Leveraging Behavioral Science to Drive Behavior Change


Behavior change is hard.  Those of us who have made and then dropped New Years resolutions can attest to that.

Yet most government agencies must persuade outside stakeholders to join, comply, support, partner, and/or do things differently in order to achieve their public service mission.

Years of research into behavior and decision sciences provides insights that government agencies can use.

Business Insider lists the best behavioral economics reading list.

Bottom line: We think we are rational but often we’re not.

At the neurological level, humans process information in two ways:

  • System 1 (unconscious, automatic, fast): relevancy, consistency with world view and emotions such as attraction/disgust, achievement/regret, honor/shame, safety/vulnerability
  • System 2 (conscious, deliberative, slow): analytical, comparative lists such as pros/cons, benefit/cost

As a general rule, System 1 leads with System 2 saying “wait, wait, let’s consider this further.”  But facts are often selected and organized to confirm an existing world view, so System 1 wins in the end.

Studies also show that:

  • People care about other people. People will literally frown when shown behaviors that harm others.
  • People care about cleanliness and purity. They will wrinkle their nose in disgust when shown behaviors that violate a sense of purity and cleanliness.
  • People care about and are more likely to trust information coming from a group to which they belong. “Group” can be defined by racial, cultural, religious, gender, political, geographical, shared hobbies/interest or other factors. And there is rich data commercially available on many of these characteristics that agencies can use to tailor and target communications.
  • People respond to tangible incentives. For example, in a study conducted by Uri Gneezy for Edmonds.com, customers were more motivated by a $200 gas card than a percentage discount of $400+ off of the purchase price of a car.

So 1) make the effort to understand who you are engaging, 2) craft messages that tap into System 1 emotions and are consistent with the stakeholder’s world view, and 3) get trusted 3rd parties to carry and amplify your message. Oh, and add a tangible incentive when you can.

Janice John Roper-Graham is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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