Two Divergent Models of Behavior Change

… what do you mean two divergent models of behavior change?

  1. Conscious Behavior Change

The most common paradigm for behavior change is conscious behavior change: set a goal, change behavior to achieve the goal. It’s simple to contemplate, simple to actualize, and while at times difficult to pull off, it’s not that hard to make happen. For an example, my friend Jose wanted to lose weight. He made a plan, quantified his energy expenditure, and ate 400-600 kcal fewer every day, and after several months was a lean, mean, biking machine. It was a lot of work, but not that hard to understand and at any moment, you could see his scale, chart of food energy contents, and ask him what was going on.

In the energy space, things are a lot fuzzier. Marty McFly put it pretty well when he asked Doc “What the hell’s a Gigawatt?” Even people who eat sleep live and breathe in the energy space have a hard time understanding electrical energy, it’s pretty hard to understand in the same way as understanding tangible things like money, or even fuel economy of a car—it’s easy to visualize a gallon of gasoline and think about going 30 miles.

Most of the systems to encourage people to use electrical energy and fuel more efficiently fall under the conscious paradigm. Set some sort of a goal, either explicit (cut my electric bill by 20% this month) or implicit (I want to be under the neighborhood average and get a smiley face on my OPOWER designed monthly statement). Grounded Power, Rob Faludi’s company (recently acquired by Tendril), uses an explicit model of behavior change, where users make conscious decisions about their goals and work towards achieving those goals, supported by persuasive technologies.

  1. Unconscious Behavior Change

Unconscious (stealth) behavior change can come in many guises. The design of environments can substantially influence their inhabitants, a great example of which is the redesign of lunchrooms to shape the buying and eating habits of students:

While it is a little insidious to put impulse buys in the path of shoppers, there’s plenty of good to be done with design of spaces, and with information displays.

Jon Froehlich‘s research at the University of Washington explores the use of ambient information displays to change behavior, specifically with UbiFit and UbiGreen. This approach can slowly change and ideally maintain the change in people’s behavior, and more importantly, may not require buy-in.

Thought must be expended on the ethics of unconscious behavior change—designing persuasive technology to influence people in ways that are not conducive to their welfare is pretty low, but it is not always obvious what is truly white hat versus black hat. MoPY (HP’s fish screensaver which makes you print more) is pretty obviously evil, and the sticker on the light switch to cut unnecessary electricity use is pretty plainly altruistic.

Overcoming conscious resistance to behavior change, provided that the behavior change is for the good, is a serious consideration, and argument for ‘stealth’ persuasive techniques. Conscious behavior change paradigms will not motivate people actively opposed—a staunch climate change denier like Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) is unlikely to be swayed by appeals for the environment. It may be possible for unconscious behavior change efforts to sway the actively opposed, circumventing conscious thought about the larger issue at hand. And persuasive techniques can maintain their efficacy even when it is known they are being used: Brian Wansink’s research has shown that using smaller plates reduces portion sizes even when the effect is known. The ‘foot in the door’ effect (see Freedman, J.L. & Fraser, S.C., 1966) may make it easier to subsequently change the beliefs of opponents, once their behavior has been changed: to maintain congruence between behavior and beliefs, their beliefs may have to change.

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive. Conscious behavior change can be supported by unconscious techniques, such as ambient information presentations and engineering the environment to support or promote change.


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