Social marketers should always be on the lookout for new ideas about changing behaviors. This is the reason I spend time talking about different theories and models of behavior change. In workshops that I facilitate, I use this slide to illustrate some of the main ideas from some usual, and not so typical, theories that I find are employed by many social change agents.

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These ideas guide how we think about a puzzle, seek to understand it and then solve it. What dramatically illustrates the power of a theory, and its drawbacks, is to break the workshop (or class) into five smaller groups. All of the groups are given the same behavior change challenge and asked to come up with one or more priority groups to focus on, what research questions they would want to ask of them to learn more about the problem, and what potential solutions can they quickly generate (brainstorm). But each group must use only the 5-6 concepts for the theory they are assigned. After just 15-20 minutes of working up an approach, the divergence among the five groups in who they select for a priority group, the types of research questions they would pose, and the elements of their proposed interventions makes a strong experience of  ‘what we know is what we see.’ For example, if all you know is Stages of Change, then every puzzle you confront boils down to classifying and moving people from Precontemplators to Contemplators to Actors. Unfortunately, as many of you have no doubt discovered, all of the health and social puzzles we tackle rarely conform to one theoretical model. A primary source of failure of interventions is the use of the wrong theory to understand and address the puzzle.

Behavioral economics is one domain that has captured the interest of policy-makers and social marketers alike. It has some unique ideas about decision-making (mostly that they aren’t completely ‘rational’ and cognitive biases cloud many of our judgments), and liberally borrows from social-psychological approaches to behavior change. In truth, it is never advanced by its supporters as a’ ‘theory of change’ as much as a useful framework to think differently about designing solutions to wicked problems.

EAST - behavioural insights team

One behavioral economics framework I have discussed is MINDSPACE, and it is included in my book as one of the ways to think about wicked problems. The creators of MINDSPACE, the Behavioural Insights Team (formerly the Behavioural Insights Unit), have recently published a new report in which they admit that the nine elements were difficult for policy-makers to keep in mind when developing alternative solutions to their puzzles. So they have now boiled it down to a simpler mnemonic – EAST (Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely). You can read more about the model in EAST-Four simple ways to apply behavioral insights. But for a quick overview, here is the model as they describe it in the Executive Summary.

1. Make it Easy

  • Harness the power of defaults. We have a strong tendency to go with the default or pre-set option, since it is easy to do so. Making an option the default makes it more likely to be adopted.
  • Reduce the ‘hassle factor’ of taking up a service. The effort required to perform an action often puts people off. Reducing the effort required can increase uptake or response rates.
  • Simplify messages. Making the message clear often results in a significant increase in response rates to communications. In particular, it’s useful to identify how a complex goal can be broken down into simpler, easier actions.

2. Make it Attractive

  • Attract attention. We are more likely to do something that our attention is drawn towards. Ways of doing this include the use of images, colour or personalisation.
  • Design rewards and sanctions for maximum effect. Financial incentives are often highly effective, but alternative incentive designs — such as lotteries — also work well and often cost less.

3. Make it Social

  • Show that most people perform the desired behaviour. Describing what most people do in a particular situation encourages others to do the same. Similarly, policy makers should be wary of inadvertently reinforcing a problematic behaviour by emphasising its high prevalence.
  • Use the power of networks. We are embedded in a network of social relationships, and those we come into contact with shape our actions. Governments can foster networks to enable collective action, provide mutual support, and encourage behaviours to spread peer-to-peer.
  • Encourage people to make a commitment to others. We often use commitment devices to voluntarily ‘lock ourselves’ into doing something in advance. The social nature of these commitments is often crucial.

4. Make it Timely

  • Prompt people when they are likely to be most receptive. The same offer made at different times can have drastically different levels of success.
  • Behaviour is generally easier to change when habits are already disrupted, such as around major life events.
  • Consider the immediate costs and benefits. We are more influenced by costs and benefits that take effect immediately than those delivered later. Policy makers should consider whether the immediate costs or benefits can be adjusted (even slightly), given that they are so influential.
  • Help people plan their response to events. There is a substantial gap between intentions and actual behaviour. A proven solution is to prompt people to identify the barriers to action, and develop a specific plan to address them.

Some of these ideas may sound familiar to you. You might also note that none of these methods have direct counterparts to any of the variables in the theories I presented above. [Try this exercise: add a sixth column to the table of theories with the EAST variables listed. Now select a social problem and try to use EAST to understand it. Not so easy.] The point of EAST is that these are methods to apply after your learn about the people you intend to serve with your program and have selected the specific behavior you want to focus on with them – regardless of the theory you bring to the table. Frameworks, or heuristics, such as EAST and the 4Ps, help you make the shift from being a problem describer to a solution seeker.

For some people, EAST may seem like a good replacement for the 4Ps. Perhaps. Play with it and see how it works for you.