Changing Behaviors

I’ve written about this topic before, if not here than definitely once on spooklights that I can recall. But it seems worth a revisit.

Yesterday my husband and I were walking over to the school to pick up the kids, and we were talking about how so many of the parents—the ones driving—use what’s known as the “back loop” for pickup, even though every email from the school principal has a reminder that the back loop is NOT open for pickup because it’s for handicap services only. Now, I could hypothesize that a few of those parents who are going against the rules don’t get email? And their kids also don’t bring home the printed notices? But not all of them.

Does it seem to you that more and more people are breaking rules or behaving as though the rules don’t apply to them? (I recommend reading F You Very Much by Danny Wallace, btw.)

I’m going to scale this down a bit and use an example I typically fall back on when discussing this subject, one that I think most of us can identify with: batteries.

We all know we’re not supposed to throw batteries away. There are community events where you bring your batteries and electronics to be disposed of, and there are sites you can bring these things to, and in our town we can even put our batteries in plastic baggies and tape them to the tops of our bins so the garbage collectors take them to dispose of them. How much easier can it get than that?

Or think about recycling in general. For years it was nearly impossible to get people to do it, but then cities began giving people special bins that they could use just like their garbage bins, no need even to separate the types of recycling, and then what? More people recycled!

There are two prongs to changing people’s behaviors, and (spoiler alert) repeated emails telling people not to do something is not one of them.

1. Convenience.

By making recycling as convenient as throwing away your garbage, cities were able to increase the number of people recycling. By putting recycling bins out next to trash bins in public spaces, again, more recycling. By making it possible for us to just tape our batteries to the tops of our trash bins, our town made us a lot less likely to throw batteries out. Because in our busy lives, no one wants to make an extra trip to Wherever to hand off dead batteries.

If and when you want people to do something, you have to make that something relatively easy. The minute you begin asking for extra effort, you’re going to lose a large percentage of potential buy-in.

Since this is a writing blog, I’ll tell it from the point of view of trying to get reviews. Many readers aren’t used to writing reviews, and to do so requires time and effort they’d rather put into reading the next book in their stack. But authors who put a link in the backs of their ebooks tend to get more reviews than authors who don’t. Because just clicking on the link? That’s relatively easy. Write a few words while the reader is still high (or low) on what he or she just read? They’re way more likely to do so at that moment than to come back to it later. And that link makes it convenient.

Going back to the pickup situation at our local school: Why might parents feel the need to break the rules and use the back loop? My guess is it’s because the current system for drop-off and pickup isn’t efficient and doesn’t suit their needs. Well, and they’re impatient and don’t want to wait their turn. There’s a streak of entitlement there—the notion that their needs are greater than anyone else’s.

Which brings us to

2. Consequences.

Another reason these parents have no problem using the back loop when they’re not supposed to? No one stops them. There’s never a police officer waiting there, or even a school official. In short, they do it because they can get away with it. There are no consequences for breaking the rule.

We want to believe people are mostly good, but don’t we all sometimes speed when we’re pretty sure we won’t get caught? “What’s the harm?” we think. Until the day we’re pulled over or, worse, in an accident. I see it every day at the school, people doing well over the 25 mph limit—unless there’s a police car parked nearby.

Why do some people throw batteries in the trash when they know they shouldn’t? Because the benefits (not having to go to any extra effort) outweigh the disadvantages. These people know they won’t get caught, won’t be fined or jailed or anything. So why not do the easy thing rather than the right one? (We as a species are pretty terrible at thinking ahead to greater consequences down the road—Exhibit A: climate change.)

Until the cons outweigh the pros, people will continue to disregard the rules.

How many people do you see driving in the HOV lane when they’re the only ones in the car? Where I live, it’s quite a few. Recently, I read a statistic that only 1 in 40 would be pulled over for it. That’s less than 3%, so the odds are in the favor of those disobeying the law. Clearly a number of people feel it’s worth the risk of (at least here) a very high fine. However, if the numbers were to change—if, say, 60% of people were caught and fined—behaviors would likely change. (My guess is, at 50% these drivers would still play the odds. Hell, even at 60% they might. But if they were statistically more likely to get pulled over and fined than not, they’d probably think twice.)

Why do people in power do things they shouldn’t? Because no one will hold them accountable. There are no consequences. Look at the sexual harassment scandals making waves through Hollywood and beyond. Only now, as people are starting to hold abusers responsible, are behaviors beginning to change.

And change is not instantaneous. It’s slow. To get people to do things, or stop doing them, is like turning a massive cruise ship. It takes time, and some people are going to feel queasy about it.

To summarize: in order to get people to change their behaviors, you must (1) make it easy for them to change, and (2) provide strict and immediate consequences for not changing. We’re creatures of habit, after all. We can be taught, but not easily. We’re like tigers in a circus: crack the whip over us, sure, but also give us treats when we do well. Eventually we’ll be trained.