Transformation – The Bias Problem

Source: Behavioural Insights Team, BSG

Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless – they are systematic and predictable. We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains

Dan Ariely, Behavioural Economics Professor

Let’s play pretend. Let’s pretend that your company has managed to develop just the right culture and design just the perfect change program again and again. That should be enough, right? Afraid not – you will still encounter the entire Zoo of Irrationality – the six bias groups.

We tend to have tunnel vision and thus miss all the largest opportunities, search for data confirming our preconceived notions and overlook warning signs, be overconfident about what it takes, take decisions based on how happy we are and not least stick with losing ideas for waaay too long.

So, if the culture is your perfect highway and the change program is your perfect race car, then all of us not so perfect drivers will still manage to drive you in the ground with all our biases. But there is hope! To capture all of their insight, tools and methods from years of UK government interventions, the Behavioural Insights Team developed a model called EAST. Basically, if you want to change anything in the world, you need to make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely.

Easy – take away stumbling blocks

Some consider this the mother of all change resistance, and although there is no solid research supporting that, you would do well to not forget this one!

Humans are purpose built to save energy. Not too many years ago, the world was full of sudden changes in the environment that required immediate bursts of energy to fight or flee. Today the biggest surprises are when our daily commute is interrupted by a train delay, because someone forgot that winter tends to bring snow on the tracks (really?), but our brain is not so easily un-hardwired.

So, if you want someone to change something, you want to make it easy for them – take away all the actual AND perceived effort, discomfort and stumbling blocks in their way. Instead of a series of steps, make it just one. Instead of complex decisions, simplify it for them. Instead of letting them find their own way, light up the fast track.

In short – Make it easy!

Attractive – build a driving force

It is obvious that if you want someone to move somewhere, that somewhere must be more attractive than the current location. Typically, some sort of unbalanced combination of carrot and whip is applied. Hey, if it works on animals, it should work on humans, right?

Well let’s take a slightly different view on motivation – the intrinsic vs extrinsic perspective. Intrinsic motivation is when you want something of your own accord – extrinsic is when it must be enforced from the outside on you. Both the carrot and the stick belong to the extrinsic perspective, which requires continuous monitoring and upgrading (the stick must always be a present danger to work – the one carrot will quickly become insufficient to motivate), so it is not a particularly powerful motivation approach.

Intrinsic on the other hand works all by itself and refuels automatically – and the fuel is the type you use for supersonic jets – not old tanker vessels. There are lots of different things you can do here, but you can briefly categorize them into attractive destinations vs attractive journeys and being something vs being a part of something.

In short – make it exciting!

Social – show everyone else doing it

If a hotel writes that most people reuse their towels at least once during their stay, the likelihood of you reusing your towels increase by 26%. But if they write that most people who have stayed in this room reuse their towels at least once during their stay, the likelihood increase by 33%. People you feel closer to has a much larger impact on you.

This closeness can take many shapes. If somebody does something for you, you feel obligated to return the favor – even if you don’t like them or their gift. If somebody is nice to you, you automatically like them and is willing to do a lot to keep the relation in good shape. If somebody seemingly is in an authoritative position, then you want to stay on their good side.

In short – follow the herd!

Timely – help each person change in their own time

The timing of change cannot be overstated. People react very differently to requests based on when they happen. At a high level we may be in different life stages, where people are more likely to change, if they are already in the middle of a transition whether changing company, role or something more private.

At a low level what happened just a day, an hour or a minute ago will affect our response. For example, if you had an argument at home before coming to work and you did not have much sleep, you are very likely to reject all requests, as your negative energy level and mood will make you defensive – that is stick with status quo.

One of my favorite examples is the study done on parole hearings in the US, where three judges sit down for an entire day and review parole applications. In the beginning of the day applications have a decent chance, but it quickly falls to the floor – then rise again before falling – and then once more. What happens? Lunch and afternoon snacks – that is the difference between looking at the bars from the inside or the outside.

In short – timing is everything!

This should get you started on thinking in behavioral terms and in the coming articles we will dive into some tools from each dimension in the EAST model – if you cannot wait, you are welcome to contact me at or +45-23103206.

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