The One Key Component of Behaviour Change You Might Be Forgetting

As author and speaker Simon Sinek once explained in a TED Talk, people do not buy what you do, they buy why you do it. To illustrate this point, he boiled down what he sees as the core marketing propositions of Dell and Apple:

  • Dell: “We make great computers. They are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Want to buy one?”
  • Apple: “Everything we do, we believe in challenging the status quo. We challenge the status quo by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

You may feel differently, of course, but we feel inspired by why Apple designs technology—and not by what Dell creates. By understanding and effectively communicating its motivation, Apple has experienced success on a larger scale than Dell has. The numbers make that clear: Apple’s revenue was nearly three times that of Dell in fiscal year 2020, and its share price was 35 percent higher than Dell’s as of May 10, 2021. Why? Because Apple talks about why the company exists, not what it does.

It’s much the same when it comes to behaviour change. It’s not a case of working out what people do; rather, it is about understanding why they do it, and that’s driven in part by autonomy and cognitive dissonance.

As we all know, and as Jonah Berger describes in his novel, The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind, people like to have control over their actions and choices. When we are told to do something, we feel that our freedom has been threatened, and a state of reactance occurs. We try to regain autonomy by behaving in a way that’s opposite to how we’re told to.

Think back to when your parents nagged you to tidy your room—did you ever feel an urge to prolong the messy state of your bedroom for as long as possible? If so, you’re certainly not alone. When an individual’s autonomy has been stripped away, they resist.

This concept has been widely studied, including in a field experiment of nearly 100 care home residents. On one floor, residents could choose to attend movie night, take care of a house plant, and decide how much time they spent with other residents. On another, more restrictive floor, residents had no control over these factors. The results were striking: Residents with more autonomy were more cheerful, active, and alert. They also lived longer.

This makes for an interesting read, but how does it relate to the concept of behaviour change in today’s fast-paced world? It tells us that, to deliver change in a people-centric manner, put autonomy at the forefront and avoid direct persuasion. People are motivated by choice, so give them options.

One can also use an understanding of motivation to highlight a gap between a person’s attitude and actions. We strive for internal consistency. We want our attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours to align, and we get uncomfortable when they do not—it’s a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. Consider the example of Thailand’s Smoking Kid campaign, which featured young children stopping adult smokers on the street and asking for a light. The smokers proceeded to lecture the children about the dangers of smoking, highlighting a gap between their attitudes and behaviour. Following the campaign, calls to the previously ineffective Thai smoking helpline increased by 62 percent.

In terms of successful behavioural change, if people are acting in a way that is resistant to change, can we highlight how their attitude may differ from their behaviour? Would they advise a colleague to embrace change differing from their actions to fight it?

It’s easy to think about motivation in the workplace literally. One person may go to work to improve the working lives of others, build knowledge, and sustain his or her lifestyle. It’s also easy, however, to gloss over the intricate behaviours that drive why we do what we do. Understanding reactance and cognitive dissonance are just the tips of the iceberg.

For more information or to discuss other factors that can help us utilise an understanding of motivation to drive behaviour change, click here