Good Behavior

Can I ask you a personal question ?

Did you deliberately set-out to read this blog, or are you procrastinating, because you should be doing something else instead ?

We don’t always do what we should, do we ?

We get distracted, loose motivation, get bored, make excuses to ourselves and give in, or give up – then we eat the second helping of unhealthy desert, buy the expensive thing we don’t really need, or don’t do the revision we need to for the exam.

It’s as if there’s a part of our brain that rationally makes plans, has aims and objectives, and another part of our brain that needs to be persuaded to go along with it.

This isn’t news of course, we know this instinctively, and consciously attempt to manage ourselves, so that in moments of forgetfulness or weakness we stay on track. We leave notes for ourselves, we bribe ourselves with delayed treats and rewards, we put up motivational posters, read motivational quotes and listen to motivational speakers.

We also intuitively use similar techniques to try to influence the behavior of others – making fresh coffee or baking bread when trying to sell a house, in the hope that potential purchasers will associate the property with pleasant smells etc.

Changing our own behavior can be a very difficult thing to achieve . . . and successfully changing other people’s even harder !

Why ?

We might like to think we’re 100% rational 100% of the time, but unless you’re an android or a Vulcan, it’s simply not true. We are subject to subconscious or emotional, social and environmental influences and triggers, that direct our behavior at least as much, and often more, than our conscious selves.

The study of these motivational and attention based factors, and how we can make use of them to change our own, and other people’s behavior is called behavioral science. It tries to shed light and insight across a range of issues, including motivating ourselves to eat a healthier diet, tofinish writing a book weve started, go to the gym more, or simply get on with the housework.

Policy makers, businesses and many others would also like to influence our behaviour en mass – so we stick to the speed limit, buy their products, sign their petition or lend them our vote.

The acronym MINDSPACE is sometimes used to list a number of the key subconscious factors that influence our behavior – it stands for: how we feel about the Messenger, what our Incentives are, what everyone else is doing, or Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitment and Ego.

A few examples:

- People are more likely to leave their table clean after eating if they smell cleaning products in the air. This is an example of priming, by using a subconscious mental connection.

- People tend to automatically be quiet in a library. This is an example of a social Norm ie: we all have a tendency to do what everyone else is already doing.

- People tend to want, and respond to, ‘anchors’; initial reference points – when they are considering unfamiliar. This is why charities provide ‘suggested minimum donation amounts’.

- People want to feel approval in the eyes of others; which is why teachers now increasingly use happy face stickers or stamps to give positive feedback to pupils – a happy face gives a subliminal message of being liked by others in a way that a tick doesn’t. Happy or sad face symbols are used as feedback  in other scenarios too, including energy bills and public bathroom cleanliness.

A recent fascinating report has been issued by the UK government’s Behavioral Policy Unit, that considers many of these factors in detail, and considers their application in public policy making and delivery.

But it’s a complicated picture, and sometimes our behavioral responses seem counter intuitive. One study set out to measure the effect of different approaches to dissuade the taking of firewood from an area of public forest. A sign asking people not to take firewood actually resulted in an increase in the amount taken – by raising the idea in people’s minds and making them more likely to act on it. A finding that won’t come as a surprise to any parent who has ever told a child ‘whatever you do, don’t touch this‘.

A further sign giving the same message and also showing a photo of a group of men taking firewood had the effect of increasing the amount of firewood taken even further ! The photo illustrated that other people were also taking firewood, and by showing a small group doing so collectively, indicated that it could be a social activity, rather than a solitary one – we like to feel we’re part of a group!

If we want to nudge ourselves to change our behaviour, then we can try to apply these insights. Want to motivate yourself to go to the gym more ? Try keeping your gym kit where you can see it to act as a visual cue. Try tracking your workout progress, weight loss etc, to give yourself targets and feedback. Go to the gym with a friend, to add an enjoyable social aspect, a competitive element, build in accountability and create a social group where the expected ‘normal’ behavior is going to the gym frequently. This is how weight-watchers works! Some of these affects could also be created by participating in  online social networks.

Finding effective ways to influence behavior and change habits isn’t just an interesting personal development issue – many of the most significant issues and challenges our societies face are essentially behavioral ones: from reducing carbon emissions and food waste, to developing healthier lifestyles and more ethical business practices. Often we have the best intentions, but somehow fail to follow them through.

Although it’s far from being an exact science, using visual cues, indicators, reminders, feedback, social expectations, punishments and incentives can help us influence both our own behavior and that of others. Real time energy monitors encourage greater energy efficiency. Using smaller plates and bowls will subconsciously encourage us to reduce our portion sizes. Signs highlighting that 99% of people don’t throw litter on the street may increase the sense of social disapproval for those who do etc.

The Jam song Absolute Beginners (as referenced by the behavioral scientist Paul Dolan in the video below) contains the apt lyrics:

“You can loose some hours just thinking of it. You need the strength to go and get what you want”


Photo by CGP Grey via Flickr

RELATED ARTICLES – The Art of Giving Up,  It IS the Winning and Losing that Matters


  1. I think humans, except maybe martyrs, are guided towards achieving happiness. Few of us do things to make us unhappy. Buying something can, or should, make us happier. OK, so paying a bill rarely makes us happy in the short term, but having a fridge, a TV, lights makes us happy. So paying a bill can be seen as deferred happiness.

    I think the key is seeking deferred gratuity. So, not playing a video game and doing revision may seem dull in the short term, but when you have better exam results and a better job and better income as a result, you’ll potentially be much happier than the 30 minutes of viedo gaming could ever make you.

    Goal setting and happiness is crucial. What is it you want? Athletes competing in the 100m at the Olympics spend hours and hours and hours training for, hopefully, less than 10 seconds of effort. But that Olympic Gold Medal will be worth it. Was it worth it for the guy who comes 4th?

    As I get older I take better, long term decisions, and am more happy to defer my happiness to something that will benefit me and my family for longer. I’ll work harder and longer knowing that I am benefitting my career. I will save money and miss a night out to afford a nicer holiday or experience.

    Feedback helps. A loving family is a nudge enough to do your best for them. The hardship of working harder is more than equalled to be able to provide for them. It’s a case of where your cues come from. The summer disturbances in 2011 almost certainly came from social cues with many people acting out of charachter and following the norm.

    It is the role of society and governments to install as many good social cues as possible. Three cheers for Localism?

Speak Your Mind