What Works to Change Behavior

As tempting as it may be to use the same playbook for every campaign, experienced communications professionals understand that every campaign is unique. With that said, that doesn’t mean we aren’t always looking for those best practices that can, in general, carry over from campaign to campaign.

Applying the “nudges” or “boosts” from behavioral science is the same.

If you’ve followed my previous posts, you have likely heard me say that, while we all want those rules of thumb to make our jobs easier, context matters. But again, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t always looking for those best practices that can, in general, carry over from campaign to campaign.

That’s why I was excited to read the latest study from Stephanie Mertens and her colleagues in the latest edition of PNAS (special thanks to Tamar Schultz for bringing this to my attention). They conducted a meta-analysis of over 200 behavioral science studies to see what we could learn about what is working or not – in general. 

They looked at different techniques within three key categories of behavior change: 1) changing the information your audience sees (e.g., changing the message), 2) structuring the decisions of the audience (e.g., default settings, order of choices), and 3) giving your audience some assistance as they make their decisions (e.g., salient reminders, opportunities to commit in advance).

7A What works to change behavior, coworkers collaborating

Here are several findings that you may find interesting:

  • Structuring the decisions in front of your audience was the most effective category of behavior change. As you think about your audience, what can you do to change their default setting (think: opt-in vs. opt-out)? Similarly, are you giving too many choices to your audience, and in what order are the choices being put in front of them? How can you minimize the effort required to complete the task?
  • As you think about changing your message strategy, consider the following: the best technique was to point out the positive thing that others are doing that you want your audience to do (social proof). Second was to make the most relevant information more salient to your audience — or as we often say in communications, “don’t bury the lede!”
  • People appear to be highly susceptible to nudges that influence their decisions about what to eat or drink. They also appear to be willing to change their behaviors around what they do for the environment or other pro-social behaviors. Unfortunately for my financial services friends, they are the least likely to have their financial decisions nudged (that’s not to say it doesn’t work there, just that this category had the lowest effect size of all of the domains).

And, if you are looking for one thing, changing the default setting was the most effective overall technique for change.

Let’s talk about the challenges your organization is facing and how we can apply these lessons to make your campaigns more effective.

Team Members

James Baril_2
James Baril


Mike Marker_2
Michael Marker

Managing Director

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