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Behavioral Science

Do the right thing: 3 ways to nudge people toward better behavior


MIT Sloan research scientist Erez Yoeli focuses on altruism. In a recent TEDxCambridge talk, he revealed three ways to motivate people to act for the greater good — whether that means conserving energy, donating money, or simply washing your coffee mug at work.

Increase observability

It’s human nature to want positive recognition. It’s why charities publish donor lists, for instance.

With this in mind, Yoeli recently collaborated with a power company to reduce energy demand during peak times and avoid blackouts. The challenge: It needed people to enroll in its conservation programs. The company started by sending out a letter asking customers to sign up via a hotline. The effort fell flat.

So it switched to sign-up sheets posted near mailboxes in customers’ buildings, with full visibility. Anyone walking by could see who had joined. Interest spiked.

“Whether we’re aware of it or not, [observability] is a big part of why people do good,” Yoeli said. “We try to be seen as generous and kind, and avoid being seen as selfish or a mooch.”

Likewise, visibility is why Toyota designed its energy-efficient Prius to look unlike other cars on the road. Get behind the wheel, and you’re instantly perceived as energy-minded.

“The good deed is observable by a mile away,” Yoeli said.

Eliminate excuses

Think about charity bell-ringers stationed outside stores during the holidays. It’s tempting to avoid them by looking at your phone or entering through a different door, isn’t it?

Yoeli pointed to a study conducted in San Diego, where researchers partnered with the Salvation Army to increase charity donations. They stationed volunteers at what they thought was every door, not just one — until they noticed that people stopped coming out of the supermarket at all. Where was everyone? They had snuck out through a small utility door to avoid the bell-ringers.

“This teaches us an important lesson: When trying to eliminate excuses, we need to be very thorough, because people are really creative in making them,” he said.

In other words, it’s important to check every metaphorical door.

Yoeli took that lesson to heart when collaborating with a mobile health startup in Africa to encourage treatment for tuberculosis. The lethal disease is curable with daily doses of potent antibiotics. But inaccessible clinics, stigma, and severe medication side effects keep people away.  

To prevent patients from making excuses for stopping treatment, the startup texted people every day with a medication reminder. Then it asked patients to log on to a platform to verify their dose. If they didn’t log on, they received another text. After three tries, a support team would call and text with further reminders.

Those patients without the accountability platform were three times more likely to cease treatment than those with support.

Communicate expectations

Think about subways in London and Washington. People stand on the right side of the escalator to allow those on the left to pass. The proper behavioral expectation is easily seen — hogging space on the left side is socially inappropriate.

Companies can mimic that subway effect by clearly communicating expectations.

Yoeli referenced a power company that sends customers an insert comparing their energy consumption with that of people in similarly sized homes. “When people find out that their neighbors are using less electricity, they start to consume less. The approach has been used to get people to vote, or give to charity, or even reuse their towels at hotels,” he said.

Best of all, Yoeli said, it’s simple for companies to implement these three techniques. “These tools don’t require that you raise additional funds or develop fancy technology. They just require harnessing reputations,” he said.

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