The Subjectivity of Customer Perception

If you ever want to validate the idea that people’s perception of reality is entirely subjective (but, to them, objective) all you have to do is check out any review of a restaurant on Trip Advisor or some equivalent.

To whit:

Untitled presentation

Both reviewed within days of one another. Maybe the same day. Two exactly opposite perspectives.

The lesson here is never trust a subjective perception.

What you need to know about Zimbardo (but not for the reason you think)

This article first appeared at The Behaviour Guy.

You might have heard of Zimbardo.

His Mephistophelian countenance has graced nearly every psychology textbook for the past 40 years, primarily alongside a passage, page, or even chapter about his (in)famous experiment.

The Stanford Prison ExperimentZim_Headshot2

You can find details a great documentary here and I won’t rehash the details. The Wiki page also has loads of details to satisfy your curiosity.

Now if you’ve ever done a Psych degree, read a book on psychology, or otherwise spent five minutes with someone who knows something about psychology then you’ll have heard the near apocryphal tale about the Prison Experiment and how it proves one, simple thing; Our endless capacity for evil.

Indeed Zimbardo wrote a book on the whole thing, titled The Lucifer Effect. It’s a great book. Worth a read.

Now many people in the behavioural community are sceptical about this experiment. And there are some worthy criticisms out there but I don’t want this post to be a criticism.

Rather a re-evaluation.

What if the Prison Experiment actually suggests that people play the roles we give them. 

Expectations matter.

This recent post at bSci21 makes a similar point in relation to something called Behaviour Plans. Briefly, the blog post discusses how starting from a negative makes people act negatively.

Ask yourself the following question; when you see an accusatory sign “We’re watching you”, or a prevention campaign that assumes your innate stupidity how do you feel? Do you feel empowered to not behave badly – or do you feel like you’re being taunted. Like you want to lash out in order to prove them wrong?

devvo_8888People respond to expectations

People respond to our expectations of them. We act according to a set of rules and heuristics associated with a role. This helps explain why some people become caricatures of a stereotype.

When we want to reduce certain behaviours in public treating people like criminals and threatening them for their behaviour is highly ineffective. In the world of linear logic it makes sense. A punishment is a deterrent, right?

Yet, in the world of behaviour change and persuasion there is something else going on. We are being told, on an almost unconscious level, that we should act in a certain way because that’s who we are. 

I’ll leave you with a final example

Imagine you are starting a new job in a new career. You are unskilled, nervous, unsure of yourself. In our first example lets say you start and the receptionist rolls her eyes at your stuttering explanation, “Newbies go report to HR” she says, dryly. “A..and where exactly…” you stammer, “Follow the signs” she says and pointedly turns to her computer screen. 

You arrive at HR and are forced to watch a 20 minute presentation about all the things you can get fired for “…and don’t even think about stealing from the stationary cupboard, we just put a reinforced lock on that door and the only person with access is Mark and he has a 20 point form you have to fill in to prove you need it. Too many people have lied about that…” and on it goes. 

You’re whole day basically becomes this presentation. Everyone you meet telling you exactly what not to do. About how newbies suck. About how it’s a pain to train people up. About how if they knew then what they knew now they’d have gone into their parents cupcake bakery business and not this crap place. 

You know the drill. Right? We’ve all had some experience of this kind of job. Sucks, right? 

So lets flip our universe inside out and have a different day altogether.

You arrive to work, still nervous, and the receptionist smiles, she points you in the direction of HR. 

The HR director greets you warmly, “The dept. heads agree you’re a great fit for this place” he enthuses. “We value honesty”, he says, “and hard work”. He smiles at you again. “We treat our staff with respect and expect the same back”. 

You leave his office with a firm handshake and reassurance that it might take a few days to find your feet, but don’t worry about it. The first person you meet, Daisy, is head of a small team. She’s been assigned to train you and she’s read your CV. She’s excited to get to know you, she says. “It’s been a while since we’ve had someone as interesting as you”, she exclaims. 

That day you spend being introduced to everyone by Daisy. You shake a dozen or more hands. All smiles. At the end of the day Daisy tells you it’s time to leave, you pack your things and shake her hand. You’re excited to come back tomorrow. “Oh, one last thing” she says, you look back at her, “Stationary cupboard is over there, we keep it unlocked though – no ones stolen anything in years!” and she happily turns back to her work. 

Hopefully you can see why reality B is preferable.

Screw your magical thinking

This article originally posted at The Behaviour Guy

The trouble with opportunity is that it always comes disguised as hard work.
Herbert V. Prochnow

People often ask me; how do I change behaviour?

I have had people ask me, upon learning that I study human behaviour, to tell them how to fix their son’s aberrant behaviour, or their wives refusal to cook even a single meal, or their co-workers inability to finish an important piece of work on time.


Magical Solutions

They want, more often than not, a simple fix. A magical solution to their problem. It’s seemingly in our nature to want these solutions. We want a “short cut” or a “lifehack” for everything. Click bait sites like Buzzfeed survive by publishing out a rolling stream of “35 ways to cook eggs easier” or “10 ways to make your commute more enjoyable” type articles. They feed on the almost primal desire to make things easier, to conserve energy, and to survive for longer.

You can probably see the difference between conserving energy on the grassy plains stalking a wild animal, and shaving a few seconds of your morning Eggs Benedict.

Without being too preachy it’s easy to see how the cult of magical thinking makes our lives harder, not easier. We are always trying to make life easier and in so doing miss opportunities to actually achieve our goals.

Going back to my first point; people often ask me how do I change behaviour – they want a simple answer to a difficult problem. So here is the answer I give them.

Just start trying different things

And oh boy, does that rile up some people.

You see there are a two very simple strategies underlying behaviour change.

Give people what they want. 

Take away what people don’t want.

Once you understand that and apply it you can make anyone do anything – happily and without complaint.

Yet people are not content with this as a solution. They want specific strategies. I tell them I can’t give them specifics because I don’t know the context, they just have to try different things and see what works.

This, to most people, sounds like hard work. So they don’t bother.

Their loss. 

You, on the other hand, are not most people. If you are reading this you are probably of above average intelligence and curiosity. That alone separates you from most of the other people trying to change behaviour.

Here is what you need to do

First things first; Screw your magical thinking. 

Stop trying to look for easy solutions. Instead begin a process. Start trying different things. Take away negatives. Provide positives. Do this repeatedly, systematically, and consciously, until you find the solution that makes the change you want.

Yes there are more elegant solutions but they require months – if not years – of academic study to understand and properly apply. If you desperately want these methods for your own business I can provide them for a fee.

But you don’t need them. 

Forget magical thinking. Start with the trial and error. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Cause and Effect

This article was originally posted at The Behaviour Guy


Cause and effect

We like to think we understand causality. We are prime rationalisers of our own behaviour.

We do X because of Y.

He’s a bad worker because he’s lazy.

He doesn’t run, therefore he’s fat.

Here is the problem; we think we understand causality. Unfortunately we are often taught faulty premises and have an inaccurate way of serialising the logic.

Say what?

Let me break it down.

There is one main problem we encounter when we try to work out cause and effect.

We are taught faulty premises 

This means we are often taught that humans do things for various reasons. We overeat because we are lazy. We don’t finish our work because we have a “bad attitude”. We don’t make friends because we have low self esteem. You’ll recognise these are pretty prolific myths about our behaviour. Yet we all believe they are perfectly sensible. To put this in perspective ask yourself why a rock falls to the Earth when dropped from a height?

If you are like most people you’ll mumble something about gravity, rotation of the Earth, Galileo *mumble mumble*. The point is you’ll say there was some external force or forces against on the rock causing it to fall. At no point will you say the rock is trying to find it’s “natural place”. Yet 2000 years ago that is exactly how the most learned minds would have explained it to you. The rock, or indeed any object, is simply returning to the centre of the (geocentric) universe. Quite natural, really.

The rock, you see, in this model of Aristotelian physics, is imbued with a drive, a “prime force” that drives it wilfully to it’s rightful place.

How ridiculous! You might declare.

How foolish! You intone.

How wrong you would be.

We like to think we are above this kind of thinking, that we never ascribe to a natural object a supernatural force driving it. Yet that is exactly what we do with people.

We talk about how people are driven to a behaviour by some internal process. We dress it up. We jargon the crap out of it. We have created vast and fascinating theories to explain the nature of this force but ultimately we still find the same problem; a supernatural, extra-metaphysical force that operates free of ultimate external control. A prime force.

This is the main faulty premise we are taught.

This is what leads us to say things like: “You didn’t do this report because you are lazy”. Or “You’re fat because you overeat”.

If you believe that some internal force is driving people then of course it makes wonderful sense to ascribe causality to these forces. However if you hold that human beings are actually just a part of the same universe as the rock we talked about earlier then it stands to reason that our brains are subject to the same laws of physics as a pebble falling to the floor.

In other words our behaviour is a product of our environment.

When you can understand that human behaviour is a product of environment not internal forces then you realise how stupid it is to say a person doesn’t do their work because they are lazy.

It makes no sense.

We can describe not doing work as lazy but how can we say it is the laziness that caused it? It’s like saying it’s sunny today because it’s sunny.

It’s circular logic.

Try this; turn the logic on it’s head.

In the words of Scott Adams (Dilbert creator) stop thinking in 2D and start thinking in 3D.

3D thinking means thinking about behaviour as a result of external, environment factors. A person doesn’t do their work because they have never been rewarded for it. You overeat because the pleasure from it far outweighs the negatives. Your behaviour occurs because the environment has selected for it.

When you start to think like this you see human behaviour in a whole new light. We’ll talk more about this in future blogs.

Confirmation Bias

This article was originally posted at The Behaviour Guy

If you’ve ever had any formal science training you’ll have come across the concept of Confirmation Bias. 

This is not a post about confirmation bias, as such. If you understand the nature of human psychology – that we are, in Scott Adam’s words “Moist Robots” – then you must understand that we are not rational creatures but rationalising creatures. 

As Professor Jonathan Haidt discusses in his book The Righteous Mind we feel first and rationalise later.

We feel first and rationalise later

Depending on our upbringing and environment we respond automatically – called Stimulus Control – to triggers or cues on the environment – called Discriminative Stimuli or Sd.

Let’s break that down. We like to think we are rational beings responding logically and correctly to external events. Input – Process – Output. This computer metaphor is at the heart of modern cognitive psychology and has it’s roots broadly speaking in the Enlightenment Movement of Western Philosophy.

Modern behavioural science tells us a different story. The process is actually reversed. We behave in a certain way, then feel a certain thing, and finally create a nice narrative to explain it. 

This is where confirmation bias comes into play. It would be virtually impossible to actually see the world objectively and completely. We would literally never get anything done. The alternative is to filter out the world and see only what we need to see. This is called fitness or function.

Two Examples

Let’s explore two examples; the Trump phenomenon and the Red Pill movement both of which are heavily polarising topics. Chances are you have an opinion on at least one of these movements.

 Let’s look at Trump first, look at these two articles;

Story One

Study Two

Both present a particular view of Donald Trump. Both are selectively reporting facts. Depending on how you feel about Donald Trump you’re reaction will be positive, negative, indignant, or indifferent.

Ok let’s look at two more, these are all about “Red Pilling”.

Story One

Story Two

Again, facts are selectively given. Opinions are stated. And once again you will have an immediate, visceral reaction to one or both of these stories for a number of reasons.

This is Confirmation Bias

If you hate Donald Trump you’ll love the stories. They attack him. If you love Donald Trump you’ll already be thinking of all the reasons those articles are wrong.

If you are part of the Red Pill community you’ll love the Return of King’s article and be gnashing your teeth at the Beta Male article. Vice versa if you hate the Red Pill crowd.

Either way you won’t be convinced or swayed. Your predetermined bias will inform your feelings – you will then rationalise those feelings by telling yourself a story, and that story will change depending on what the nature of your bias is, but it won’t change by being exposed to a differing point of view.

The Power of Now!

There is a saying: yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”  – Oogway, Kung Fu Panda

Cheesy quote? Yeah. True? Definitely.

Most of us aren’t connected to the present. We go through life one foot in the past reliving our failures and one foot in the future worrying about what’s going to happen. We never just stop and experience now.

The Necessity of Now

If you really want to change people’s behaviour you need to be aware of what is happening now.

When people tell me they have a problem they want to fix it’s almost always based on a hunch. They think X is happening, they feel like Y is the problem. Well, I can’t do anything with what you think, or what you feel. If you’re trying to change behaviour in your organisation and your starting point is “We feel that X is a problem”. Then stop. Go back a step. Establish the reality of now.

Four Questions Everyone Should Ask

When you have some clear answers to these questions you’ll have a better idea of what is actually happening now. Let’s run down the questions so you get an idea HOW to answer them.

What are people doing?

Physically watch people perform the behaviour you are worried about. Write it down. Get someone else to do it with you so you can agree on your definition. Once you can describe the behaviour clearly and in writing you can move on to question 2…

 When are they doing it?

This one is easy; when does the behaviour occur? Morning? Noon? Night? After lunch? Before a meeting? Only during summer? Now you know what is happening and when, next you need to work out…

How long?

Is it happening for five minutes? Five hours? Five days? Finally…

Who is doing it?

You know what is happening, you know when it’s happening, and now you know how long it’s happening for. Finally, you need to identify who is involved. Who does the behaviour? Who is around? Who does it affect? When you have the answers to all these questions you can build up a great profile of what is happening now. Here’s an example of what an analysis of Now might look like.

“At 3pm on a Friday, every week, Mr Smith and Mrs Smithette stand by the staff kitchen and talk back and forth for 30 minutes. No other staff members take part.”

Simple, right? But unless you answer those questions it’s difficult to build this profile. Now you know exactly what is happening and you can start to make changes based on what you already know!  


Facts vs. Narratives at work

We all love a good story. In fact we can probably owe our entire cultural development to human beings proclivity for storytelling and passing knowledge down from one generation to the next verbally. Our desire for stories – for narratives – explains many early creation myths, and lends itself well to a retroactive analysis of cultural development on the whole.

Facts, on the other hand, get short shrift. Facts are hard things. Standing in isolation we are left to wonder what to do with them. Consider these facts:

In the muon-catalyzed fusion of most interest, a positively charged deuteron (d), a positively charged triton (t), and a muon essentially form a positively charged muonic molecular heavy hydrogen ion (d-μ-t)+. The muon, with a rest mass about 207 times greater than the rest mass of an electron is able to drag the more massive triton and deuteron about 207 times closer together to each other in the muonic (d-μ-t) molecular ion than can an electron in the corresponding electronic (d-e-t)+ molecular ion. (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Just let those facts slosh about your brain for a bit. What do you do with this knowledge? What does it even mean? Do you even understand all the terms? Upon reading it I came up with some questions I’d need to know the answer to before I could understand it properly:

  1. What is a muon?
  2. What a deuteron?
  3. What does it mean positively charged?
  4. What is a triton?
  5. How do they form into a heavy hydrogen ion?
  6. And what’s an ion?
  7. What’s a rest mass?

And well you get the idea, on we go. That kind of fact is difficult to understand without a vast context of knowledge. You would have to literally be a nuclear physicist specialising in fusion reactions to understand what I just said (full disclosure I am NOT a physicist and I have no idea what I just told you, I think it has something to do with fusion…).

Let’s compare this fact with a narrative:

Susan is feeling a little down today because her boyfriend was angry again. She went for a walk in the park and fed the birds and sat down by the fountain in the centre. It was a sunny day and she felt a lot better. As she exited the park she gave some money to a homeless person and then, passing a small shop on her street, she goes in and buys herself a little something to cheer her up further. Getting home she makes herself a nice cup of tea and sits in front of the TV and watches Netflix for a bit. By the end of the day she is feeling much better and goes to bed happy.

 Ok. Lets look at this narrative. Obviously it is not as complex as the physics example above, but it nonetheless raises questions.

  1. Who is Susan?
  2. Why was her boyfriend angry?
  3. Does she normally go the park?
  4. Does she always give money to homeless people?
  5. What was the name of the shop?
  6. What did she buy?

And so on. Interestingly enough though the narrative does not require use to understand those other facts to get the general feel of it correct. Unlike in our muon-catalysed fusion reaction example where we needed a PhD to understand what we were being told, and where that gap in our knowledge was blatantly obvious and detrimental to us, in our story about Susan our lack of contextual information is largely irrelevant. We can follow along, sympathise, and feel for her. We can relate.

So. How does this apply to businesses?

Well. Behaviour change is all about objectivity. It’s about collecting appropriate facts and putting them together to create a detailed understanding of the relationship between employee behaviour and their social and physical environment as well as the systems they come into contact with. This objectivity requires considerable amounts of data as well as an explicit rejection of what we in the trade call “explanatory fictions”, or as a colleague of mine calls them “vicious circles”. Characteristically a vicious circle attempts to explain a person’s behaviour by reference to its effect. For example:

Carol doesn’t construct her reports as well as you would expect from her managerial background because she is a serial bad report writer.”

In this example both “cause” and “effect” describe the difference between Carol’s background in managerial work and her aptitude for writing reports.

Now you may notice that these vicious circles of tautological gymnastics are somewhat similar to our description of narratives above, and rightly so. Many of us (your author included) are prone to explaining people’s behaviour in a narrative context.

Well so-and-so is just a lazy employee, that’s why they never get their projects done on time.

Such-and-such are always talking, it’s because they can’t control it. they are just talkers.

I wish they would just reply to their emails on time, it’s not difficult, I guess they are just not good at replying to emails.  

Many of you will be able to identify with one or more of these examples. We do it all the time and it makes perfect sense in our culture to talk like this. We all know what we mean. Unfortunately for behaviour changers it’s just not good enough. We need to be more specific.

If you are attempting to change behaviour in your workplace find all the narratives and chuck them out. Stick to the facts and you won’t go far wrong.

Do Anti-Smoking Campaigns Work?

A recent article in Slate points out that a lot of anti-smoking campaigns are visually graphic (often disgusting) and frankly ineffective. The article veers off to discuss to premature birth and its relation to smoking, but it’s worth thinking about that first point more closely.

Visual campaigns, such as information posters, are eye catching, appealing, and, unfortunately, completely ineffective. Whilst they may serve as a prompt for some people they often fail to promote any long term behaviour change because the consequences associated with the behaviour are often too far removed and nowhere near large enough to justify the change.

Consider smoking; quitting smoking sounds good in the moment, and the revulsion of a cancerous lung is certainly a strong motivator, but once you’re away from the poster and actually dealing with the withdrawal symptoms associated with quitting the potential risk of some future cancer suddenly isn’t anywhere near as important as the relief of smoking right here and now.

An alternative approach, deftly executed here, is to mix humour and social norms to change the consequences associated with smoking to be more social in nature. Smoking, then, becomes a social issue, something that’s annoying, or disgusting, and something others will judge you for. All of a sudden those negative consequences are right here, and right now and they are effective at changing behaviour.

Food for thought.

Current behaviour change work…

Summer has been and gone, and seemingly come back again! Since establishing the Change Design Co. off the back of the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change we’ve had a really busy summer and been working on some interesting behaviour change projects. We’d hoped to get the case studies up by now, but due to the nature of the work we’ve been unable. Our largest area of work over the past 2 months has been working with the NHS both in providing Behaviour change workshops and training days and in managing live Behaviour change projects on hospital wards here in Wales.

Hundreds of NHS staff from a broad selection of departments have now undergone our 1 day ‘Changing Behaviour at work’ training day/workshop designed to help individuals and teams understand the principles of behaviour change and begin to be able to use them, with the aid of our ‘NEWIDEA’ framework, (initially developed by us whilst at the WCBC – Bangor University), which is made available via an online document to everyone attending.

Other ongoing work for the NHS includes a new campaign to raise hydration levels in hospitals across Wales, which will be completed by the end of October. We’re looking forward to analysing data and awaiting roll out of the campaign across Wales shortly afterwards.

Another project for Autumn 2015 will see us looking at reducing dog fouling, potentially the world’s largest anti social behaviour. Using forest sites across Wales we’ll be testing the use of nudging and user experience design to reduce what I’m sure we can all agree is a behaviour we would all like to see less of!

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Designing for change – by Shem

How does Design help create behaviour change?

A question I get asked a lot is why do you work in Psychology, specifically Behaviour Change when you trained as a Product Designer? The reasoning is simple, providing an answer is not quite so simple but I’ll try to explain quickly …

I began my design career as many do designing and making furniture. I trained for 3 years in this before working in the trade for many years, I still enjoy making things from wood and other materials and continue to do so.

However, I retrained in Product Design where I gained a 1st Class Honours BSc from Bangor University. I had always been a problem solving, back garden shed inventor type; I’d made surfboards, produced graphic documents, enjoyed sewing prototypes of textile products I’d designed, and generally making anything that provided a solution to a problem; so an industrial design degree was an obvious choice when I decided to retrain.

Upon finishing my degree I worked freelance designing and prototyping products for water-based safety applications and in military design. I also worked in digital marketing, which has become a passion during the past few years. The combination of design and marketing had led me down a path of ‘user experience’ design and this is where I found my self, working as a UX or user- centred Designer at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change.

Behaviour Change Design

Behavioural issues are like any other problem a designer is faced with, ‘ a problem’. Designers use methodologies and systems, (as well as creative flair of course) to solve problems. Traditionally these problems involve a physical product as a result of the design process, which solves the given problem. Designing for behaviour change is no different from designing a physical product/artefact or designing for service or system design. The result however may not always be physical.

Another difference in designing for behaviour change is an evidence base. A key element of Behaviour Science is documenting what effect the designed solution has had on changing behaviour – without monitoring behaviours before, during and after any intervention, we don’t know how behaviour has been changed!

So that, in brief, is how and why I trained as a Designer and now work in Behaviour

Change. I’ll be posting more about design methodologies that apply well to creating behaviour change, and new tool kits that Phil and I have co-designed using a combination of Design thinking and Behaviour analysis methodologies with which we’ve created successful behaviour change solutions.

Here’s a recent example of how I designed a really simple product that successfully created behaviour change and encouraged food waste recycling, instead of adding wasted food to landfill. Click on the image for the full case study …

happy bracket