Modern Behavior Change Strategies


“Modern” behavior change strategies have four characteristics: They are based on the insight that providing information and raising awareness are usually ineffective by themselves. They are grounded in scientific research and theories in the social and behavioral sciences. They have been shown to be effective in rigorous evaluations (e.g., randomized controlled trials). And they often tend to be surprisingly simple and short (Walton, 2014; Walton & Wilson, 2018).

Providing information (e.g., about the number of people who are discriminated) and raising awareness (e.g., about the detrimental effects of microaggressions) are often insufficient to change behaviors. The problem is that “Good ideas do not necessarily lead to good behaviors,” as the French social psychologist Robert-Vincent Joulé put it. Even if people have the “right” values (attitudes, beliefs, convictions), they do not necessarily act accordingly. This phenomenon has been called the “value-action gap.” A common explanation for this gap is that most people do not have the time or the psychological resources to act upon all the great values they endorse.

Most psychological theories recognize that having a positive value/attitude is only one determinant of behavior. Two other important determinants are social norms (Are my peers inclusive? Would others approve of me if I were to behave in an inclusive way?) and “perceived behavioral control” (Do I have the resources, knowledge, and skills to behave inclusively? If I tried to be friendly and welcoming would I succeed?). For more information on Fishbein and Ajzen’s (2010) Reasoned Action Approach click here.

Modern behavior change strategies also leverage the following basic human needs: The need to understand, the need for self-integrity, and the need to belong. Often, they appeal to one or more of these needs in order to change the ways individuals make sense of themselves or social situations. For example, the goal may be to get people to interpret ambiguous information differently, to make different attributions, to envision themselves in a different role. Effective behavior change strategies lead to “recursive processes,” where individuals’ new way of “making sense” changes their own behavior, which in turn changes other people’s behaviors, which in turn reinforces individuals’ new way of looking at the world. For an excellent discussion, see Walton (2014) and Walton and Wilson (2018).

Effective Ways to Change Behavior

  • Use the consistency principle, i.e., get people to do “preparatory actions,” use foot-in-the door technique, get them to commit
  • Use labeling (e.g., “you are a good person”, “you are someone who cares about inclusion”)
  • Use the reciprocity principle (sometimes called the “door-in-the-face principle”)
  • Use social proof (= social validation = peer pressure = descriptive norms): Say that the majority of people’s peers do the desired behavior, or at least are “concerned about” the behavior/issue; talk about shifting norms; use opinion leaders (= social referents)
  • Make prescriptive norms (= injunctive norms) salient: Say that the undesirable behavior is “wrong” (and that those who perform it are “deviant” or “different from the rest of us”); make salient that people might be the target of “social sanctions” if they perform the undesired behavior.
  • Make use of the liking principle: try to spread the behavior through network of friends (tupperware!), have your campaign be sponsored by someone whom people admire (athlete, actor) or whom they feel similar to
  • Present the desired behavior as being in people’s self-interest (or at least highlight the perceived benefits)
  • Make salient to people that the issue concerns them and that they should feel personally implicated by it
  • Get the children involved, since they have a great impact on their parents’ behaviors
  • Use prompts and nudges (remind people “at the right moment” of the right thing to do)
  • Make the desired behavior the default (opt-out versus opt-in)
  • Above all: Evaluate the effectiveness of your intervention, preferably in a field experiment with random assignment to experimental conditions

Some examples

Commitment/Consistency: (a) Ask people to commit publicly at a meeting, (b) Get people to do the behavior once (e.g., attend a diversity outreach event), (c) Have people tell you by when they will complete the action, (d) Have people sign a pledge/promise card, (e) Have people put up stickers/buttons, (f) Label behaviors.

Social Proof: (a) Land owners/farmers install signs along the edge of their property, (b) Show the number of people doing the desirable behavior (e.g., % of employees who actively try to create an inclusive environment), (c) Take pictures of people doing the desirable behavior (d) Have people wear stickers/buttons/colored arm bands, (e) Make the desirable target behavior visible and salient when someone performs it.

Prompts/Nudges: (a) Provide people with calendars that prompt actions, (b) Put stickers near the coffee machine, (c) Make the desired behavior the default, (d) Remind people at places where they engage in the behavior

Factors facilitating behavior change

It appears that in order for a person to perform a given behavior one or more of the following must be true (adapted from Lee & Kotler, 2015, chapter 8):

  1. The person has formed a strong positive intention (or made a commitment) to perform the behavior.
  2. There are no environmental constraints that make it impossible to perform the behavior [even better, there are “nudges” in the environmental infrastructure that make it more likely the audience will choose the desired behavior].
  3. The person has the skills and capabilities necessary to perform the behavior under a number of circumstances.
  4. The person believes that the advantages (benefits, anticipated positive outcomes) of performing the behavior outweigh the disadvantages (costs, anticipated negative outcomes).
  5. The person perceives more social (normative) pressure to perform the behavior than to not perform the behavior.
  6. The person perceives that performance of the behavior is more consistent than inconsistent with his or her self image, or that its performance does not violate personal standards.
  7. The person’s emotional reaction to performing the behavior is more positive than negative.
  8. The person is encouraged to form a new habit by connecting the new behavior with an existing one or new environmental cue.


Return to “How to Promote Inclusion in 750 Words” here