(Photo by Fizkes/Bigstock Photo)

Since humans are creatures of habit and tradition, they’ll tend to keep doing what they’re doing until something motivates them to change. Individuals may change their behavior for reasons particular to them, but what if leaders in business or government want to solve problems by encouraging change across a whole group of people? The thriving field of behavioral science has produced a wealth of insights in how to “nudge” people with gentle pushes that can add up to a big impact. Behavioral-science firm the BVA Nudge Unit is a global consultancy that helps clients ranging from Air France to the World Wildlife Fund to create sustainable change, both inside and outside their organizations. In an interview with From Day One, we asked Jenic Mantashian, Executive Vice President of the BVA Nudge Unit USA, about her company’s work in the field. Excerpts:

From Day One: Your organization recently helped the U.N. to engage 1 billion men in the cause of gender equality using behavioral science. That's a lot of people to sway. To start with, can you tell us about behavioral science as a field and give us some examples of its insights and tools?

Mantashian: Behavioral science is a field of study that brings together several disciplines, among them cognitive science, social psychology and behavioral economics.  In very simple terms, behavioral science seeks to understand the true drivers of human behavior.

As a consulting practice it’s a relatively new field, but has really taken off.  There have been several Nobel Prizes awarded to people for their work in behavioral science, as more and more people see its value for solving problems. Specifically, as a practice, it uncovers the cognitive biases, emotional and social influences, and the impact of context on our behavior. With those insights, we can pursue informed strategies to resolve what are otherwise intractable problems.

Some of the most well-known areas where applied behavioral science has emerged as a practice was in consumer finance and global health. Specifically, through the application of nudges, individuals were successfully encouraged to save more money for retirement and to vaccinate their children, respectively.

How do you define "nudge," as you deploy it among a particular group?

I should mention that the term “nudge” was coined by two leaders in this field, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.   In fact, they wrote the book on it–Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

The way I explain a nudge to people is that it is a small discrete intervention that is inspired by insights uncovered through our understanding of human behavior. It guides beneficial behaviors in such a way whereby choice is not limited, so people don’t feel forced.  Nudges can be carried out through changes to a physical space, by communicating in an intentional way, or simply by including behavioral strategies within any interaction with a group or individual.  For example, you can nudge employee behaviors in a meeting simply by being very deliberate about the name of the meeting room or the title of your meeting–in effect, priming the participants.

Jenic Mantashian is Executive Vice President of the BVA Nudge Unit USA

What is HeForShe, the movement you supported for the U.S., and what are some of the behaviors it seeks to address?

HeForShe is a solidarity campaign initiated by the U.N. for the global advancement of gender equality.  The movement invites men specifically, and people of all gender identifications, to stand in solidarity with women to create a brave, visible, and united force for gender equality.

From a behavioral perspective, as a first step, HeForShe “pre-engages” with men by gaining their commitment. They’re persuaded to sign up to be part of the movement on HeForShe.org. As a second step, HeForShe encourages those registered to take action in favor of gender equality within their own communities.

Naturally the specific behaviors are quite broad and varied, since each country and context is so different. The subjects of the nudges could range from heads of state, who have the ability to change laws related to pay equality, all the way to university students, who have the ability to foster a campus environment where women are safe from sexual assault.

Why is there a need to deploy behavioral science to influence these ingrained behaviors, rather than more traditional methods like public-service advertising?

I would start off by saying that giving people information is essential. Information helps establish an intent. Without an intent to act a certain way, it’s hard to make it happen.

With that said, time and again we have seen that information is simply not enough to change behavior. For example, we know that eating sugar and processed foods on a regular basis can lead to diabetes. We know that smoking cigarettes can lead to cancer.  We know that driving and texting can lead to fatal accidents. There is so much information out there on these topics, but millions of people still engage in these deadly behaviors.

What behavioral science and nudges allow us to do is complement the information we receive, so we can take a more comprehensive approach. For example, next time I have a craving for sweets, if I made changes to my kitchen environment that nudged me away from the cookies and nudged me towards the fruit, it will support me better with my intent to eat healthier.

Can you explain the use of commitment as a step toward change, and why it proves effective?’

We know from many experiments in our field that when someone commits to a future behavior, they are more likely to do it. For example, in one experiment, hotel guests were asked for a pre-commitment to reuse towels to support eco-friendly behavior at the hotel, and by simply having people check a box, there was a 25% average increase in the reuse of towels. It is believed by some that engaging in the commitment dissolves any cognitive dissonance that results from not following through on the committed action. And since humans look for ways to avoid discomfort, we are more likely to follow through with the action to avoid the guilt or conflict that can arise.

In a recent article, you identified many "drivers of influence." Could you offer a couple of prime examples?

Sure. At the BVA Nudge Unit, we created a tool that we coined the 21 Drivers of Influence.  The tool isolates 21 of the most powerful heuristic-based levers, from more than 200 that have been identified in the field, that can be used to amplify the effectiveness of specific activations. In other words, they serve as behavioral science-based inspirations that drive our ideation process when we design strategies and nudges to change behavior.

Commitment is one of those drivers. Another popular one is “Social Norms,” where we exploit the insight that people want to feel a sense of belonging and thus will be more likely to act in a way that’s like the rest of the group. If you look at Amazon, they use this driver very well, by showing you the popularity of a product, along with its ratings and endorsements by others. Another one is “Easiness,” which is the understanding that we are more likely to do something if it’s undemanding. That’s what Amazon was thinking in designing their “one click” check-out option.

You also talk about "stairs of change." Could you describe the process?

At the BVA Nudge Unit we have a proprietary behavioral framework that’s a step-wise process that inspires the development of behavioral science strategies and nudges. The best way to think about our Stairs of Change is to imagine you are climbing up four stories of a building, where each of the four stories represents an important stage. As you ascend to the top, you get closer to achieving your end goal.  However, if any of the steps are skipped haphazardly, you risk the collapse of your effort.

In other words, we break down the steps to the behavior into four areas and work on each of them. At the step “Preparing the Field,” we think about how to awaken the attention of our target, such as finding the right time, place and messenger. We take this through to “Reinforce the Behavior,” where we think about things like providing reassurance through feedback, recognizing the behavior through rewards, and activating social diffusion.

What kinds of results are you seeing from such programs, for example your work with the HeForShe movement?

The results have been very positive. Our primary focus with the U.N. was to nudge the commitment process, getting men to commit to the movement. Shortly after our interventions were launched, using analytics from HeForShe.org, it was determined that commitments jumped from 2% to 25% conversions among website visitors.

We’re also now working with HeForShe Champion corporations on the application of nudge within their organizations. Among other steps, they’re optimizing recruitment and hiring practices through the use of our frameworks in order to ensure gender-balanced workforces in specific sectors, along with achieving a more diverse workforce overall. We are in the testing phase and hope to share the good results soon.

What are some other examples from behavioral science in fostering diversity and gender equality, particularly in the corporate sector?

There are a lot of published examples out there and a good resource to access many of them can be found in our book called Nudge Management. Nudges can be put in place to encourage D&I at all stages of the employee experience. Let me give you some examples:

When hiring: In advertisements, only list requirements that are key to the position. Research has shown that there are trends in the way specific groups respond to job advertisements. For instance, women tend to apply only when they feel they meet 100% of the required capabilities on a job advertisement, while men are likely to apply when they meet only 60%of those qualifications.

To debias annual reviews: At a mid-size U.S. tech company, the annual-review process involved managers discussing staff performance. Comments were largely about employees’ personalities rather than their actual work, and included various stereotypes. A study showed that 14% women were criticized for being too aggressive, 8% of men were criticized for being “too soft.”  The company initiated an employee scorecard which focused on the work output and its impact on the business and not the individual. The result? A year after rolling out new scorecard, none of the women were criticized for being too aggressive, and less than 1% of men were criticized for being “too soft.”

To increase diversity in global job assignments: An international assignment is often seen as a crucial step in a successful career in large organizations. But not many women declare themselves open to international mobility. In a global company, simply rephrasing the question on an employee-development questionnaire–from “are you internationally mobile?” to “would you consider an international assignment sometime in the future?”—led to a 25% increase the number of women declaring they were mobile, and thus candidates for further management development.

That said, it’s important to note that these methods don’t necessarily work in every situation. Contexts change how people behave. That’s why ad-hoc solutions are generally recommended.

Looking ahead, what other problems are you aiming to address by wielding behavioral science?

Basically, any problems that exist where there are humans involved, we want to be there to support positive change. On the Nudge Management side, when nudging within organizations, this can range from encouraging entrepreneurial behavior among sales reps and the adoption of new sales automation platforms, to promoting compliance with safety rules and regulations, to adopting behavior that supports communication or innovation.    More broadly, we also are working on using behavioral science to improve customer experience, to adopt sustainable behavior, and promote the quality of life and standard of living in cities.

Editor’s Note: BVA Nudge Unit USA is a sponsor of From Day One. The author of this article can be reached at jenic.mantashian@bvanudgeunit.com