Changing your mind (and behaviour) through behavioural economics

Posted on 07/04/2016

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Comms professionals all work in the persuasion industry. But recently, the science of persuasion has become a separate field in its own right. Thanks to business/marketing books like Nudge, the work of Julia Asscher and Rory Sutherland’s patronage, behavioural economics has hit the big time.

It’s not just big businesses that stand to benefit, but governments and health services too. Through tools like the MINDSPACE framework, public sector teams are delivering behaviour change programmes that really do make people act differently – preventing negative outcomes, and reducing costs.

So what’s it all about?

The theory:

Red Hot or Red Herring?An introduction to behavioural economics from the IPA

The UK government’s MINDSPACE framework: More than just a good name; MINDSPACE is an acronym, each letter standing for one of the 9 levers of behaviour change.

For example, Default enrollment in organ donation schemes in France have been shown to massively increase donations. Likewise, Priming supermarket customers with French / Spanish music has been show to increase sales of wine from those regions.

And three of these are particularly interesting to communications professionals:

  1. Messenger – having a resonant spokesperson
  2. Norms – demonstrating through stats and stories that people’s peers are already acting in that way
  3. Commitments – getting someone to pledge to do something publicly

All approaches we’re familiar with; the difference is there’s now robust proof that these can contribute significantly to making programmes more effective.

The proof (IRL)

Putting it into practice

The hardest task is to put these into practice. As well as the Communications and Behaviour Change guide from the UK Goverrment, I’ve got three bits of advice:

  1. Talk with an expert. MINDSPACE gives you a set of tools, but to really understand how and when to use them, speak with a Jedi Master not an apprentice (i.e. not me). Fortunately, I work with some fantastic people who have been applying MINDSPACE elements to global preventative interventions.
  1. Avoid the hype. Experts in the field are keen to highlight that nudging is not an end in itself. For any large-scale and effective behaviour change programme, a variety of different interventions are needed – nudging should form part of the programme but not be relied on alone.
  1. Test and evaluate. The primary research into what drives behaviour change has been done. But that doesn’t mean identikit communications. Only a few of the 9 different leverage techniques will be relevant to the situation, and not all of them will prove effective.

So instead, consider it a chance to test the theory. Establish a control, measure the impact and make your own contribution to the science of behaviour change.

And most of all, make it your role to use them wisely and ethically to effect change. With great power, comes great responsibility…

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