‘Skin in the game’: Why influencing behaviour is about balancing tension and effort

Bri Williams /

When I was learning to drive a manual car, my father kept telling me to find the balance point: this seemingly mythical sweet spot where the car had enough acceleration and clutch to move without stalling.

I tried and tried, thinking if I moved my right foot from brake to accelerator fast enough I’d strike the balance. No luck.

Finally, my father told me to forget all about the accelerator, and just let the clutch out enough to shift the car. As if by magic I was able to get the car moving, adding in the accelerator once I’d begun. Yes, there was a sweet spot, but I’d only been able to find it by concentrating on one component at a time.

Cars are one thing, but what does this tell us about how to get people out of neutral?

In my experience, there are two elements you need to get right in order to affect change in behaviour: tension and effort. People won’t respond if you have too much or too little of either, so how do find this behavioural sweet spot?


Let’s look at tension first. Tension is the anxiety people feel about what you are suggesting. If there is too much, they’ll avoid doing what you want. If there’s too little, they’ll be too bored to bother. The sweet spot is enough tension to feel that change is required but not overawed by what is being asked.

Imagine a ride at an amusement park, for instance. If the ride is slow without any bumps or unexpected turns, you’ll get bored. Too many bumps or unexpected drops and you’ll be too terrified to buy a ticket.

In a work context, a proposal document that simply regurgitates known information will bore the prospective client. If it’s too heavy handed on the problem statement without any credible plan to resolve the issues, the client will be too nervous to proceed.


The second element is effort. If there is too much effort people feel over-committed, like they have to do or spend more than they want, so they won’t proceed. If there is no effort required at all they will be under-committed, taking no ownership and therefore not proceeding either. The sweet spot is when they feel they have enough skin in the game to care.

Shopping centres realised shoppers were under committed to returning their trolleys — many couldn’t be bothered. The solution? Requiring we deposit $1 in the lock mechanism, so now we diligently return our trolleys because there is something personally at stake.

In a work context, offering free tickets to a seminar can seem like a good idea until half your audience doesn’t bother to turn up. They are under-committed. Coursera online course completion increased from 10% to 60%, for example, when they started to charge students. Asking people to pay up front for a workshop they know very little about, however, is an over-commitment, and when you push too hard, potential customers decline.

Finding the B-spot with the ‘behavioural bowtie’

By combining these two dynamics — effort and tension — you get what I call the ‘behavioural bowtie’. Use it as a reminder that behavioural influence is a balancing act: a search for the b-spot. Without sufficient tension you won’t break people out of status quo, and without sufficient effort, people won’t feel any stake in the change you are seeking.

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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is Australia's foremost authority on behavioural economics applied to everyday business and personal effectiveness. Author, speaker and leading consultant, Bri can make your life easier through behavioural science. More at www.briwilliams.com.au.