What Drives Human Behavior…And How Can We Harness That?

Jun 30

The 100 plus attendees engaged in spirited discussion with Piyush Tantia, one of the foremost experts in behavioral economics, attests to the overwhelming success of Ogilvy Washington’s What Drives Human Behavior Exchange. Mr. Tantia translated academic, often cerebral theories on behavioral economics into a set of application-driven insights easily grasped by the PR, government, and media professionals gathered on Wednesday morning. His hour long presentation was interactive and thought provoking, challenging the audience to question long held ‘givens’ and form new reality based insights.

Traditional View: All humans are rational.


The assembled crowd laughed and nodded in agreement because all could recall a time when they had made the less rationale choice. Tantia pointed to 4 reasons why we sometimes behave ‘irrationally’.

How Irrational Choices Happen

  • Heuristic/quick decision making
  • Difficulty with self control
  • Limited general attention
  • Choice avoidance

The human brain is bombarded with millions of stimuli a day. To help us process this information, make timely decisions, and continue to live like functioning adults, our brain creates shortcuts in our thinking pattern. Decisions based on heuristics are often right, but these decisions are biased towards the familiar and safe. As a social marketer wanting to influence people to modify their behavior, quickly made decisions based on past deeds or misdeeds make our job more difficult. Humans also tend to focus on the short term. This focus makes it easier to enjoy a reality we understand than to sacrifice for a future we don’t know. Self control is challenging for us all, at any age.

To demonstrate our superior ability to focus on one task but limited general awareness, Tantia gave us Daniel Simons’ Monkey Business illusion. You can try it for yourself:

Most of us failed, even those who had taken the test before and knew what to look for. With limited general awareness, the products, messages, and information we push to our audience represents the gorilla, curtains, and missing player in the monkey scenario. Our goal is to be the players wearing white, passing the ball. Tantia’s final insight into how irrational choices happen is that too many choices or negative information paralyzes a person’s ability to make a choice. Instead they choose choice avoidance. The takeaway from this idea is that when giving your audience choices, remove the mediocre or trivial options, and only present worthwhile ideas for them to focus on.

With the above barriers, it is difficult to imagine influencing anyone’s decision making process. But there are a number of small changes that decrease our propensity towards irrational choices and actually help facilitate change.

Helping People Make Better Choices

  • Peer benchmarking
  • Set better defaults
  • Commitment devices

It turns out that keeping up with the Jones’ is a very real phenomenon. We all look to our peers to make decisions and determine if our action and attitudes are within the mainstream. When trying to influence an audience, playing on their desire to fit in, or be part of the norm can bring about a change in action and attitude. Another small change is rethinking default settings. Studies have found that people use default settings as their main choice if they are unsure of what to do, or don’t care. Instead of defaults representing the lowest common denominator, defaults should represent the ideal we want people to reach. The third small change, commitment devices, is making it difficult, or unpleasant for people to break a commitment.

One online organization has managed to combine all three of Tantia’s change ideas into one, stickK.com. StickK provides consumers an opportunity to set goals for themselves, and use a combination of support, coercion, and negative financial ramifications to ensure they meet them. It is brilliant. StickK is the tangible practical application of behavioral economics to the world we live in.

This entry was posted on Thursday, June 30th, 2011 at 6:16 pm and is filed under Behavior Change, Behavioral Economics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.