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Behavior change and behavior design models

Tactics that change behavior

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.

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.

Skill Coaching
Skill Coaching

Skill coaching simply refers to guiding a person to acquire a new behavior or set of behaviors, often by scaling the information and challenge level with their growing ability.

Examples of this might include teaching someone to cook healthy foods or training them in various self-regulation techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy. This coaching may be done by an individual or automated through digital experiences.

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.

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.

Behavior Substitution
Behavior Substitution

Behavior substitution refers to attempting to eliminate a problematic behavior by replacing it with another one.

Often, the substituted behaviors are intended to have similar sensory qualities (e.g. drink flavored sparkling water instead of soda). The goal is typically to disassociate the original behavior from its cue, enabling the more positive behavior to be triggered automatically.

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.

Self-Monitoring or Tracking
Self-Monitoring or Tracking

Self-monitoring or tracking simply refers to a person measuring their behavior, experiences, cognition, or other data points over time.

Often, merely tracking a behavior can influence the likelihood or frequency with which a person performs the behavior or related ones. For example, many pedometer studies increase walking activity merely by improving awareness, and many interventions that merely consist of rewarding someone for weighing themselves result in weight loss. Similarly, when cognitive behavioral therapy patients track which cues or environments are associated with undesired behaviors or thoughts, they may begin to avoid them.

Unfortunately, people often find tracking behaviors tedious and lose interest after a short period, so behavior designers should seek to reduce the burden of self-monitoring by collecting information automatically or doing so in a low-effort way.

Products that change behavior

Research on behavior change