Behavior Change 101

How to get people to do what’s good for them and the planet

Do you reuse towels when you stay at a hotel? Turns out there’s a science behind those little message cards they leave in your bathroom. While many of us who reuse them may say we do it for environmental reasons, studies show the single most effective message was the one stating other guests did it too. In other words, learning that three out of every four guests who had stayed in that very room reused their towels led to half of the guests reusing their towels in 190 rooms. The environmental message saw only a third of guests reuse their towels.

Such is the power of social norms. We rarely know how much they influence our behavior, yet research consistently shows that using them works. If you’re not convinced, imagine you’re in a grocery store and everyone around you is carrying a reusable bag except you. Chances are, you will feel pressure to ensure you bring yours next time so you don’t get a disapproving look.

This matters because the commercial advertising industry has used this tactic for years to make us want things we may not need. However, principles of social psychology are increasingly being used for public interest campaigns to great effect.

Many failed in the past because they assumed awareness would lead to behavior change. As we can see with smoking or obesity, knowing something is bad for you doesn’t mean you stop smoking or reaching for that donut. We have different reasons beyond awareness for doing or not doing things, as we see in the case of towel reuse.

This is where principles of behavior change research come in. The key is to understand your audience and what deters or motivates them to take an action. Then it’s about promoting motivators like positive social pressure while also removing barriers to taking that action.


Seeing these principles in action: a case study

Fenton applied these principles to a recent online campaign for Carton Council, where we used various strategies in the behavior change toolbox to motivate residents in Southern California to recycle their cartons. For instance, we asked residents to take a pledge to always recycle their cartons, set a goal of 1,000 pledges to motivate them, made their names public — public pledges are shown to be more effective in people following through with them — and featured a “pledge-meter” showing residents’ progress toward reaching the goal.

We also tried to lower the barrier of inconvenience to recycling cartons by distilling the act to three simple steps: 1) empty your carton, 2) add cartons to the bin and 3) celebrate reuse. This wasn’t meant as a literal guide as much as a way to make the call to action clear and easier by framing it in digestible steps. Three is always a good, round number.

We also used prompts, or reminders by way of refrigerator magnets close to where recycling would take place that showed pictures of cartons that residents could recycle — research found that many people don’t recycle because they are confused as to what is and isn’t recyclable. Finally, we used social norms by creating a champions group called Recycle Watch and giving them an exclusive t-shirt that identified them as a “proud recycling champion” in public. This was to establish recycling cartons as the norm.

The result: not only did we exceed our goal of engaging residents in Southern California by obtaining 4,772 opt-ins — exceeding our goal by 2,362 percent — but we also saw actual volume increases in recycling in key cities including Long Beach. In November 2015 just following the campaign period, recycling volume in Long Beach jumped 21% compared to the same period the previous year.


Looking ahead

All public interest campaigns would benefit from taking a more scientific approach to designing a campaign involving calls to action. The takeaways are clear:

  1. Merely knowing about the campaign won’t lead to action
  2. Understanding why an audience does or does not take an action is key to developing strategies around how to lower the barriers and promote the motivators
  3. Use strategies like prompts, convenience, commitment, goal-setting/feedback and social norms to achieve your goal.