Focus on “how” not “why” to change behaviour

Like most big cities, Oslo has an emissions problem. With a rapidly increasing population, the local council in the Norwegian capital therefore decided to take a big step to reduce its carbon footprint – they decided to ban cars. It didn’t go well.

Businesses complained customers would go elsewhere, and residents resented their right to drive being infringed upon.

So the council changed tack. No longer would they ban cars, now they would ban car parks.

To change behaviour, change the context

As we all know, driving a car to your destination has certain advantages over other forms of commuting, like cycling or catching public transport. Chief among them, you can work to your own timetable and avoid interaction with strangers.  So how can a government wean people off their cars without inciting mutiny?

Ban car parks. In a bold first move, Oslo council restricted the number of available car parks in the city, severely reducing the attractiveness of driving. After all, what good is your car if you can’t park it? And second, they invested in better public transport and bike paths, making the alternatives to driving much more attractive.

What captured my attention about the approach in Oslo is how they bypassed convincing people to change, and headed straight for changing the behavioural context. In other words, they focused less on the “why” of change and more on the “how”.

Four behaviour change strategies

There are four ways you can approach behaviour change — two “why’s” and two “how’s”. You can:

  1. Increase someone’s motivation to change (a “why” strategy);
  2. Decrease their motivation to stay the same (”why”);
  3. Make it easy to change (“how”);
  4. Make it difficult to stay the same (“how”)

Increase motivation to change

Motivation is someone’s desire to change. This is an attitudinal state that comes from their feelings about what you are suggesting. If you want them to change their behaviour, you can increase their motivation to change or decrease their motivation to stay the same.

To increase motivation, you would point out the advantages of the change, such as lower emissions, a better environment and being able to relax while on public transport. You are bargaining on the rationale and persuading them to act differently.

Decrease motivation to stay the same

Decreasing motivation to stay the same means pointing out the disadvantages of sticking with the status quo, for example the cost of owning and operating a car. Your task is to hone in on the downsides of what they do currently.

While stimulating motivation can ignite the need to change in some people, just because someone is charged up about the change one day doesn’t mean they will be in a week’s time (New Year’s resolutions are testament to that). As Stanford University’s BJ Fogg has stated, motivation is not stable. That means we can burn a lot of energy and resources trying to get people motivated to change, only to see their motivation fall away as soon our efforts are withdrawn.

Make it easy to change

Thankfully we don’t need to rely on motivation. Instead we can focus on someone’s capacity to act – their ability. This is about what they actually do rather than how they feel about it.

In this case, by making it easier to commute by public transport or bike, people will be more inclined to do so.

Make it difficult to stay the same

The fourth strategy is the genius of the Oslo car park ban plan. By taking away the utility of driving – i.e. being able to park your car – they have made the option to stay the same unpalatable. It’s difficult to keep doing what you’ve always done if that no longer provides any benefit.

The lesson from Oslo is sometimes you have to be a little more lateral in your attempts to influence behaviour.

  • Want people to stop smoking? Restrict where smoking is permitted.
  • Want customers to switch banks? Set up their direct debits for them.
  • Want to check your phone less often? Put it on a sound dock out of arm’s reach.
  • Want customers to renew? Pre-populate their forms.

It may feel natural to try to motivate with rationale, but as Oslo council are proving, focusing on how you can adjust the behavioural context may be much more effective.

Read more: To influence behaviour change, find the angles

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4 years ago

the strategy otherwise known as the ‘we know what’s best for you peasants’ and we will never attempt to motivate with rationale because you silly peasants have given us absolute power and we have no need to justify our actions.

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