Joining the dots to change behaviour

Joining the dots to change behaviour

The 1880s were a time of change in Europe, with industrial and scientific breakthroughs set against a declining interest in Impressionism.

Steeled by the rejection of his latest painting by the Paris Salon, Georges Seurat turned to a community of likeminded artists in the Groupe des Artistes Independants, a collective seeking the advancement of modern art. And a new form of art was born.

After two years of work, in 1886 and aged 27, Seurat’s acclaimed A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte heralded the creation of a new style of painting. Pointillism, paintings comprised of hundreds of tiny colourful dots, fused art with the new scientific study of colour. Tricking the eye, Seurat’s paintings from a distance look smooth and regular, but up close you see the individual spots of perfectly orchestrated paint.

And so it is with behaviour change. What we see from a distance belies the nuance underneath.

The task of changing behaviour

When it comes to behavioural influence and behavioural change, we tend often to look at what we want the result to be. For an underperforming website, for instance, we want it to convert more. For a retailer, we want people to buy more. For a health professional, we want our client to live better.

And that is part of the story. I call it the ‘desired behaviour’ – you need to know what it is you want people to do.

The other part of the story is what people are doing now. I call this the ‘current behaviour’. For instance, visitors are clicking into your website but dropping off at the checkout page, customers are coming into your shop but leaving without buying anything, or your client is not doing any formal exercise and is eating take-away every second night.

Our goal in business – whatever business or role we are in – is to get people to move from their current to our desired behaviour. From point A to point B.

The trick is that it’s not as simple as asking them to do it – there are unseen subconscious barriers that get in the way.

A model for behaviour change

Seurat’s work is a great metaphor for behaviour change. While from a distance we can see the ‘big picture’, up close the architecture of the change is comprised of tiny little behaviours. These ‘micro-moments’, as I call them, are all the small opportunities and hurdles you need to work with in order to make behaviour change happen. Without the small dots, there is no painting. Without the micro-moments, there is no behaviour change.

For instance, to change the conversion on a website, we need to overcome micro-moments of anxiety about who you are, whether they are on the site they intended, how you can help them, where they should click first, what happens if they click and so on.

For customers in your shop, it’s about whether they will get ‘sold to’, whether their choices will be scutinised by you, who else is watching, whether they can find the item cheaper elsewhere, whether this item is what they actually want, etc.

And for health clients, it’s about micro-moments when they are in the supermarket deciding what to put into their basket, whether to open the pantry when they are bored, choosing the escalator over the stairs, and feeling intimidated when they walk in the gym for a tour.


To tease out what your dots should be it might help to conceptualise the challenge using my Behaviour Change Model – I use it to methodically de-layer the change and work on influencing all those tiny micro-moments.

So when it next comes to working out how you can best influence someone’s behaviour, start by thinking about the big picture, but remember it is the dots that will ultimately get you there.

For more, revisit this post on the Behaviour Change Model and this piece on micro-moments.

P.S. Many of Seurat’s works are available to view at

Bri Williams runs People Patterns, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues.

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