Transitions: a sweet spot for behaviour change

I moved house in the summer. A new place, a new environment, a new commute.

Old habits were broken and new ones emerged. Briefly:

  • I now don’t have a recycling bin. I stopped recycling;
  • Tesco is now on my doorstep. I no longer shop at Sainsbury’s;
  • I now have to drive to the park to go for a jog. I now run less, twice a week not three times.

My attitudes haven’t changed. I still believe in recycling, still prefer Sainos to Tesco, still prefer to run every other day.

But my behaviour has changed. The transition to a new environment moulded my behaviour. Environmental cues exerted a strong influence, more so than my beliefs or preferences.

I was thinking about this when Daniel Kahneman introduced “the best idea I ever heard in psychology” on the Freakonomics podcast. In the 1950s Kurt Lewin posited that behaviour is held in equilibrium between driving and restraining forces.

Figure 1_Driving forces and restraints in equilibrium

For change to happen the equilibrium must be upset – the theory says you must add conditions favourable to the change or reduce restraints.

But in practice, if you want to change behaviour, rather than increase driving forces (arguments, incentives and threats), you should diminish restraining forces (barriers, incentives, environmental cues). This is unintuitive:

“A lot of things can be described as an equilibrium between driving and restraining forces. Lewin’s insight was that if you want to achieve change in behaviour, there is one good way to do it and one bad way to do it. The good way to do it is by diminishing the restraining forces, not by increasing the driving forces…” Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s advice: to design a behaviour change intervention, the strategy can be defined with the question ‘why aren’t they doing ‘it’ already?’ rather than ‘how can we get them to do ‘it’?’

The tactics should focus on making it easier for people to behave the way you want. This is almost always about controlling the environment e.g. putting healthy snacks near the till or in my example, giving me a recycling bin the day I move in.

Research – of course – has a role to play. To understand restraining factors we need to look at the situation from individual’s point of view. This is about mapping behavioural patterns (revealed preferences, environmental cues, triggers) rather than ask/answer research.

Any transition can be seen as an opportunity if you’re looking to change behaviour. Moving home, changing job, buying from a category for the first time – all are chinks in the armour: our habit-formed behaviour breaks down and there is a chance for change. Targeting interventions here (e.g. recycling bin, auto-enrolment to pension, offering a repeat subscription) that remove restraints mean positive forces for change can prevail.

Figure 2_Remove the restraints and behaviour changes

Indeed research has shown that age is an important transition point too. People approaching a new decade (so called “9-enders” – people aged 29, 39, 49 etc) are more to likely make changes in their lives. These might be slight (exercising more) or profound (seeking extramarital affairs). It’s as if being on the cusp of a big birthday removes mental obstacles. As Hal Hershfield, study co-author writes:

“When people are facing these new decades, that’s when they start to step back and question essentially the meaningfulness of their lives… We’re not saying people don’t do that at other points in their lives. Just that it’s particularly likely to happen during life transitions.”

This all provides food for thought. Some takeaways:

  • Think about the lived experience of your customers. What transition points are relevant?
  • What barriers could you remove to encourage people to change their behaviour?
  • How might a change to environmental cues affect decision making in your category?
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About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Behavioural Economics, Consumer Psychology, Decision Science, Market Research, Marketing Research, Methods and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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