As individuals we sometimes feel that there is very little that we can do in the face of big global challenges such as pandemics, financial crises or climate change. But if we dig deeper into what’s causing those problems we often find that the way we live is an important contributing factor.
This means that if large numbers of people started behaving differently, many small changes can have truly big effects (such as the introduction of hand-washing in the late 1900s as a “do-it-yourself” vaccine). The necessity for lifestyle changes doesn’t exonerate institutional actors, including governments, corporations or non-profits. They have an important role to play in providing nudges that entice us to make better choices benefiting our health, environment and finances.
Behavioural change is tough. Information, motivation and ability need to come together to make it happen, and to keep it up requires removing many of the obstacles that make us fall back into old patterns – customs, convenience, the desire for instant gratification to only name a few. In recent years, scientists, advertisers and designers have come up with innovative ways to make changes easier and fun.
Gamification is one approach that has proven to be successful in a variety of contexts. Wearing a seatbelt is known to reduce serious injuries and deaths by about half, yet 55% of teens (aged 13-20 years) that died in car accidents in the US in 2012 weren’t wearing their seatbelt at the time of the crash. Play belt, an idea by Nevana Stojanovic from Serbia, is a safety belt that only turns on the in-car entertainment system when the belt is in use. It works because it addresses the underlying cause of our dangerous inaction – motivation, not a lack of information or ability.
In the future, many of us will have instant information about our own behaviour at our fingertips. Wearable technologies will provide feedback on our sleep patterns, physical activity, eating habits and much more. But will it change our behaviour? Not necessarily. However, in combination with approaches that allow for peer comparison and support, the results change dramatically.
One example from the energy sector was developed by Opower, a software company in the utility sector. Its report includes a grade that assesses energy consumption in relation to others in the neighbourhood. Two smiley faces are given if the household used less than 80% of its neighbour’s consumption: one if consumption was lower than 50%; none if usage was higher than most neighbours. As soon as customers received their first reports and saw the smiley face box, they began increasing their energy efficiency. This approach combines a number of aspects – it speaks to our perception of our ability, gives us actionable information and triggers our competitive spirit. If our neighbours can save energy, we can too.
Lastly, when it comes to making financial decisions we humans too often rely on our gut and immediate impulses instead of analytically considering our longer-term needs. Human-centred design approaches don’t work with how we should make decisions in an idealized world, but are grounded in our “imperfect” reality. Piggymojo, for example, allows individuals to link up with their significant other or another partner and work together towards a savings goal. Instead of impulse buys, Piggymojo records “impulse saves” (deciding not to buy that cup of coffee, for example), which are shared with the savings partner, and tracked by the service towards your goal.
Another approach are prize-linked savings (PLS) programmes like the one piloted by D2D and credit unions in Nebraska and Michigan. PLS programmes use a lottery model, making saving fun by offering relatively frequent, small prizes, such as gift cards. Tangible, immediate rewards add a salient want component to an otherwise purely should choice, coupling the immediate loss of cash with immediate consumption.
These examples are only small illustrations of how each one of us can influence how we as individuals can become more resilient by making choices that improve our health, protect our environment and build a financial safety net, and how simple approaches can make that more fun and sustainable.
What’s the change that you want to be?
Author: Claudia Juech, Associate Vice President, Strategic Research, The Rockefeller Foundation.
Image: A Palestinian jumps inside a swimming pool at al-Nour resort in Gaza City June 12, 2013. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem