April Fools! Six Behavior Change Myths Debunked

April 23, 2018

As April winds down, we are remembering the first day of the month as typically a time to share jokes, pranks, and hoaxes. At the Center for Behavior & the Environment, we see this as an opportunity to set the record straight about behavior change myths and misconceptions that often keep environmental organizations from designing the most impactful strategies possible. Here are the six most common myths and how we tame them.

#1. The “Optimizer” Myth

Otherwise known as the “rational actor model,” this long-standing theory in behavioral science says that humans make decisions by calculating the costs and benefits of their options and choosing what maximizes personal gains. Over time, we’ve learned that people aren’t necessarily as good at these calculations as we thought. There are a whole host of factors that go into why a decision gets made. At the Center, we developed our three principles in recognition that behavior change is a multifaceted process; emotions, social norms, and the environment around us can all shape our behaviors. We also rely on adaptive heuristics, or mental shortcuts, to help us make decisions quickly, and with just the right amount of effort. While this myth has largely been debunked, there are remnants of it today that still drive behavioral interventions.

#2. The “Silver Bullet” Myth

Another common misconception is that there is one best intervention for behavior change. For a while, addressing an information deficit through education or awareness-raising was considered the gold standard in the field. A number of campaigns and communications still rely heavily on transmitting knowledge, even though we know that this approach rarely leads to quick or durable change on its own. Nudging is the current trendy strategy in the behavior change world that works through designing certain kinds of choice architecture. While both strategies can be effective, we don’t think either is the single best, or only, answer. At Rare, we believe that people have multiple reasons for doing a behavior and therefore our multi-pronged approach reflects that.

#3. The “Tailor-made” Myth

On the other hand, we also regularly hear claims that any universal frameworks for understanding human behavior are incapable of explaining a particular audience or context. Some people believe that each intervention must be specifically tailored and customized to an audience for it to be effective. This is a false dichotomy. While we agree that designing for individual, social, and cultural contexts is essential, all humans possess some biologically-ingrained ways of processing information about the world around us. We all share a need to understand, explore, and participate meaningfully in our environments. We also have a number of core values and require cognitively and emotionally supportive environments. Rare’s Pride campaigns are one example of how important positive emotions like joy and pride can reliably create change across diverse communities. These initiatives are successful around the world because they are about what makes us similar, not different, as people.

#4. The “Puppeteer” Myth

With the call for an increasing sense of urgency around promoting sustainable behaviors, we occasionally hear questions about whether behavior change means taking advantage of humans’ non-rational decision-making processes through the use of manipulation or coercion. In response, at Rare we believe that behavior change should always involve a choice. Sly interventions can make people upset or act in an undesired way, which can end up being counterproductive to desired goals. The environmental challenges we face are indeed serious, but it is important for practitioners and researchers to be transparent and trust people as much as possible to make their own decisions. When we share our stories and tools with communities, we want to build relationships in the process and help people better understand what makes others tick. We’ve learned that when people choose behaviors, those behaviors better align with individual value systems, leading to longer-lasting change and even spillover effects to new behaviors.

#5. The “Guilt Trip” Myth

A lot of media around environmental issues rely on fear-based appeals or invoking guilt in their target audience. Research has shown time and time again that these approaches have limited effectiveness in the long term and can sometimes cause people to withdraw from the problem. Instead, at Rare we choose to use positive emotions, such as pride, joy, and curiosity, to underpin our behavioral interventions. It’s inevitable that the environment around us will continue to change in ways that may be scary or uncomfortable. For these moments, we recommend pairing a feeling of concern or worry with tangible action strategies, so people are more willing and able to do something. Rare’s Solution Search competition is a great example this approach; we identify a real problem and then gather and share success stories from around the world for others to feel empowered to address those same challenges.

#6. The “Experts Only” Myth

Finally, like an “authorized personnel only” sign, some practitioners believe that experts (in the traditional sense of having some advanced training or experience) have the exclusive knowledge or access to craft effective behavior change strategies. This complements the assumption that experts have the “right” answers and are the people best equipped to successfully lead communities towards environmental solutions. At Rare, we instead try to play a supporting role and believe in providing people with the tools to lead their own campaigns. Through our behavior change framework, we aim to put our expertise to work by helping people achieve locally-determined goals; “experts” cannot compete with local trust and knowledge! We also are firm believers that behavior change is not so complex that it requires a PhD to understand. Every person is an expert on something, and we all share a common knowledge on being human.

Across all of these myths, there is a common thread of the benefits that come when we trust people and their motivations. Instead of making decisions for people, let’s learn from them, support them, and have our interventions reflect those insights. Rare is committed to forging a path for behavior change based on what we know works through both science and practice. Debunking these myths is one step towards helping us all be more successful in seeing the change we want for the behaviors that matter most.