Myths of Behavior Change

So I was watching (another) Tedx video, this one on the myths of behavior change.

I was watching this and I thought, “maybe I need to become a social scientist.” Why? They’re speaking my language:

You will be the least successful if you let common sense guide you.

Jeni Cross is a sociology professor at Colorado State University and gives us three myths about behavior change that any social scientist knows, but evidently not every advertiser:

1. Education is not a primary motivator to behavior change
2. Changing attitudes is not generally a successful strategy, because attitudes follow behavior (not the other way around)
3. People don’t know what motivates them (asking people what motivates them is generally unsuccessful)

So watch the video for more information and examples, but I want to talk about the first quote, because I wrote about this in my book. What we think of as “common sense” is often false. Of course working hard means that you’ll be more successful. Or here, let’s use Dr. Cross’s example. Of course educating people motivates them to change behavior! If you tell them that 40% of energy consumption occurs in the home, of course they’ll seal their windows to reduce energy consumption.

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because…

Because why? One criticism I often hear about logic is that it will eventually fail, because it depends on assumptions. From my perspective, here is a good refutation of that idea. What we’ve done, by writing out what some people would assume is common sense, is identified an assumption. We assume education someone will change their behavior. But why? Why would you think that educating someone would necessarily motivate a change in their behavior? I can guess some of some reasons people might use: “Because education is good,” “Because education is empowering,” or, perhaps being somewhat circular, “Because education motivates behavior.” But does it? Would any of those syllogisms be true?

I think the biggest assumption, and the reason I would use if I were being honest, is “Because people act in their own best interest.” Is that true? Let’s try this one:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people act in their own best self-interest.

True or false? Run the tests. Test #1: Is there a connection between education and the best self-interests of people? Well, although it could help people to know about how they are wasting energy, do people really act in their own best self-interests?

If that was true, then we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we have now, alcoholism and cigarette-smoking being the first two to pop into my mind. Just last night, I ate a Dairy Queen blizzard with cookie dough and Reese’s cups. Was that really in my own best self-interests?

Okay, so if this one fails test #1, how can we fix it? Well, sometimes people act in their own best self-interest:

Consider educating people about energy consumption,
It will motivate new behavior (get them to weatherstrip their homes),
Because people sometimes act in their own best self-interest.

Okay, so now we pass test #1. But what’s going to happen when we run test #2? Must it be the case, that if sometimes people act in their own best self-interest, it will motivate new behavior? In avoiding failing the first test, we’ve just set ourselves up to fail the second (and third).

So what’s the point? Uncover your assumptions, don’t believe “common sense” arguments are sufficient, and if you want to change your behavior, figure out what the real cause and effect relationship is.

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