How a Wi-Fi password changed behaviour

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Mauricio Estrella was staring at the prompt on his computer that requested he change his password. Recently divorced, depressed and late for a meeting, Estrella decided in that moment to change his life.

He typed Forgive@h3r.

As he recalls in his TEDx talk, typing the password multiple times a day for 30 days meant it became an affirmation, of which the “healing effect was incredible”.

“If you do something everyday, consistently”, said Estrella, “it has the potential to become a habit”.

Indeed, and there are two important words here:

  • If you do something. The action of typing helped shift the affirmation from a thought bubble to an embodied cognition. The mind and the body were connected in the forgiveness objective. Typing a password forces system two to get active as we spell out the characters and mentally rehearse what they mean, stepping out of rote and forcing us to pay attention to what we are doing; and
  • If you do something consistently. Typing the password over and over everyday was key to making it stick. Typing it only occasionally would not give neural pathways a chance to form. The password was a clever commitment device, forcing Estrella to repeat the behaviour because he couldn’t access his files without typing the magic words.

It didn’t just stop with forgiveness for Estrella; realising he was on to a good thing, he used the monthly change in his password to take more photos, keep in touch with family, save for a holiday, stop drinking and quit smoking. The small act of changing his password changed his life.

Hotel Wi-Fi behaviour hack

Estrella came to mind when I was accessing Wi-Fi at a Brisbane hotel recently. Instead of the usual string of hotel name and year, they did something much smarter. The password was “Bookdirect&Save”.

Source: Supplied

While it is unlikely their customers will stay long enough to form a habit, the hotel has at least increased awareness of the benefits of booking direct. Every time I typed the password, I was primed to book direct and save money.

Don’t overlook tiny tweaks

This is what I love about behavioural economics. It’s the small tweaks — the tiny opportunities — that can make a difference to you and your business.

For example, choosing to use a noun rather than a verb can affect what your customers do.

Thirteen percent more people turned out to vote in US elections, for instance, when they were asked the day prior “how important is it for you to be a voter?” rather than “how important is it for you to vote?”

Why? Nouns like ‘voter’ tap into personal identity, and we don’t like acting against how we see ourselves. Verbs like ‘vote’ give us greater psychological distance and more scope to rationalise not doing it. Trying to exercise more? Call yourself a ‘runner’ rather than ‘someone who runs’!

A behavioural insights team in the New South Wales government recently tested different words in the hope of encouraging more people to pay overdue fines. A prominent “pay now” stamp rather than “act now”, together with “you owe” rather than “amount owed” increased debt recovery by $1 million.

Tweaks can even be applied to meeting rooms. Researchers at Swinburne Institute of Technology are researching whether people are more creative in a room called ‘innovation lab’ than ‘meeting room’ or  ‘storeroom’.

There are also small tweaks you can use in emails. Reframing “don’t hesitate”, “no problem” and “don’t worry” as “happy to help”, “feel free” and “we’ll take care of that” will improve the odds your message will be favourably received.

NOW READ: Secret behavioural techniques to reduce shopper theft


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