5 Things to Make Large-Scale Behavior Change

by Joe Brewer In Human Behavior, Social Change on April 6, 2011

Addressing the biggest challenges like global warming, political corruption, and a broken economic system will entail significant amounts of large-scale behavior change.  As Change Makers we will have to learn the basics of the cognitive and behavioral sciences in order to design campaigns that result in significant changes in social norms, community priorities, and personal behaviors.

I believe it is finally possible to intentionally design campaigns that result in significant behavioral change.  Here are five things I’ve discovered that lead me to this conclusion:

#1: We now know we were wrong about human nature.

Throughout most of the 20th Century, research into the foundations of human nature was dominated by a series of what philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “scientific revolutions”.  Every decade or so a new theory would arise that pulled the foundations out from under the one that came before it.

  • In the early 20th Century, focus was on behaviorism with the assumption that it wasn’t possible to measure aspects of subjective experience.
  • This was challenged by the work of Sigmund Freud when he demonstrated that influences from subconscious experience could be measured (and were quite significant).
  • Later came the “cognitivist” period dominated by formal arguments about the “abstract logic” of human thought.
  • This was challenged by studies into the emotional influences of intention and belief for altering behavior throughout the latter part of the century.

The dominant theory that persisted throughout this entire period has been the Theory of Rational Action that claims human beings are abstract symbol manipulators (much like a calculator or computing machine) that seek to maximize their self-interest.  This theory laid the foundation for most of the major institutions of society today, from stock markets to government agencies.

And we now know that this theory of human nature is wrong.  The first step to bringing about large-scale behavior change is finding the errors in our ways from past efforts that didn’t work.

#2: We now know how REAL human nature works.

While many puzzle pieces are still missing, scientists have pieced together enough of the picture to know that human beings are embodied creatures.  This means we work the way we do because of the kinds of brains we have, the kinds of bodies we have, and the typical experiences that pervade our evolutionary history.

The basic picture is that human nature is:

  • Profoundly moral: Our behavior is shaped by value judgments, deeply held beliefs, and assertions about right and wrong;
  • Profoundly social: We are influenced by the behavior of those around us through shared stories, common expectations, and the need for cooperation (and competition);
  • Deeply emotional: Contrary to past assumptions, we reason with our emotions.  Just imagine trying to ask someone out on a date without those important emotional cues about alertness, enthusiasm, and appeal;
  • Rational in context: Decisions are made via context-based logic determined by how we understand the situations we find ourselves in;
  • Informed by the interplay of body, brain, and environment: All of these factors arise at the junction of bodily experience in the world where we interpret, plan, and act.

#3: It all comes down to good design.

Attempts to change human behavior will depend on knowledge like this.  We have to design new modes of interaction (such as social media platforms like facebook and MySpace), better structures in the built environment (to change the patterns of experience), and more human-oriented organizational forms (that take REAL human nature into account).

With positive knowledge both about where we went wrong in the past and what we now know that is right, we can engage in system design to promote socially desirable outcomes like reductions in environmental impacts and greater sensitivities to the needs of others.

#4: This includes how motivation works.

One of the most important areas to consider good design is in the incentive structures that drive much of human behavior.  The assumption that humans are self-interest maximizers has led to many pay-for-work models that reward selfishness and greed in order to rise up the ladder.  This theory has been deeply critiqued and challenged by studies into human creativity, as seen in this overview by Daniel Pink.

The key to behavioral change is understanding how motivation works in different environments.  Then one needs to observe how people are using the environments they find themselves in now.  The combination of these two knowledge sources will provide insights into how new environments should be designed.

#5: It’s been done before (many times).

History is filled with examples of Change Makers successfully driving large-scale behavioral change.  Guided by contemporary insights we can dissect past success stories and cultivate systematic methods for designed change.  A few case studies that might be particularly enlightening are:

  • The first televised Presidential debate and its impact on voting behavior;
  • Inspirational social movements like the Civil Rights Movement or events that led to the creation of the Endangered Species Act;
  • Transformational events like the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the bombing of Pearl Harbor;
  • The rise of public relations and modern advertising.

This small sampling, if properly analyzed, can be exceedingly insightful.  I often share some preliminary results of my analysis for these and other related topics in the workshops I’ve given on how to design for social change.

So, in conclusion, I believe it is finally possible to design campaigns for changing large-scale human behavior because of the solid foundations we now have from the cognitive and behavioral sciences.  I will share more of the practical implications of this knowledge in future works — and continue developing the tools necessary to put it to work for NGOs, education and research institutions, government agencies, and socially-conscious businesses in the days ahead.