Creating Change in the World


Have you ever cried watching a movie? Or have you listened to a song that brought tears to your eyes because the lyrics are so powerful? I bet many of us have. But did this trigger any action on your end? Most likely not.

No matter if you witnessed an emotional narrative about an octopus displaying human characteristics as in the amazing film My Octopus Teacher or a story about HIV/AIDS as in Philadelphia, chances are the piece created a strong set of feelings but did not provide options for you to translate these feelings into action. Remember: the brain is minimizing friction. Going online and researching ways to protect octopi after the movie? This takes effort and it’s much easier to say, “the show is over, goodbye.” As such, and as trivial it sounds, after motivating through emotional storytelling we need to provide suggestions and options to make the desired action clear.

Now, assume we have someone hooked, they are ready to go, they want to change the world… and we give them 50 things they can or should do. Flatline. This is not exclusive to hard choices ensuring a future for humanity, it can be witnessed every day.

Imagine: A long day, you come home and want to relax a little. Time for some Netflix. You search, read the description, switch to another movie, repeat. All of a sudden you realize you’ve wasted 30 minutes and watching a movie would put you past your desired bedtime. Choice paralysis. In To Sell is Human, Daniel Pink explains this phenomenon utilizing research from actual sales situations. People go to places with a massive array of choices but they actually buy from places with a small curated selection. No wonder then that Netflix is spending so many resources on its recommendation engine which the company claims saves US$1 Billion a year. The same applies here: we need to help frame peoples’ choices by providing a smaller but compelling range of options. Far too often we point to the huge challenges when really the focus should be on the low-hanging fruit. Far too often we point to the huge challenges when really the focus should be on the low-hanging fruit. Don’t think there are low-hanging fruits? Think again, a shift in diet away from meat holds tremendous potential to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

In the US, the worst 5 percent of energy producers account for almost 75 percent of the sector’s emissions as per Wired. I am not saying these should be the areas to highlight, I’d like to leave that question to the scientists, but there are areas with massive potential impact.

Next, we need to phrase the choice or ask in the right way. One of my favorite parts in Influence showcases how messaging itself can go terribly wrong. For example, a state park informing visitors that there is rampant theft occurring and the visitors should, therefore, not steal led to an increase in theft. Why? Because the message is implying that everyone else does it, making it acceptable in a social context. Another great example is provided by Jonah Berger in Contagious where he shows how anti-drug and smoking campaigns failed miserably by implying that “all the cool kids do it”, no wonder then that the “just say no” campaign was a failure while the phrase itself became a pop-culture joke.

How about adding a level of uncertainty? Consider United’s COVID vaccination incentive: A chance to fly first class for free for one year plus 30 pairs of round-trip tickets. Why is this so powerful? When providing a fixed monetary reward for an action, for example, US$100 to get the COVID shot, you are certain of the outcome and you can calculate if it’s “worth it”. “Is it worth my time? Is it worth my effort? But my schedule is so tight!” You know the drill. Despite the probability adjusted value being significantly lower for a lottery, the approach is significantly more enticing. Where is the value coming from? Your imagination! I have caught myself numerous times daydreaming after making a low-probability high-upside decision imagining all the great things that would come out of this. Purely irrational yet entirely human. So why the additional round-trip tickets? To ensure that there are ongoing winners. It signals that winning is possible.

But will taking one action change the world? Most likely not. What we need is long-term behavior change which requires habit formation. Anyone trying to adopt a good habit, eating healthy, going to the gym, or shaking a bad habit like quitting smoking or drinking, knows how hard this is.

Take weight loss, for example. It’s a long process, riddled with traps such as natural daily, weekly, and monthly weight fluctuations. No wonder so many people quit trying. Moreover, is it enough to reach the dream weight? No, it needs to be maintained. Forming positive habits to create a positive impact on a global scale is similar and is entirely possible. Granted, it took one of the world’s most influential psychologists, Dan Ariely, to build a scale that is proven to create healthy habits and long-term weight loss. And it is not just the scale itself, it is a whole ecosystem of challenges, badges, color psychology, and social sharing that supports the user’s journey. The exact same principles are applied in Duolingo, an app promising its users an achievable way to learn new languages, another task too daunting for most. In Nudge, Richard Thaler explains the importance of fun and the need for nudges to feel like choices, not mandates. Some of these approaches feel like building a game and that is fully intentional. The options should be achievable and provide wins. People need to feel successful. This will further benefit long-term motivation as wins here will enable us to keep pushing. Gamification experts, such as Yu-Kai Chou with his Octalysis, provide excellent frameworks that could be put into practice here. Or put differently: would you continue to play a game when you never win a battle, find treasure, or experience any other kind of win? Didn’t think so.

In Hooked, Nir Eyal provides an excellent framework to summarize the habit formation process.
Trigger: Prompt the consumer to do something. This trigger should be external, bringing the consumer into the habit formation process.
Action: Incentivize an action. The action should be simple and delightful.
Variable Reward: Something useful or entertaining. The reward needs to be variable to avoid the consumer anticipating the reward and losing interest.

Investment: Ask for a personal contribution. A small little trick as we value things we worked on more than they are actually worth. The IKEA effect.

A lot of what has been discussed can be summarized in this process although I do believe that the nuances are important. Approaching the audience correctly in order to avoid a large share of the population dismissing the message is required for an unprecedented challenge such as fighting climate change. In addition, the effort required is large. This necessitates an emotional connection to the topic. Effective storytelling is key here. Lastly, it is important to structure the actions correctly and avoid mistakes as highlighted in the state park example.

That said, the framework is genius, not the least due to its simplicity and applicability. The intent is to start with an external trigger to stimulate actions that create internal triggers. Ultimately, the target does not even have to think about the actions, very much in line with the autopilot default of our brain.

One area that stands out to me is the investment part as the effect can be amplified. As stated by Robert Cialdini, humans like to be consistent. This is true in terms of being consistent with oneself and with other people. This is also why in real life our actions change our beliefs which is the opposite of the conventional wisdom we hear so often. Once we’ve taken an action and made a commitment, we are much more likely to follow through. This holds true even if we don’t tell anyone else. However, the pressure increases exponentially once we make this commitment public. This is exactly the reason why so many health apps encourage sharing: Once your commitment is out everyone can see it, ergo everyone will see you being inconsistent for not seeing it through. Nir Eyal explains that neurologically speaking everything we do is about escaping discomfort and public shame is highly uncomfortable. A secondary effect is that of signaling. The more people take an action, and share it, the higher the social pressure and social proof. Similar mechanics can be leveraged to increase the ask. An initial action lays the foundation for more effort to follow which is supported by the social context of one’s group. This is tribalism, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful concepts to leverage behavior change.

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