6 Ways to Influence Behavior and Drive the Results You Want

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Behavioral science is fascinating to read and learn about, and can be useful in creating impactful messaging that drives the results you desire. Without understanding the core scientific drivers of human decision-making and behavior to develop messaging that cuts through mental clutter, there is often an unintended audience experience that doesn’t resonate or, worse, backfires.

Felicia Joy and Genevieve Nyren from Edelman PR broke down behavioral science in their presentation “Boosting Behavioral Impact” at the 2019 Public Relations Society of America International Conference. They detailed the latest research on the topic and taught us a framework for how to put it into action. We’re sharing some of the key insights from their presentation to consider implementing internally or in your 2020 marketing.

What Is a Behavioral Science Intervention?

Understanding the drivers of human decision-making and behavior, and how they shape people’s perceptions and responses to communications, can help you create a behavioral science intervention, which is a detailed plan to address a problem (or, on the flip side, take advantage of an opportunity) by influencing people’s choices and behavior without removing their autonomy.

Whether you’re looking to boost productivity internally or improve the company’s marketing ROI, changing human behavior is notoriously difficult, but a behavioral science intervention makes it possible because it’s based on neuroscience. Clear, measurable results make behavioral science interventions practical and applicable across many situations. And because people never feel like a choice has been taken away from them, they’re more likely to go along willingly.

How to Create a Behavioral Science Intervention

There are a variety of ways to influence behavior, but scientists have identified six theories that can be used in almost any behavioral science intervention:

  • Choice architecture is creating an environment that nudges people to make a particular choice. For example, a school cafeteria might put broccoli near the front of the salad bar and bacon bits near the back, making it easier for students to select the healthier option. This strategy doesn’t remove choice, but it gently encourages people to make the “right” one.
  • The default effect is when you create a preset option for people so decision-making becomes passive. The preset is created with the user’s best interest in mind, and the mental hurdle of making another choice means that most people won’t go through the trouble of changing their selection. This theory helped Subway restaurants increase sales of low-calorie meals by 48 percent.
  • Social norms have a significant effect on decision-making because we’re all deeply influenced by our peers. If you change a social expectation, behavior change will almost certainly follow, perhaps in ways you don’t expect. Felicia and Genevieve shared the story of a daycare that, in an effort to deter tardiness, implemented a fee for parents who were late picking up their children. Instead, lateness actually doubled because the social pressure of being on time was removed. Lateness became a privilege parents could buy, instead of a moral failing.
  • The fresh start effect takes advantage of the fact that we’re more likely to take action at time-based milestones. This is why we say, “I’ll get a gym membership at the start of the new year,” or “I’ll start my diet on Monday.” Although these declarations don’t always stick, studies show there is a slightly higher chance of people following through with them when there’s a sense of newness.
  • The salience effect hinges on our tendency to focus on the most prominent, concrete information and insists that interrupting the normal thought pattern and calling out the information we want our audience to focus on can be very effective. Felicia and Genevieve shared a situation where a school struggled with student attendance and discovered that many parents were unaware of their children’s attendance, but after the school implemented the distribution of a periodic attendance report, the school saw a 15 percent increase in attendance.
  • Framing a situation differently can completely change the way people respond to it. This is most potent when it comes to winning and losing: we love winning, but we hate Instead of framing something in terms of what people will gain, framing it in terms of what people will lose can be far more effective. A study showed that when doctors told patients the negative effects of failing to take their medication, treatment compliance was five times higher.

These six techniques are useful any time you want to promote a certain behavior. This could be driven by a desire to solve a problem (e.g., people are wasting time sending too many emails) or a desire to take advantage of an opportunity (e.g., we could score a new client if we commit to using a new communications system).

Behavioral science interventions are also as useful for creating change among clients as they are for creating internal change. Intervention techniques such as framing or the salience effect can be used for marketing and business development purposes. Or if a needy client is constantly asking for updates, using the salience effect to implement a weekly update email might encourage them to cut back on how often they email.

If you’d like to influence change, Fiona and Genevieve shared an easy roadmap for implementing an intervention, which can be used for virtually any situation. To create behavior change, start by answering the “4Ds:”

  1. Diagnose: What is the issue at hand? What behaviors are creating the issue? (This may require additional research.)
  2. Design: What behavior do you want to encourage? Which of the above six theories can you use to encourage it? (You may have to try more than one and measure which theory was the most successful.)
  3. Deploy: How can you test your hypothesis on a small scale? What measurements will you use to demonstrate success? (Be realistic about what you’d like to achieve.)
  4. Duplicate: How can you roll out your test to a larger audience? (This can be as simple as testing out a theory on one individual and rolling it out to the whole company, or testing a theory with one client and implementing it with all clients.)

Once you’ve answered these questions and outlined your plan, it’s time to put it into action and make change happen.

Learn more about influencing behavior in our blog “Psychology Behind Good Web Design and Client Behavior.”

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