For years (and years and years), physicians treated stomach ulcers by telling their patients to avoid spicy foods and stressful situations. The result? People with ulcers were transformed into people with bland diets, boring lives, and ulcers.
It was later discovered that the conventional wisdom about the cause of ulcers was simply hogwash. Australian researchers Barry Marshall and Robin Warren turned the gastrointestinal world upside down when they proved that most ulcers were caused by a bacterial infection. Once the scientists got to the real source of the problem, a far more effective intervention was obvious: the use of antibiotics to eradicate the Heliobacter pylori bug.
In the case of ulcers, a treatment revolution occurred after someone corrected a false assumption about the cause of the problem. We’re undergoing a similar revolution when it comes to behavioral change, and here’s why.
When we see other people acting in ways that don’t make a lot of sense, our knee-jerk reaction is to try to change their minds—to convince them to do something differently. Implicitly or explicitly, we assume that the cause of poor behavior is a lack of information, inadequate incentives, or sloppy decision-making. Understandably, we work on persuading them to do the right thing.
It rarely works. We argue until we’re blue in the face, but our colleagues or loved ones stick to their bad habits. They interrupt people in meetings or don't finish their work on time. Or they eat and drink too much, avoid exercise and save too little money, and sleep and rest far too inconsistently. (And so do we.)
Take the case of saving for retirement: It’s obviously good for us, but without some help few of us save as much as we need. In 2001, the researcher David Laibson and his colleagues reported on a company that was offering educational seminars on its 401(k) program and found that some of the employees attending weren’t participating in the savings program at all; others were enrolled but weren’t saving as much as they could.
On the face of it, these educational sessions were highly persuasive. After attending the meetings, 100% of the employees who weren’t participating in the program said they planned to join—but fewer than one in seven of them actually followed through. (Laibson found a similar pattern of good intentions staying dormant among the 401(k) participants who, after attending the seminar, planned to adjust their contributions—very few of whom actually did so.)
Just as dietary changes and stress reduction didn’t get at the root cause of ulcers, persuasion fizzles as an approach to behavioral change because it’s barking up the wrong tree, cognitively speaking.
Our brains process about 10 million bits of information per second, a throughput that’s roughly equivalent to the original ethernet cable. But the conscious part of our brains (the deliberate decision-making mind) runs at a paltry 50 bits per second. In other words, our brains are—for the most part—wired for inattention and inertia rather than careful, deliberate choice.
The emerging science tells us that what’s at the core of behavioral hiccups is not poor intentions. Instead, it’s good intentions that sit dormant. A better way to improve behaviors, then, is to activate the good intentions that most people already have.
One of the most powerful strategies for doing just that is to change the default. In the case of personal retirement savings, this strategy had jaw-dropping effects. At the company Laibson studied, by automatically enrolling employees into the 401(k) program, participation rates jumped from roughly 35% to 90%, with high levels of employee acceptance.
But moving the baseline, as it were—taking the burden of opting in on a positive behavior off of people's shoulders—is just one approach. There are a number of other effective strategies for activating our good intentions, and putting these tools to work isn't rocket scientist. The common thread they share, though, is that they re-engineer the environment so that peoples’ natural inclinations lead them to engage in better behaviors.
For example, if you feel your employees are too sedentary, instead of plastering the break room with posters extolling the importance of getting up and moving around, change the environment: Remove all the chairs from your meeting spaces. More people will stand because they have to—and chances are that those meetings will move along at a more efficient clip.
So the next time you take a shot at trying to change someone's behavior, stop before you begin outlining a persuasive argument. It'll probably fall on deaf ears (or on good intentions, which will likely lead nowhere). Give the cajoling a rest. Instead, reshape the environment to make the desired behavior as natural and effortless as possible.
Bob Nease is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.