Behavioral Engineering and the Design of Influential Experiences: Example – Influencing Sustainable Behavior

Let me start this important topic with a few points that should be intuitively obvious:

  • The benefits associated with delivering an outstanding customer experience accrue from influencing customer behavior
  • Customers either deliberately or incidentally change what they do when they experience something that makes them feel or think differently
  • In most competitive markets, there are straightforward financial benefits associated with changing customer behavior. These positive changes in customer behavior lead to increased retention, wallet share, referral rates, etc…
  • The levers for changing customer behavior generally involve finding ways to understand and influence customers’ perceptions of the value they receive

Moving beyond these obvious points, things get much more interesting when the objective is design experiences that influence behavior towards more altruistic ends.  For example, many regulated utilities are launching energy conservation and demand response programs.  The objective of these programs is to shift customer behavior related to energy consumption and conservation.  While there might be marginal direct benefits (e.g., reduced rates, etc…) experienced by the customer as a result of changing their behavior, there are also environmental and social benefits the customer may not easily perceive.

As we’ve been engaged with clients working on this problem, it’s become clear that there’s a lot that any company can learn from this more challenging experience design problem.  For example, the airlines have done a good job of influencing customer behavior regarding online check-in and the use of kiosks rather than agents, despite initial customer tentativeness and resistance.

What Comes First:  Attitudes or Behavior?

While it seems natural to assume that customers’ beliefs and attitudes are precursors to their behavior, practical experience supported by numerous academic studies have demonstrated that the linkage is highly complex.  For example, many people have attitudes and beliefs consistent with environmental conservation yet do not exhibit any significant conservative behavior.  A person’s expressed beliefs and attitudes about environmental issues are not a strong indicator of how that person will act relative to those issues. In fact, you can’t even assume that a person who identifies themselves as an environmentalist will necessarily have either a solid understanding of the issues or be any more willing to modify their behavior to make it more environmentally friendly.

As discussed in Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s and William Smith’s book, “Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” a few illustrative examples include:

  • “Participants in an intensive 3 hour energy conservation workshop indicated greater awareness of energy issues, more appreciation for what could be done in their homes to reduce energy use, and a willingness to implement changes. However, based on follow up visits, actual behavior did not change. The only difference in behavior between participants and non-participants is that eight of the forty participants had installed the low-flow shower head they were given for free at the workshop.” Geller, E.S. “Evaluating Energy Conservation Programs: Is Verbal Report Enough?” Journal of Consumer Research, 8, 331-335
  • “Individuals who hold attitudes that are strongly supportive of energy conservation were found to be no more likely to conserve energy.” Archer, D., Pettigrew, T., Constanzo, M., Iritani, B., Walker, I. & White, L. “Energy Conservation and Public Policy: The Mediation of Individual Behavior” Energy Efficiency: Perspectives on Individual Behavior, 69-92.
  • “500 people were interviewed and asked about personal responsibility for picking up litter, 94% indicated that individuals have a responsibility for picking up litter. However, when leaving the interview, only 2% actually picked up the litter that had been “planted” by the researcher.” Bickman, L “Environmental Attitudes and Actions” Journal of Social Pscyhology, 87, 323-324.
  • “An investigation of the differences between recyclers and non-recyclers found that they did not differ in their attitudes towards recycling.” DeYoung, R. “Exploring the Difference Between Recyclers and Non-Recyclers: The Role of Information” Journal of Environmental Systems, 18, 341-351.

There are several factors that contribute to a disconnect between a person’s attitudes and their behavior.  Each of the following reasons influence whether or not a person engages in any new behavior, despite their attitudes towards that behavior:

  1. Lack of Knowledge. Inconsistency between a person’s expressed attitudes and their behavior might be partially attributable to a lack of understanding of what to do or a lack of understand the implications of their actions.  While numerous studies show that information or education alone has little or no effect on behavior, it is still a critical enabler.
  1. Perceived Barriers. External barriers and constraints set limits on what can be accomplished by just changing a person’s attitudes.  The higher the barriers, including expense, inconvenience, and technical difficulties, the less the effect attitudes will have on a person’s behavior.
  1. Perceived Benefits. A person may have to incur immediate and well-defined inconvenience, uncertainty, and monetary costs in exchange for longer term benefits experienced by the broader population rather than the individual themselves.  This is related to Hardin’s metaphor of the Tragedy of the Commons.

In general, behavior competes with behavior.  People consciously or automatically make choices between alternative behaviors.  When they do, people naturally gravitate to behaviors that have high perceived benefits and few perceived barriers or costs.  In general, people also naturally pay the most attention to short-term benefits and costs.  While perceived benefits and barriers / costs vary dramatically by individual, there are usually common elements shared by customers within a given customer “personae.”

As a result, a behavioral engineering approach is often most effective.  It is generally more cost effective to try to change behavior directly than to do so via a change in attitudes across a large population.  We have found that attitudes are just as likely to be a consequence of behavior than the cause of behavior. Or, as we like to say, you often “act your way into a new way of thinking, rather than thinking your way into a new way of acting.”

As McKenzie-Mohr and Smith summarize, much of the practice involves influencing behavior in specific ways by:

  • Increasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived barriers to the desired behavior
  • Decreasing the customers’ perceived benefits of the current or competing behavior(s)
  • Increasing the customers’ perceived barriers of the current or competing behaviors(s)

The high level steps include:

  1. Identifying Specific Perceived Barriers and Benefits.  This requires field-based observation and elicitation research (See:  Observation and Elicitation: We Like to Watch!) focused on surfacing:  What makes the desired behavior difficult/easy?  What are the perceived positives and negatives?  Who wants you to do it and who doesn’t care?  This qualitative research is used to clearly identify the ways that  customers experience the barriers and benefits.
  2. Clustering Perceived Barriers and Benefits by Personae.  The initial observation and elicitation research is generally followed by a more quantitative study that clusters and prioritizes barriers and benefits for different customer personae.  (See:  Personae-Driven Customer Experience Design)
  3. Designing Behavior Change Programs by Personae.  In general, program design starts by targeting the most “influencable” personae first.  Characteristics of effective program design typically include the following elements (See:  Influential Experiences and the Psychology of Escalating Commitment):
    • “Easy to get started” initiating actions and reinforcement
    • Gaining visible commitment (e.g. written commitments)
    • Creating meaningful incentives and penalties
    • Emphasizing personal contact
    • Encouraging development social norms and leveraging social pressure
    • Designing prompts / reminders for new behaviors.  Helping people remember – making it difficult for them to forget.
    • Measuring and reporting progress against individual and community goals.
  4. Piloting and Refining Behavior Change Programs.  It is very important that any programs be tested and refined in the field.  This can be done with a sample or segment of customers.  The purpose of this pilot is not just to evaluate the design but to improve it with observation and feedback gained from the participating customers.
  5. Rollout and Evaluate Results.

Here are a few situation-specific lessons learned:

  • Efforts to encourage people to conserve energy must provide information that can help them understand what the effects of specific changes in behavior will be. For example, the information on a typical electric bill is not detailed enough. These bills typically summarize overall usages. This doesn’t give consumers any clue as to the relative effect of various resource-conserving actions. As a result, misconceptions about the impact of various actions persist despite educational efforts to change them (e.g., the impact of turning off lights vs. making less frequent use of the clothes dryer).
  • Providing incentives can be effective. However, if incentives are significant, many people come to believe they are acting only for the incentives. They may begin to require larger incentives to do things that they might previously have done only with small incentives. In these situations, the behaviors often stop as soon as the incentives are removed. In general, people tend to sustain changes in behavior when they have chosen those behaviors without the influence of significant incentives or penalties.
  • Attitudes about specific threats are more predictive of behavior related to those threats than general concerns about the environment are predictive of general environmentally friendly behavior. For example, attitudes towards recycling are more predictive of recycling behavior than are general concern about the environment.
  • Stronger commitments yield more persistent behavior. A commitment accompanied by an agreement to promote target behavior among neighbors has more behavioral influence than just the expression of commitment by itself. Encouraging customers to commit to a more specific goal is more effective than more general goals to conserve energy.
  • Aligning consequences to behavior is critical. For example, having customers pay for trash pickup based on the amount of trash they produce is more effective than impassioned pleas to reduce trash.
  • While publishing typical customer behaviors can generate peer pressure, it is a double edged sword. It can encourage people who are already doing both better and worse than average regress to the norm. Publishing exemplary behavior is an alternative to publishing average behavior.

This is a topic we’ll continue to explore as we progress in our work with utilities on the design of more influential programs and experiences.

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3 responses to “Behavioral Engineering and the Design of Influential Experiences: Example – Influencing Sustainable Behavior

  1. Frank,

    I think there is an important factor in the attitude-behavior link that you didn’t address is this interesting post. I would contend that the “general rule” is that attitudes do in fact tend to lead to behaviors unless there is an exceptional condition present. You mentioned some, such as perceived (or real) barriers. Another obvious one is addictive behaviors, where a person keeps doing something they attitudinally do not want to do.

    But another type is when the domain has strong social approval overtones, a.k.a. peer pressure. We claim a positive attitude toward things that we feel others see as important, but we may have no intention of acting on these attitudes. Environmentalism is a classic example. The reason behaviors don’t [yet] follow attitudes is the emotional benefit of the positive attitude is far stronger than the perceived benefits of actually living in an environmentally responsible way.

    But in most typical commercial situations this is not the case, and “attitudes drive behavior” is a very reliable hypothesis for business to use to influence what customers actually do.

  2. We claim a positive attitude toward things that we feel others see as important, but we may have no intention of acting on these attitudes. Environmentalism is a classic example. The reason behaviors don’t [yet] follow attitudes is the emotional benefit of the positive attitude is far stronger than the perceived benefits of actually living in an environmentally responsible way.

    bmw – rules

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  3. Absolutely. Your findings are consistent with basic principles of cognitive- behavioral psychology, ie, thoughts influence feelings influence behaviors influence thoughts in a never ending loop. One can induce change either at the thoughts or behavior levels.

    You may also be interested in following the thread of discussion at:

    http://lamarguerite.wordpress.com/2008/07/13/shaping-normative-behaviors-is-key-to-climate-strategies/

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