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Science behind predicting and changing human behavior

Have you felt that sinking feeling when another crisis hits, and leaders seem clueless about how to actually change people’s behavior? We know changing how people think and act is vital, but the usual tactics never seem to work.

Professor Dolores Albarracín from the University of Pennsylvania has news for us: there’s a science to this, and we’ve been doing it all wrong.

Influencing people

This research challenges a lot of our deeply held assumptions about how to influence people. For example, spending time and effort on changing what people believe often has surprisingly little impact on how they actually behave.

It turns out that focusing on practical aspects, like building new habits and removing obstacles that get in people’s way, is much more effective.

The implications here are massive. This isn’t just a debate about whether people get vaccinated or choose greener options. It’s about fundamentally shifting how policymakers and communities approach problems. It gives us a powerful evidence-based set of tools to create real change in people’s lives. If that sounds exciting, keep reading!

How behavior works

To change how people behave, we need to understand two key types of factors that influence them:

Individual determinants

These are the internal building blocks that shape each person’s actions. They include things like what someone already knows about a topic, the attitudes and beliefs they’ve formed, and the practical skills they possess (or the ones they might need to learn).

Social-structural determinants

These are the external forces and systems that surround us, creating the context in which we live. They consist of legal frameworks and policies that restrict or encourage certain behaviors, the social pressure to conform to what others do (norms), and whether essential resources for change are readily accessible (like healthcare, education, or supportive communities).

To grasp the interplay, think of individual factors as the ingredients a person brings to the table – their knowledge, mindset, and abilities. The social-structural factors are akin to the kitchen itself – the tools available, the rules they must follow, and the broader environment that either supports or hinders their efforts.

Educating to change behavior

Let’s break down the different ways we can target people’s individual thoughts and motivations, and how those efforts translate into actual results. Researchers classify the impact of these strategies as “negligible,” “small,” “medium,” or “large” when it comes to influencing behavior:

Individual Factors

  • Negligible Effect: Trying to influence people through broader knowledge, general attitudes, or teaching generic skills shows shockingly little effect on their actions. In other words, facts alone or vague “awareness campaigns” are unlikely to make much of a dent.
  • Small-Medium Effect: Strategies focused on shaping people’s attitudes toward a specific behavior (like thinking recycling is “good”) and helping them develop specific skills for that behavior demonstrate some impact, but it’s limited.
  • Large Effect: Helping people form strong habits around a behavior has the biggest payoff. This means finding ways to make the desired action automatic and routine. Similarly, fostering deep associations between a behavior and concepts like “good” or “bad” can be extremely powerful.

This is a critical insight for anyone trying to encourage change. The emphasis shouldn’t be on making people simply know more, or hoping they’ll feel a certain way. It’s about embedding actions into everyday life and forging strong mental links that guide decision-making.

Laws to change behavior

Let’s look at the external systems and influences that can motivate (or demotivate) behavior. As with individual factors, researchers have measured the impact of different strategies as “negligible,” “small,” “medium,” or “large”:

Social-structural factors

  • Negligible effect: Surprisingly, top-down approaches like imposing laws and regulations or trying to boost trust in institutions have very little influence on people’s actions. This means that threats of punishment or making a government agency seem more trustworthy won’t magically change people’s choices.
  • Small effect: Using social pressure via norms (“what everyone else is doing”) and offering incentives (like rewards) can have some effect, but it’s fairly limited.
  • Large effect: Providing direct support networks and removing barriers to accessing essential resources has the most significant impact when it comes to shifting behavior. This could look like peer support groups for people trying to improve their health or making it easy and affordable to access preventative healthcare.

Instead of coercion or trying to control what’s inside people’s heads, the biggest potential for change lies in shaping the environment around them. Support systems and easy access to what’s needed create an environment where the desired behavior becomes the most natural and supported choice.

How do we change people’s behavior?

The old mindset, whether applied to individuals or society, focuses on knowledge and coercion. Think of the endless warnings and information dumps coupled with the assumption that punishment will scare people into compliance. However, this new research tells us that approach is largely ineffective.

What truly works is a fundamental shift. Instead of fixating on what people believe, we need to prioritize:

Creating automatic routines

Help people integrate desired actions into their daily lives to the point where it becomes second nature. When we repeatedly perform an action, it creates and strengthens connections in our brains, making it increasingly easier to do with less conscious thought. Think of it like creating a well-worn path that you naturally follow.

The less we have to actively debate whether to do something, the more likely we are to do it without resistance. If exercising or eating healthy is automatic, we don’t have to battle internal arguments or willpower.

Habits become interwoven with how we see ourselves. A person whose daily routine includes physical activity starts to think of themselves as someone who exercises, making the behavior part of their core identity.

Fostering supportive communities

Humans are social creatures, and seeing others consistently demonstrate a desired behavior makes it feel more achievable and socially acceptable. This normalizes the behavior, making it seem like the natural thing to do.

Knowing others expect us to act a certain way provides positive social pressure. Supportive groups can offer encouragement, celebrate successes, and help navigate setbacks.

Community members become resources for problem-solving, sharing tips and strategies that have worked, and providing expertise or assistance with overcoming challenges.

The sense of belonging and connection fosters feelings of acceptance and encouragement. This combats isolation and builds resilience so people are less likely to give up in the face of setbacks.

Removing barriers

Even if someone knows why a behavior is important and wants to change, practical obstacles can completely derail their efforts. It’s about what’s possible, not just what’s ideal.

People operate within existing systems and structures that may make adopting new behaviors extremely difficult. Think of food deserts, lack of transportation, or complicated healthcare systems.

For many people, tangible changes in their environment will have a far greater impact than trying to change what they think or feel. This approach empowers positive action even if immediate shifts in mindset don’t happen.

The key is identifying the specific roadblocks people face and designing interventions that dismantle them. This levels the playing field, making it possible for people to act in line with their intentions regardless of their individual circumstances.

Let’s imagine the possibilities this approach unlocks:

  • Quitting smoking programs: Rather than bombard smokers with grim statistics, they’d focus on the nitty-gritty of establishing new routines and stress management techniques.
  • Climate initiatives: Forget endless guilt trips about carbon footprints. Green choices would become the easiest, most convenient default option for transportation, energy, and daily life.
  • Healthcare systems: Healthy living would be accessible and affordable for everyone, from regular checkups to nutritious food options, regardless of income or insurance status.

The power of positive behavior change

This research isn’t about making us cynical. It’s about getting smarter. No more “common sense” approaches that never pan out. Instead, we’ve got an evidence-based roadmap.

“Before this study, analyses of behavior change efforts were limited to one domain, whether that was environmental science or public health. By looking at research across domains, we now have a clearer picture of how to encourage behavior change and make a difference in people’s lives,” says Professor Albarracín.

“Our research provides a map for what might be effective even for behaviors nobody has studied. Just like masking because a critical behavior during the pandemic but we had no research on masking, a broad empirical study of intervention efficacy can guide future efforts for an array of behaviors we have not directly studied but that need to be promoted during a crisis.”

Ultimately, this is about understanding that changing the world starts with understanding the actual mechanics of how we humans work. And now, we have a much better manual.

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology.


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