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6 Steps to Behavior Change

Design for Behavior Change


Many large-scale phenomena are the sum of individual actions — sometimes millions or even billions of them. Apple's recent celebration of 10 billion songs downloaded represents 10 billion choices made by consumers to download a song rather than buy it in other formats.

In the healthcare space, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported a 50 percent drop in respiratory infections in children, a drop attributable (in part) to the group's campaign to educate millions of children to change their behavior: To wash their hands. Addressing the biggest challenges like global warming, political corruption, and a broken economic system will entail significant amounts of large-scale behavior change.

Be it a green team working to increase recycling rates or reduce paper waste or a corporate sustainability officer working to reduce a carbon footprint, a key challenge is how to encourage changes in our decisions and actions. But we also know that change is not always easy to foster.

Although carefully designed, well-targeted communications are an important method of promoting sustainable behavior, they are often not enough. A variety of barriers to change prevent people from acting sustainably. For example, an individual may lack the funds to buy a more energy-efficient product, have more immediate priorities, or be reluctant to change his or her current lifestyle.

A Real Life Example

At a household level, many of the actions that produce greenhouse gas emissions, such as electricity use, are invisible to users in their day-to-day practices, or are conditioned by the existing energy infrastructure. Even when motivated to change, people often do not know what to do or why the adoption of a particular innovation is important, or they may lack the ability to affect change. Phasing out inefficient incandescent lighting (thought by many to provide superior illumination)< has met with resistance in several countries; some households and organizations, such as museums, stockpiling traditional bulbs for when they are no longer available.

Community-based social marketing as well as technology have emerged as an effective alternative for promoting sustainable behavior. Here are a few keys to behavior change:

  1. Develop New Habits: Research has repeatedly demonstrated that one of the biggest predictors of future behavior is past behavior: people tend to be creatures of habit who stick to regular routines. Overruling a habit requires deliberate intention and, as a result, interventions that encourage people to be more conscious of their behavioral choices increase an individual's capacity to change.

    Beyond overcoming undesirable old habits, it is also essential to ensure that new desirable habits are developed. Often within psychological interventions, people are encouraged to repeat their intentions to increase the likelihood that they remember them at critical decision points, supporting the development of a new habit. The more often new behaviors are performed, the more they are ingrained and reinforced until becoming automatic.

  2. Create ‘Upstream’ and ‘Downstream’ Interventions: The health psychology literature makes a useful distinction between upstream and downstream interventions. Downstream interventions refer to communications designed to change existing values and beliefs, while upstream interventions refer to external structural changes, including legal constraints and physical changes to the environment, that force, encourage, or more gently nudge people toward different practices and lifestyles.

  3. Use Technology to Make Change Tangible: Create simple, new digital tools to provide feedback. Think of the iPhone app Lose It, which allows mobile tracking of food intake or Google's PowerMeter, which encourages communities to share energy-use data.

  4. Envision the Future and Let Others Create It: For IDEO's climate-change website, Livingclimatechange.com, they have created scenarios that describe the kinds of innovations that might be necessary to achieve current carbon reduction goals. But IDEO is also inviting designers to contribute additional scenarios to also focus the conversation less on what we will have to give up and more on what we will create. Rather than asking only how to provide ways to prompt people to cut energy usage by providing tools that can help them modify existing habits — an obvious goal — IDEO is asking its team to think of radical new fuel-saving products, too.

  5. Work with those in Transition: Periods of transition, when routines are already in flux, provide useful opportunities to develop new, more sustainable habits. For example, an intervention in Germany that provided people with information and free tickets for public transportation shortly after they had moved was found to be particularly successful in increasing use of public transport services.

  6. Use multiple forms of communication. A recent communication campaign alongside the introduction of energy-efficiency labeling to promote the need and reason for this policy in the United Kingdom recently bombed. By contrast, in Portugal, a celebrity advertising campaign accompanied the labeling; here the reported level of influence of labeling was significantly higher (35 percent). Far higher levels still (45 percent and 56 percent) were found in The Netherlands and Denmark, respectively, where rebates for early adopters accompanied labeling and communications. This demonstrates the value of an integrated approach, composed of a raft of complementary measures, in promoting behavior change.

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