Behavior Change and Social Change

“Remember to turn off lights.”

“Please pay here.”

“Did you remember to wash your hands?”

Prompts are everywhere in our lives. I see one when I enter the parking lot of my local grocery store, where a sign reminds me to bring my reusable bag. As I walk away with my groceries, a sign by the elevator asks, “Did you remember to validate your parking ticket?” Somewhere in my brain, I’m fully aware I should bring my reusable bag to the store and stamp my parking ticket. However, that hasn’t stopped me from forgetting many, many times – except when these visible prompts make it easy and motivate me to do what I know is the right thing to do.

Prompts could take many forms, and in the recent Annual Behavioral Summit organized by ideas42, bestselling author Dan Pink described an experiment making use of prompts to reduce illegal parking in disabled parking spots. He took pictures of disabled people and posted the images on the sign post along with the copy, ‘Think of me. Keep it free.’ His hidden camera showed several people parking on the spot, reading the sign and then leaving the spot. Pink said this simple solution helped to significantly reduce violations and that two cities had agreed to adopt it as a policy.

As the experiment showed, it’s not that violators didn’t know they couldn’t park there. However, when presented with a prompt reminding them of the consequences of the violation with pictures of real disabled people, violators moved their cars.

Contrary to economists’ assumption that humans behave rationally, behavioral science is based on the premise that humans are irrational beings. Some common concepts include the power of visualization, disliking loss and taxed bandwidth.

If you’ve ever ordered pizza from Domino’s, you may have seen how the site shows progress being made of the different stages of preparing the pizza to the point of delivery. Another of the summit speakers, Michael Norton, a Professor at the Harvard Business School, tried to test how people reacted to this attempt to provide more transparency to the user. He created a fake flight site like Expedia and tested different ways of showing progress. One showed a progress bar being filled while it’s working to show search results and the other showed this message, “we are now searching various travel sites including x, y and z.” Even though the flight results were the same, people preferred the latter.

Another test tried giving results instantly versus showing a “work being done” message for 30 seconds. People picked the latter. When asked “was the algorithm working hard for you?” people responded, “it was working for me.” They felt a sense of reciprocity and wanted to give back even though it is nonsensical that an algorithm would be working hard for them. The “work being done” message made them feel that way.

This model was applied to the public sector to improve the public’s perception on government. If people don’t see what the government is doing, they’re unsure if they do anything at all. The government could be doing a good job but if there is a pothole, perception could turn very negative based on a one-off experience. The Mayor’s Office in Boston created an app where residents could text an image of a pothole to send to the city. It compiled the data and provided a visual update showing “Open: 8,000 requests. Opened yesterday: 64. Closed yesterday: 90.” The result: the experiment conducted by Professor Norton found people liked their government more by 1.1% than the control group.

Consider identifying something you do that you don’t get credit for and think about how to visualize it. Summit speaker Matthew Pearson of Robinhood suggested applying this concept to a personal situation like a couple understanding how the other contributes to housework. When asking people individually, each say they contribute more than the other and are dissatisfied about the other’s level of contribution, oftentimes because they don’t see the other person doing the work. When couples were randomly assigned to do things together, however, they felt more grateful and satisfied because they could see what the other was doing.

As demonstrated above, we are rarely aware of all the assumptions we make in life and how we can be affected by simple interventions such as a sign or seeing something being done to nudge our behavior and change perceptions. The public and social impact sector would greatly benefit from tapping into these proven methods of bringing about behavior change that could ultimately lead to improved communities.