What Change Can We Believe In?

Successful campaigns to alter public behavior share common features.
by | August 12, 2009

Producing some change in citizens' behavior -- driving slower, smoking less, speaking English, signing the organ-donor card, taking all the antibiotics, checking the kids' homework -- is frequently the prerequisite to accomplishing a public manager's mission. So it behooves us to think realistically about what it takes to make such change happen.

Some weeks ago, I spoke with a large group from an agency charged with bringing about what seemed to be a perfectly reasonable alteration in Americans' habits. Feeling mischievous -- or maybe just mean -- I started by asking how many people had any sort of mobile phone in their pocket or purse. A forest of hands went up. Then I asked how many had any sort of dollar coin. One woman reported an old silver dollar threaded onto her keychain as a good-luck charm, but neither she nor anyone else was carrying a dollar coin meant for spending.

Hence my first and central observation about efforts to engineer large-scale behavioral changes: Sometimes they work, and sometimes they don't. Mobile-phone use in industrialized countries went from 18 percent to 97 percent in just ten years. But the U.S. Treasury has made five attempts since the 1970s to retire the inefficient paper dollar and substitute a coin, with little to show for it.

We can point to plenty of other success stories of big, fairly quick changes in everyday behavior. Seat-belt use in the United States rose from under 15 percent in the early 1980s to about 80 percent two decades later. The share of adults who smoke has dropped from 42 percent to 19 percent since the mid-1960s. And the number of people with Facebook accounts went from less than a million at the start of 2005 to over 150 million at the start of 2009.

And there are also lots of seemingly sensible changes that are slow, stalled, or blocked altogether. Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act in 1975 to get the United States in step with the rest of the world. But aside from an odd exception here and there -- two-liter soda bottles, 10K road races -- the metric system hasn't made much progress. Esperanto was created in the late 19th century to serve as a global second language. It takes about a tenth as long to learn as other languages, with an ingeniously logical grammar, but claims perhaps 100,000 fluent speakers today. And only in 2001 did the New York Stock Exchange stop quoting share prices in eighths of a dollar -- a relic of the Spanish "pieces of eight" that had been common currency in North America a couple of centuries back.

Human beings, for a range of reasons, tend to be creatures of habit. We're slow to change and quick to revert to the tried and true. But why do some efforts to engineer widespread change work out while others sputter? There is no cut-and-dried answer, but successful campaigns to alter public behavior seem to share one or more of these features:

oMaking the change offers individual benefits, not just a contribution to the common good. The personal payoff needn't be tangible. Recycling took off, for example, once people perceived that putting the newspapers and cans into separate bins raised their esteem in others' eyes, and their own as well.

oThere are multiple paths to the destination, and early adopters can take the leap without waiting for laggards to catch up.

oIt's possible to bypass diehard resisters, rather than having to win them over, so that no small group has a veto over everybody else's willingness to change, or the incentive to fight to the bitter end.

So a district seeking to encourage more high-school students to walk to school, for example, might offer preferential locker space -- or maybe just a T-shirt -- to walkers. It won't shut down the bus routes or get rid of the parking lot, especially at the start of the campaign, but will progressively make it easier to walk and harder to drive or ride. It might even signal clearly, up front, that people whose circumstances or preferences preclude walking will retain the option not to.

Not all big changes fit this pattern of individual benefits, multiple paths and timetables, or the ability to opt out. At dawn on September 3, 1967, Sweden switched from driving on the left to driving on the right, with little fuss, even though surveys showed most Swedes saw no point in the change. But even in Sweden -- with its atypically compliant and orderly citizenry -- painstaking rounds of planning preceded the switch. Virtually any manager whose agenda includes encouraging the unnatural act of behavioral change will find it prudent to think long and hard about how to pull it off, and to prepare for heavy lifting.

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