Changing behaviour? Not without your neighbour.

behavioural change campaigns

By James Mulvey 

How much influence does your neighbour have on your good intentions? Saving the planet. Donating a kidney. These are important social actions. But when it comes to changing people’s behaviour, it appears that your neighbour is often the best nudge -- or stumbling block -- to that final gap between theoretical support and practical action.

That’s at least the argument in a recent article in the New York Times. In the article, Robert B. Cialdini, an emeritus professor at Arizona State University and expert in behavioural change, argues that people are much more likely to change their behaviour if they are told that all their neighbours are doing it. Seems petty doesn’t it? That important issues like saving the planet might depend on whether your neighbour drives a Hummer or a hybrid? But there is a logic to this.

The reason is that people are very sensitive to the “normative” behaviours of their community. People like to belong and often look to their peers for a model of how they should behave. This desire to belong is powerful. And it is something that awareness and behavioural change campaigns should harness.

Awareness equals behavioural change?

Not always. Raising awareness for a social issue doesn’t mean that people will take practical action. A population can have complete awareness of an issue (like climate change) and offer full theoretical support for that issue, but not take any practical action.

If you want to change behaviour, you have to be careful how you frame your request for action. Saving the planet is a meaningful and vital goal. Saving money by turning off unused electrical appliances is a concrete incentive. But just because an issue is important or you offer a financial incentive, it doesn’t guarantee any movement in the audience toward changing their behaviour.

Take organ donation, for example. If you ask around, most Canadians support the idea of organ donation. That’s because there has been a massive amount of awareness around the issue. National headlines, TV awareness campaigns, CBC radio shows about low donor rates, reports, government studies, and print ads. Yet, despite all of this awareness, the organ registry tells a different story. There is a six year wait-list and Canada has one of the worst organ donor rates of industrialized countries. There are about 13 donors per million people, compared to 20 per million in the U.S. and 31 per million in Spain (according to a 2008 study). 

Logic would say that the best strategy would be to spread the word further, telling Canadians about this sad performance. Turns out, though, this is just preaching to the choir. In a recent poll, for example, 86% of BC residents plan to register, but just 17% have officially registered. Awareness doesn’t seem to be the problem. Or the solution.

This gap between awareness and action isn’t just a Canadian trait. In Scotland, for example, research by the NHS Blood and Transplant found that 96% of people would accept an organ, but only 36% of Scots have actually joined the registry.

If people agree and believe that organ donation is a vital issue, why won’t they take that last step?

The power of normative behaviour 

If Cialdini is right, telling people that the majority of Canadians procrastinate registering as donors might actually prevent behavioural change. It’s not that people don’t feel bad or don’t agree with the campaign. It’s just that their guilt is a common one. They are like everyone else -- well-meaning, sympathetic to the cause, but also procrastinating.

There is no urgency. There is no social violation. Just vague plans to change behaviour, added to a long list of things people intend to do: get in shape, eat healthier, and cut down on household energy consumption.

A better strategy might be to ignore the people who haven’t registered (the focus of current behavioural change campaigns). And instead, celebrate the people who have registered.

For example, my spouse is a registered donor. I’m not. I’m part of the majority of British Columbians who plan to register. It’s on my list of ethical things to do. Last month, I renewed my license and received a prompt from BC Transplant, the organization responsible for increasing the organ donor registry. In that mailing, they reminded me that 86% of British Columbians plan to register but never get around to it. While this is a striking and sad statistic, it also shows that awareness is not the issue.

Another strategy, one that might have a better response, would be a behavioural change campaign that uses registered donors to influence their partners. This strategy would tap into the power of normative behaviour Cialdini talks about. We are influenced most by our closest social group.

The same could go for families. Or even communities, rewarding and publicizing the communities that have the highest number of registered donors.

If you are skeptical about this, we’ve experienced it ourselves. In a recent behavioural change campaign for BC Hydro we were surprised to find out that the most effective way to get people to perform simple power-saving actions wasn’t to tell them about how much money they were saving or how they were helping the planet. It was simply to tell them that their peers were participating.

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