can do wonders for behavior change. The idea is to get across the notion that “this is how we do things around here.” For example, people are much more likely to reuse their hotel towels when the sign says “75 percent of prior guests in this room have chosen to reuse their towels to help save the planet” vs. “Please reuse your towel to help save the planet!”
4. Make time to rhyme
When given two proverbs like “Woes unite foes” and “Woes unite enemies,” people are much more likely to agree with the rhyming one. This is because rhyming, repetition, alliteration, etc. create enhanced processing fluency for the brain. The candy company Haribo has their gummy bear tagline rhyme in all languages!
5. Give people an off ramp (an easy way to act)
Never underestimate the power of the automatic default or making a choice easier logistically. In an experiment where college students were given specific or general letters asking them to donate to a food drive, the specific letters outlining a clear and easy way to drop the food off got the best response, especially from those people deemed least likely to donate by peers.
6. Put a face on it
On an episode of Crowd Control, Dan’s team went into a parking lot where people frequently parked in handicap spots illegally and replaced the handicap parking signs with personalized signs featuring a picture of a local handicapped resident and the words “think of me, keep it free.” This virtually eliminated the problem, and they caught on video multiple instances of people pulling in and then backing up after reading the sign. Focusing on the individual over the group, and the specific over the abstract, is a great way to persuade people.
7. Try stuff
Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. Dan told the story of a Crowd Control episode they did in New Orleans involving putting up cardboard cut-out cops to stop bike theft. People ended up stealing the cops! Using A/B testing and mini-experiments doesn’t always work, but you’ll never know unless you try!