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Design for Behavioral Change: The Power of Consequences

How have your efforts at behavioral change been going so far? 

Behavioral change is an incredibly challenging undertaking. Despite our efforts put into motivate and influence people to act differently, it’s still difficult to reap success. Fortunately, behavioral science offers valuable insights to help us understand why this is the case. Hint: we don’t focus on consequences enough.  

Consequences as the holy grail to behavioral change 

Ok, this is a bit exaggerated, but hey, we want to intrigue you 😉. Plus, it’s not that outrageous. Our behavior is shaped by the aggregated consequences it has for us as individuals. While external factors in the environment may trigger certain behaviors, the ultimate decision to show those behaviors and continue to do so in the future lies with the individuals. More specifically, in the consequences that an individual experiences after showing that specific behavior. 

When we set out to design strategies for stimulating behavioral change within organizations, we typically employ various techniques such as sending emails and delivering presentations that explain the “WHY” or “URGENCY” for this change, displaying posters, conducting trainings, hosting Q&A sessions and initiating grand and compelling (kick-off) events. All these efforts aim to trigger the desired behaviors but typically achieve only limited success at best. We keep struggling to fully convince all individuals to adopt these new behaviors because we fail to address a crucial aspect: what are the consequences for them as individuals? 

What if you unlock the power of “Consequences”? 

Allow us to provide an example to illustrate this point. Consider a scenario where a town administrator is actively encouraging residents to separate plastics from other types of waste. They have made extensive efforts to communicate this message through the distribution of flyers, highlighting the significance of this action for creating a sustainable future. Yet, the success rate of plastic separation remains disappointingly low, with some people complying while the majority do not. The conclusion of the town official in charge of this endeavor was: that most of the people in our town don't care about a sustainable future. Remember what we said in our previous article about subjectively interpreting behavior and how you should avoid that...? 

To understand this discrepancy, the town conducted a survey and discovered that many respondents expressed a genuine desire to contribute to a more sustainable future and viewed waste separation as a commendable and straightforward option. Strange, right? Despite the intention that most people want to contribute to a sustainable future, as the survey revealed, they were not exhibiting the desired behavior. Why, you asked? 

The answer lies in the absence of direct incentives (read: positive consequences). A sustainable future, although important, seemed distant and uncertain to most individuals. The act of separating plastics held little immediate significance to them. Separating the plastics was perceived as a hassle, time-consuming, and additional disposal bins in the house. It is much easier to simply discard all waste in one bin. Consequently, the lack of instant personal benefits (positive consequences) hindered their motivation to invest time and effort into plastic separation. The clue here is that all behaviors can be yelled at with 1 or more consequences. If the sum of all consequences yelled to a negative outcome for the performer, these people would not perform the desired behavior, separating the plastics. 

The game changer: adding positive consequences to motivate the performer 

With this as additional knowledge, the town devised a new strategy. They made the pick-up of plastic waste bins free of charge, while the general waste bin collection kept its additional fees. This change immediately impacted people's wallets and suddenly, separating plastics became financially interesting, since it translated into money saved. As a result, many more residents began separating their plastics. By adding a powerful positive consequence, the scale changed from a negative to a positive outcome for people and the positive outcome started to outweigh the negative outcome. This is a clear demonstration of how linking personal consequences directly to their behavior has a profound impact on driving the desired behavior. Do Note! Money is not always a desired positive consequence for everyone and in every situation. There were still people in the town who really hated the hassle and paid a bit more! 

The moral of this story 

To inspire people to change their behaviors, we must ensure that the change is meaningful and relevant to them. Despite what you may think about certain consequences, you must figure out what the positive consequences are for the performer. It’s not about you! To achieve successful behavioral change, we must shift our approach from our perspective to those we aim to influence. And remember! You are not able to change people, but you can change the environment to provoke the desired behaviors. Knowing what positive consequences people are seeking is a powerful game-changer! 

In this article, we demonstrated the importance of considering immediate and certain consequences, rather than relying on uncertain future ones. Discover how to identify and adapt your environments to align with your desired organizational behaviors and ensure lasting and impactful change. Now that you know the “do’s” - implementing relevant positive consequences, stay tuned for our next article: The Danger of Container Concepts to avoid “don'ts.” 


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