Cultural Observations

Why behaviour change is hard, and why research holds the key

Cultural Observations

Why behaviour change is hard, and why research holds the key

By Jacquie Norton

A new year is freshly upon us, and many of us have made promises to ourselves to eat healthier, exercise more and use social media less. Each year, we head into January with good intentions, yet research shows that around 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. Why? Because, as countless studies by psychologists and behavioural scientists confirm, change is hard.

As humans, we are inherently habitual. When in doubt, we default to previous ways of thinking and behaving. Our auto-pilot mode dominates our everyday behaviour, so much so that neuroscientists estimate that up to 95% of our brain’s processing happens in this ‘comfortably numb’ space. The tendency to stick with the status quo has served us well from an evolutionary perspective. The ability to maintain stable family groups, cultivate the same foods and live with the same set of social expectations was more likely to lead to survival of the group. However, in modern society, this trait stands in the way of us establishing positive new habits, and stopping harmful ones.

Another significant hurdle to behaviour change is the profound discovery that we are of two vastly different minds. According to the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, we have an automatic, instinctual mind (referred to as System 1) and a rational, reflective mind (referred to as System 2) . These two modes of processing don’t always work in harmony…how many times have you approached a decision by weighing up all the rational benefits of the different options, only to abandon that process and choose the option that feels the best?

How can we begin to influence change?

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt came up with a useful analogy to represent the two functions of the brain – he describes the emotional part as the Elephant, and the rational part as the Rider. Often when we’re trying to change behaviour we’re tempted to inform and educate people. The problem with this is that it only speaks to the Rider, and change can’t happen until the Elephant is on board. Neuroscientists have conducted research on patients that have sustained damage to the part of the brain responsible for emotions, and found that they were unable to make decisions.

“Reason and emotion must both work together to create intelligent behaviour, but emotion does most of the work.”
Jonathan Haidt

In their book ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard’ , Chip and Dan Heath outline three key factors that increase the chance that change efforts will be successful:

  • Provide clarity and direction: Informing and educating is undoubtedly an important piece of the puzzle. In many cases (where awareness or knowledge is low), what looks like resistance may in fact be a lack of clarity. If the Rider isn’t exactly sure which direction to go in, he can lead the Elephant in circles. It is important to reduce the mental paralysis by being clear on what it is people are expected to do.
  • Motivate and spark desire: Often simply telling people to do something isn’t enough to change how they behave. Where motivation is low, sparks can only come from speaking to the Elephant. The Elephant is the one who gets things done and is driven by emotion. If you cast your mind back to a time when you were motivated to change something about your life and jolted into action, it’s likely that there was a feeling or salient story involved.
  • Enable easy passage: Our environments have a major influence on how we behave. One of the quickest ways to achieve change is to tweak or re-design the physical environment (making behaviours easier or more difficult). This is important not only for encouraging new behaviours, but solidifying these behaviours into habits after the initial motivation has faded.


Why is research important?

When designing behaviour change interventions, research allows us to:

  • Understand the context: All change situations are unique. It is important to have a thorough understanding of the specific thought patterns, emotions, biases, influences and environmental factors that work for or against behaviour change in the particular area of interest. Who is the target audience? Is this an awareness problem, or a motivation problem? Which specific emotion is likely to motivate action (e.g. pride, hope, belonging, fear, disgust)? Is something in the physical environment standing in the way of action?
  • Road-test the concepts: The best indication of whether a design or concept is likely to be effective is by testing it with the target market prior to launch. By piloting the campaign or intervention with a sub-set of target consumers, you’ll get an initial indication of how people are likely to respond, and spot any potential issues before it is rolled out to a wider audience. Is the concept clear enough? Does the audience know exactly what they should do? Does it connect with the right emotions? Does it lead to motivation and intention?
  • Evaluate the intervention: Just as important as doing the groundwork and testing, is measuring how effective the intervention is once it is in field. Tracking the success of a campaign in a systematic way can not only tell you whether the behavioural goals have been effective, but also provide insights into which parts of the campaign or intervention are working, and which parts require revisiting.

Changing collective behaviour is one of the most difficult challenges an organisation will face. Quantum has conducted research to support behaviour change across many areas, including workplace safety, bushfire preparedness, pool and boating safety, vaccine uptake and generational drinking habits. In our experience, the most successful campaigns and interventions are underpinned by research that is designed around an understanding of the science behind decision-making and behaviour.

If you have a behavioural challenge you’d like to discuss with us, our behavioural team would love to hear from you.



[2] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
[3] Damasio, Antonio R. (1994) Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. New York: G.P. Putnam. [4] Heath, C & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: how to change things when change is hard. New York: Broadway Books.

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