Behavioural Friction and Motivation

Ted Talk June 2019. Dan Ariely Behavioural Economist - How to change behaviour for the better. (Ted have referred to him as a phycologist in this talk).


If you want people to change then you need to change the environment as simply telling people the benefits of change isn't enough. Sociology studies show that short term immediate change can happen but it just doesn't stick as people nearly always go straight back to their previous behaviour of before.

Dan suggests that understanding fiction and motivation is the key to unlocking the secret. He provides a simple example with the imagining of a rocket launch into space. Firstly you want to minimise the friction - you want the rocket to have as little friction as possible to make it as aerodynamic as it can be. Secondly the rocket needs to be loaded with enough fuel (energy) to enable it to achieve its task. Behavioural change is the same principle.

To address friction Dan tells a story about a pharmaceutical company who arrived at his office one day. They needed their subscribing customers to switch from branded products to generic ones. Both were equally as good as each other the only difference was the cost. If the customers would switch to the generic band then everyone would save money (the company and the customer). The company sent out letters explaining the money saving offer with a simple request to complete the enclosed form and start saving immediately but no impact was made. Then the company offered a new one time only deal that if the customer switched then they would get a full year of their subscription products for free but still hardly anyone replied. This was why the pharmaceutical company paid Dan a visit as they had been inspired to do the 'free' offer after reading one of his study papers that he had written detailing the 'allure of free'.

During the conversation Dan realised that the issue was friction. On one hand the customer could do nothing and still get their branded products, the friction was the effort of completing the form. A new letter was sent out stating that "none completion of the enclosed form would result in the cancellation of their subscription, please chose if you would like branded products at the higher price of X or generic at the lower price of X?" Pretty much everyone switched to the generic. You need the desired behaviour and the easiest action to be in alignment with one and other.

Next is motivation. Dan was working on a project in the slums of Kenya to find ways to get very poor families to save money. Everyone in the community was living hand to mouth so when an unexpected expense arose the families had no other option but to borrow money from a loan shark which then begins a devastating cycle usually impossible to get out of.

Many money saving methods were tested:- Text messages sent out weekly to remind the families to try and save a little money that week. Text messages designed to sound like it had been sent from the children ie "Please Mum and Dad try to save a little bit of money this week for our future". Percentage deals were offered 'if you save X amount of shillings you will receive an extra 10 or 20%'. A coin with numbers 1 to 24 printed on its face was given out with the instruction to keep it somewhere visible in their hut and if they managed to save on week 1 then scratch through the number 1 up and downwards, but if they did not manage to save then scratch the number across like a negative sign.

When asked to guess which method worked the best to support the family saving most people believed that the percentage deals or the text from the kids would be favoured but the actual truth is that it was the coin. The coin doubled the savings, but why? Think about the bread winner who that day decided to direct some money into savings - what will that mean to the family that night? They will have less, it could be less food, water or kerosene because at that level of poverty to save means something else will have to go. By having the coin in a visible place the family can see that yes they have less but there is another activity happening.

To change a behaviour first look at the areas where you might get the friction. Regarding the motivation you have to be realistic that this part is more difficult therefore you are likely to have to trail different things to find out what does work the best. Your intuition can mislead you, as it did the people who assumed that the text from the kids or the percentage deal would achieve the best results.

If you want to bring about change, stop saying, get doing. Remove the friction and add the motivation. Both need to work together.