We’re all biased now: behaviour change in 2014

The excitement of the World Cup this year had people irrationally hoping that a small, underperforming nation would surprise the world and receive the footballing crown. It’s the kind of logical fallacy to which every football fan falls victim, and it is one of the rules of the beautiful game that means we keep supporting teams that have no hope. After all, someone needs to support Wales.

But there’s another irrationality that football fans hate; cheating footballers. Why do footballers cheat when 100 million people are watching a slow motion replay of their clear and blatant actions? Because footballers are also human, and they fall foul to behavioural biases just like the rest of us. The fast thinking, instinctive part of the footballer’s brain, the very part that makes them talented, also makes them fallible. Acknowledging this, FIFA introduced a very simple behavioural intervention this year – a line drawn on the pitch with ‘disappearing foam’, that stopped footballers creeping forward at a free kick. The intervention worked so well because it was a simple nudge, and they didn’t once step over the line.

One of the biggest shifts in the world of research over the last decade has been the increased focus on the unconscious in decision making; how do we understand and categorise our behavioural economics? This categorisation helps us understand why we behave the way we do; because we don’t always understand it ourselves. Evidence clearly suggests that there is a fast part to our brain (System 1, to use Kahneman’s language), that likes to act without waiting for justification, and a slower part to our brain that seeks to report what we have just done to the wider world (System 2).

Let’s think about this in terms of journalism; journalists are your System 2 brain – thoughtful, but highly selective. Your System 2 brain thinks about life, pontificates a bit and then realises that it needs to report what’s just happened. It then chooses which story to report on, while discarding numerous others, and then takes an angle on how to report the news. Indeed, you might even create two or three different versions of the same event depending on the situation, such as “I didn’t take my medication because I forgot,” to the doctor, or “I didn’t take my medication because I don’t think it will work,” to friends. Meanwhile your System 1, fast thinking brain is just ‘doing’.

Away from football in 2014, the Scottish referendum was awash with behavioural biases. First of all, the question was amended on our recommendation from ‘Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent nation?’ to ‘Should Scotland be an independent nation?’ because of the inherently leading opener in the initial version. Once the question was set, the ‘No’ campaign rightly changed their name to Better Together, as people don’t like to cast a ‘no’ vote. This rebranding helpfully tapped into the status quo bias – our tendency to perceive any change from an established state or baseline as a loss. The Better Together camp also played heavily on loss aversion. The campaign message was that Scotland had a lot to lose by voting for independence, and the message hit a particular nerve when the Scots were told they would lose their currency.

The ‘Yes’ campaign were pulling on identity biases wherever they could, most strongly on in-group bias to unite Scotland against ‘others’. Salmond’s identity politics meant he had to draw a line between us and them, and when he painted ‘them’ as Westminster politicos his message resonated with the Scottish electorate.

Outside of politics, advertising agencies instinctively ‘get’ behavioural economics. Dior recently launched a line of comfy shoes. Fighting the prevailing belief that most trainer-type shoes are mass produced in large factories abroad, potentially under poor labour conditions, Dior used the effort heuristic to increase the perceived value of the shoe. The advert shows the finest craftsmen in Paris carefully placing the stitches and beads with exacting precision, the soles being moulded by engineers, and even the laces being hand crocheted. With Dior, you are buying effort with every shoe.

Of course the behavioural sciences do not just apply to communications. In fact a key message in behavioural change programmes is that communications do not work on their own. They are far more effective if linked to changes in the physical environment, particularly when applied to product usage and design. Financial services providers used design to create an affect heuristic by allowing customers to put a picture of their loved ones on their credit cards, in an attempt to induce an emotional connection when spending. Supermarkets have used the principles of reciprocity to encourage people to spend more time in store. Consumer goods companies are using behaviour change principles in laundry, personal care, and even with air fresheners.

‘Vaping shops’, the latest attempt to create an experience through social incentives and social norms, arrived in 2014 in an effort to make e-cigarettes more ‘normal’. They are a place for people to go, where people conform to the same identity, reinforcing each other’s ‘vaping’. Quitting smoking should be relatively straightforward in a rational, logical sense. However, smokers aren’t yet taken with e-cigarettes as a suitable substitute: over two thirds of e-cigarette smokers still smoke ‘real’ cigarettes. Smoking is not just an addiction, but also highly habitual. After a few years of smoking, it is the associations, actions and mannerisms we crave more than the drug itself, and let’s be frank, the smoker ‘scene’ for e-cigarettes doesn’t make you part of the cool club.

In every field, our behavioural biases are now studied, explored and, in many cases, exploited, and this is set to continue in 2015 and beyond.