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An interesting article, fairly short, relevant for these times when we are told to do things we never did before for collective benefit, with wider implications and applicability. The original content is very lightly edited and recast here for easy reading and comprehension (highlighting is mine).

Here we go:

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Problem:

For the past two months, we’ve been told to wash our hands, wear face masks, and social distance. We’ve come up creative ways to do them all—with viral handwashing dancespublic pledgesZoom parties with live DJs, referred to as emotion-triggering devices. Judging by the beautiful photos of eerily empty public spaces around the world, most of us have been willing to comply—for now. But when will the novelty wear off? And what will happen to our new habits, still necessary for the public health crisis we’re facing?

Some countries, like Denmark and Austria, and several U.S. states, have already started to relax the strict stay-home regulations and are counting on their citizens to make smart choices to protect themselves and others. But are we confident that we’ll keep up our good behavior when left to our own devices? 

Solution:

Emotions are, by definition, temporary. So is attention. Using activity-mobilizing emotions such as fun, hope, anger, or fear can work exceptionally well to kick-start a new habit, but we still have months or even years of behavior change ahead of us. Before long novelty may fizzle out, motivation worn away and compliance unexciting. In fact it could get downright annoying.

Example: In 2009, designers created “Piano Stairs” at the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm. Each step was a piano key that made a sound when it was stepped on. The idea was to make it fun and easy for commuters to pick the healthy option of going up the stairs instead of taking the escalator. And it worked—for a couple of days. The initial excitement quickly gave way to the reality of rush hour, as commuters trampled over keys going up and down the stairs. To no surprise, the piano disappeared. But the video of the stairs gathered 23 million views on YouTube and is often still found in presentations by behavioral consultants.

So when the novelty fizzles out, how can we harness our current motivation and channel it into long-term change? The evidence is still sparse, but we do have several examples of behavioral interventions that have a longer shelf life. These are referred to as Nudges.

Nudges are of two kinds: Pure and Moral.

Pure nudges are simple changes to a preexisting choice environment meant to counteract simple inattention or laziness. They seamlessly blend in with their environment. They are typically not consciously noticed by the decision maker. Grabbing a ceramic cup conveniently stacked next to the coffee machine instead of a paper one from the cupboard does not require you to think about saving the rainforest before your morning coffee. The less conscious the nudges are the less they are prone to wearing off or even backfiring, regardless of whether you agree with the goal of the nudge or not. 

Two other examples of pure nudges: a) Perhaps the most successful example is Defaults. Individuals defaulted into pension plans, insurance in air-travel, two-sided printing, or renewable energy for their home seem to stick with the option. People either don’t notice it or don’t take the effort to change it from default b) Salience has also proven to be effective in the long term. Placing vegetarian food on top of a menu makes it more likely that customers will select it, and real-time feedback while showering reduced energy consumption of hotel guests. 

In contrast moral nudges are those that are fun or trigger fear, shame, or pride, rewarding “doing the right thing” with psychological utility or disutility. The nudges are meant to be consciously noticed. The most prominent one being the use of Social Proof—“9 out of 10 people in your city pay their taxes on time—you are currently not one of them” or “Compared to your neighbors with similar sized houses, you consume far more energy” or “Will you vote on Sunday? We will call you again and ask about your experience.” 

Social proof is powerful, no question—the frantic toilet paper buying we have seen in the past weeks was an unintended testament to that. In the short run, moral nudges can generate significant effects, but long-term behavior change is seldom. Further, moral nudges run the risk of backfiring. Individuals asked to donate repeatedly decided to opt-out of communication altogether, and others who regularly came out badly in comparison to their neighbors’ energy consumption were willing to pay money not to be contacted anymoreDeliberate defiance of these appeals could also explain the groups of college kids who went on spring break despite the health warnings or the Danish teenagers who now drive over the bridge to Sweden to party “because lockdown is boring.” 

Nudges can make it easier to do the right thing. All that said, taking past research in account, nudging on its own, whether moral or pure, won’t be enough to stimulate the required behavior change. The gap between what we want now (our lives to return to normal) and what we need to do (diligent maintain hygiene and continuous social distancing) is just too large. But that doesn’t mean lasting behavior change isn’t possible. We need to combine nudges with traditional economic incentives and regulations. Just like the traffic rules. We have laws, fines, and nudges (speed bumps or beeping seat-belts) that keep us and others safe on the road without invoking anxiety, shame, or fear every time we get into a car.

And designing the choice environment promoting/instilling long term habits. Example: Copenhagen, author’s hometown, has four large lakes in the city center, which have a small footpath around them that is popular for runners and people going for a stroll. At the start of the lock-down, the trail was converted to a one-way street to reduce the amount of tight face-to-face encounters. Currently, park guards control compliance, but already most people are in the habit of walking clockwise around the lake. A habit that can most likely be sustained with a simple sign and social norms. 

Like fighting climate change or obesity, overcoming this health crisis will be a marathon, not a sprint.  Our collective health depends on how we use these available mechanisms keeping in mind their long term impact versus the need.

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As it must have already occurred to you, interestingly these concepts are equally valid and useful to bring about changes in various aspects of organizational behavior!

The article by Christina Gravert may be perused here.

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