Government and public health organizations have been tasked with the challenge of changing behaviour — getting people to not only practice social distancing and shelter in place but do it for weeks and potentially months.
While a lot of us are following recommendations so far, making sure everyone sticks with them for the long haul is a tougher ask. Some people are still or have resumed congregating in groups. Some churches, with support from their local leaders, are flouting stay-at-home orders.
Directives are not particularly effective in driving sustained behaviour change because we all like to feel as if we are in control of our choices. Why did I buy that product, use that service, or take that action? Because I wanted to. So, when others try to influence our decisions, we do not just go along, we push back against the persuasive attempt.
So, if telling people to do doesn’t work, what does? Rather than trying to persuade people, getting them to persuade themselves is often more effective. Here are three ways to do that.
1. Highlight a gap.
People strive for internal consistency. They want their attitudes and actions to line up. Highlighting misalignment encourages them to resolve the disconnect.
Health officials in Thailand used this approach in anti-smoking campaign. Rather than telling smokers their habit was bad, they had little kids come up to smokers on the street and ask them for a light. Not surprisingly, the smokers told the kids no. Many even lectured the little boys and girls about the dangers of smoking. But before turning to walk away, the kids handed the smokers a note that said, “You worry about me … But why not about yourself?” At the bottom was a toll-free number of smokers could call to get help. Calls to that line jumped more than 60% during the campaign.
2. Pose questions.
Another way to allow for agency is to ask questions rather than make statements. Public health messaging tries to be direct: “Junk food makes you fat.” “Drunk driving is murder.” “Keep sheltering in place.” But being so forceful can make people feel threatened. The same content can be phrased in terms of a question: “Do you think junk food is good for you?” If someone has answer is no, they are now in a tough spot. By encouraging them to articulate their opinion, they have had to put a stake in the ground — to admit that those things are not good for them. And once they have done that, it becomes harder to keep justify the bad behaviours.
3. Ask for less.
The third approach is to reduce the size of the ask.
A doctor was dealing with an obese trucker who was drinking three litres of Mountain Dew a day. She wanted to ask him to quit cold turkey, but knew that would probably fail, so she tried something else. She asked him to go from three litres a day to two. He grumbled, but after a few weeks, was able to make the switch. Then, on the next visit, she asked him to cut down to one litre a day. Finally, after he was able to do that, only then did she suggest cutting the soda out entirely. The trucker still drinks a can of Mountain Dew occasionally, but he’s lost more than 12.5 Kgs.