Behavioural science principles: commitment

Published by Carole Bower on

Behavioural science principles: how to build commitment

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Even if you make a commitment to do something, you might not always stick with it.  This is not unusual failed New Year’s resolutions, unused gym memberships, and abandoned healthy eating plans are all examples of ‘broken’ commitments that started with good intentions.

Because people do things for their own reasons and not for the reasons of others, encouraging people to stick with something long term requires an extra push. Behavioural Designers know this and use commitment devices to influence and reward commitment. Other examples of getting people to commit can be seen in applications such as Peloton and Duolingo where people are enticed into kick-starting a new habit and regularly nudged into action.

Our Behavioural Insights Mantra (BIM) is all about selecting design techniques that are more likely to influence behaviour and make people want to do something. When it comes to encouraging people to make that initial commitment – we have been trying out a couple of techniques.

desktop with notepad ready to make list of commitments

Kick-starting commitment

Making a commitment starts with an intention so, to kick-start a new behaviour it is useful to think about techniques that allow people to self-regulate that behaviour — for example, one of the techniques in our mantra suggests letting people choose or customise the pledge they make.  An implementation intention helps to do this — an “if-then scenario” that helps to spur people into action. For example, if I leave my desk, then I will close my laptop.

This example was one that resonated with our own BAD boss, Andrea. She told us that, after viewing one of our compliance courses about security in the workplace, she now routinely closes her laptop every time she leaves her desk. She was responding to a simple design technique we had applied at the end of each chapter. Rather than “tell” people what they had to do, we simply wrote the final lesson takeaways using the format of an implementation intention.

So, why think about using this format? After all, an implementation intention is about letting people self-regulate their behaviour.  But we found that using an “if-then” format helped us to suggest a useful trigger for the required behaviour (i.e. not just tell people what they should do). Andrea’s trigger for closing her laptop was simply leaving her desk.

close up of laptop being closed

I thought about my own implementation intentions and specifically the Duolingo trigger that now regularly prompts me to complete a Spanish lesson. My trigger is aligned with a daily routine (habit) to pick up my phone first thing every morning. So “If I pick up my phone in the morning, then I will complete a Spanish lesson.

By the way, I also created my own prompt by moving the app to my home screen.

BAD Designers think a lot about how to kick-start commitment. So, when creating a digital learning intervention for new leaders recently, we realised we could tap into their enthusiasm — still riding the wave of celebration of their new role. Our Behavioural Insights Team lead Dr Charlotte Hills flagged that we are more likely to commit to doing new things at the start of a new beginning (like moving home or starting a new job). So we took this opportunity to encourage new habits that would hopefully inspire others by tapping into this ’emotional wave’.

A lasting commitment

Whilst there are effective techniques that help to kick-start a new behaviour, sustaining commitment in the long term can be tricky. My maximum staying power at the gym was something around the two-month mark.  The trigger for my intention happened as the New Year rang in but, like many broken resolutions, the daily trips soon became a chore.

We all need a bit of a nudge to stick with a commitment (however good our intention is). But there are techniques that can be used to sustain a new behaviour.

Techniques for rewarding long-term loyalty can be useful incentive. Duolingo rewards loyalty and progress via a ‘commitment feature’ designed to make the app ‘sticky’ – A streak. It seems to work for me as I am particularly protective of my streak and Duolingo creators say this habit-forming feature was “designed to keep you motivated towards your language learning goals, and “utilizes habit-building research to continuously improve the experience”.

Protecting my streak works for me as a commitment device as it is part of my own identity. Self efficacy tells us, it taps into my self-belief that I will be able to learn and competently speak a new language.

When designing for mass audiences who may not be so receptive, it can be tricky to prompt and sustain commitment. And even if you have done a pretty good job at persuading people this is for them, motivation changes over time. ­People need a little nudge.

Nudges encourage people to act — examples include buying products that are ‘selling out fast’ or taking advantage of ‘limited time’ deals. Many of us may have responded to the odd nudge that has persuaded us away from our first rational choice.

Aside from any widely debated ethical considerations, nudges can be especially effective for audiences who are doing something new, or where they lack confidence. A nudge can be used to help people make complex or infrequent decisions. For example, we designed a nudge to encourage Sales teams to have alternative product conversations when ­talking with clients about their needs.

For more ‘competent’ audiences, ‘boosting’ or ‘self-nudging’ can be used to help people to self-regulate their behaviour and to make better decisions. A boost offers ‘easy to apply’ strategies such as ‘rules of thumb’ or information which motivates action as illustrated in the UK Government’s “Hands, Face Space” boost for Coronavirus control.

So, how does this apply to learning and comms? As an example, we have designed a boost that will help a leadership audience speak up whenever they encounter microaggressions. We are using a poster format showing three clear rules of thumb aligned to personal values and ‘reasons to act’.   Information is, of course, kept to the absolute minimum because a boost is there to motivate, rather than enforce, the behaviour.

A final word of commitment

As designers, it’s useful to think about techniques that can influence people to start and then sustain a new behaviour. Earlier I mentioned that we do things for our own reasons and not for the reasons of others, but it’s worth mentioning that a commitment to do something may often start with inspiration from others. An example of the power of social influencing was seen when over 250,000 people joined the queue to pay their respects to the Queen lying in state in Westminster Hall.

Tapping into social norms can be a useful technique to drive commitment, and we often use authentic stories from credible messengers in many of the videos and stories we create to inspire people to act. Ultimately though, it is still a personal choice.

Get in touch if you want to hear more about how we develop a digital learning experience that uses behavioural science principles to create something truly effective.

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