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Behavior change and behavior design models

Tactics that change behavior

Checklists
Checklists

Checklists are an age-old tactic for remembering to do certain tasks. Checklists are sometimes used to measure behaviors that should take place with a certain frequency, e.g. every day or X times per week, and other times, to ensure certain steps are followed every time a person does a complex behavior.

For behavior designers, the challenges of checklists often entail choosing the right behaviors, breaking them down to the correct level of granularity for a given population, and serving them up in the proper context or sometimes with personalization. They are likely underutilized and consistently improve the performance of even experts, like pilots and surgeons.

Reminders, Cues, or Prompts
Reminders, Cues, or Prompts

Reminders, cues, and prompts are simply methods to cause someone to perform a behavior by calling their attention to it with a timely message. People have limited attention and memory, so these types of influences can be very effective when done skillfully.

The cue need not consist of written or spoken language; for example, it could be a certain melody, symbol, or pattern of lights on a connected home device. It might also be a bracelet or pattern of vibrations from a wearable device. Provided the cue or prompt is associated with the behavior, almost any sensory stimuli that is reliably perceived and interpreted may be used. That said, verbal reminders can be effective since they may be personalized with additional semantic information related to the person's context or leverage other effects (e.g. identity priming or framing effects).

Commitment Devices
Commitment Devices

Commitment devices are tools that attempt to bridge the gap between a person's initial motivation to perfrom the behavior and the typical pattern of noncompliance as time goes on.

One prominent example is the "Ulysses Pact," where Filipino banking customers were offered the option to enroll in an account where their ability to make withdrawals would be limited. In a study by Ashraf and Karlan (2005), participants with the commitment account saved 81% more than those with typical accounts.

There are many other examples of commitment devices. Temptation bundling is a form of commitment device where people only engage in an enjoyable activity when it's simultaneous with an activity they intend to do more (for example, only listening to a certain podcast or audiobook while walking on a treadmill).

Pre-paying for a service is a basic form of commitment device, and one used by Dan Ariely when he intended to increase his fruit and vegetable consumption. He paid for a year of biweekly deliveries from a local CSA program up-front.

Coaching or Counselling
Coaching or Counselling

Coaching or counselling here refers to having a trained person provide guidance to someone attempting a behavior. Many mental health and lifestyle programs utilize coaching in various forms, including phone calls, video chat, text messaging, or in-person sessions. Some programs have replaced some or all of these traditionally human-delivered touchpoints with AI or rules-based interactions.

Reduce Friction or Barriers
Reduce Friction or Barriers

Reducing friction or barriers to performing a behavior is simply making it easier or removing things that may be preventing someone from doing something.

This is a foundational technique in changing behavior, and part of the UK Behavioural Insights Team's 4-point approach ("Make it easy"). That said, knowing where the friction and barriers exist may not always be straightforward, and different groups of people may experience different barriers in different contexts.

Note: It is possible to remove too much friction. In a well-popularized study, a travel booking site found that delays in loading the best deals or travel options actually increased conversions. Similarly, longer input forms in digital interactions sometimes outperform, as people may consider the results more personalized or experience greater cognitive dissonance after having invested so much time in exploring the service.

Smart Defaults
Smart Defaults

Defaults refer to what happens if a person makes no choice or goes with a pre-selected choice. The influence of defaults is a foundational component of behavioral economics.

Perhaps the most famous example of defaults is the difference between opt-in and opt-out organ donation programs. While not universal, several studies have found that the rate of organ donation consent in a population seems to be influenced by the default (i.e., what happens if a person does not check a box or change the pre-selected preference on a form).

Smart defaults do not only refer to one-off events, however. In the well-known Save More Tomorrow program, participants were not only included in a savings program by default, but the amount they saved was also changed over time automatically (again by default). Similarly, other behavior change programs have default settings that include at-home medication or food delivery, rules-based reminders on different platforms, etc.

Micro-Incentives
Micro-Incentives

Micro-incentives refers to small rewards, typically frequent and cash-based, given out on a per-behavior basis.

A prominent example is Wellth, a program for people with chronic illness delivered via app. Some participants are given around $2 each time they take a medication or measure their blood pressure and submit a photo.

In related studies, e.g. Petry et al. (2015), participants' compliance with these behaviors was significantly higher than those who did not receive the incentives, and the behaviors persisted several months after incentives were removed.

Micro-incentives can be layered with other reward approaches such as lotteries and non-financial incentives.

Random Screening
Random Screening

Random screening refers to unannounced checks of whether someone has been compliant with a given behavior.

These are frequently used via biomarkers, e.g. testing if someone has been taking recreational drugs by delivering a urine test.

Products that change behavior

Research on behavior change