Under the influence: BEworks behavioural scientist Dan Ariely on how to change minds

C2 team
Under the influence: Behavioural scientist Dan Ariely on how to change minds

How do I get them to do what I want? It’s a question that’s dogged many a client, employer, manager, salesperson or pretty much anyone who’s after something from somebody else.

“It’s virtually impossible to get people to change behaviour just by giving them information,” says Dan Ariely, the Co-Founder and Chief Behavioural Scientist at BEworks. “It’s not true for driving without seat belts, it’s not true for any of it…

“The sad thing is that if you look at the cases of how many times we get people to change behaviour for the right reason, it’s very rare.”

Simply telling people that what they are doing is bad will not change that behaviour. It’s not the information but the environment in which decisions are made that counts.

And luckily, that is something we can (kinda) control.

“Choice architecture is the idea that somebody designed the decisions we make,” says Dan. “We will act according to what they want and not us.” 


Influencing behaviour is like launching a rocket into space:

A rocket has to do two things in order to get to outer space: minimize friction and maximize fuel. In a far less literal sense, those are the battles we fight when we try to influence behaviour.


  1. Reduce friction 

When it comes to organ donations, for example, there are two types of systems: those where you have to actively choose to give up your kidneys and those where it’s the default. Studies have shown that countries where donors must opt-in have fewer donors. It’s not because people hate giving organs in those places, it’s because they hate paperwork.

Another great example is Netflix, who reduced friction just by having episodes cue up within seconds of the previous episode ending. Now we all binge-watch. Reduce the friction between the person and the outcome, and you’re more likely to get your way.


  1. Add fuel. 

Sometimes you need motivation. This is where information fails, says Dan. You can explain to somebody how saving money is good, but finding a way to drive that home in a visceral sense can be the difference between changed behaviour and the status quo.

Dan points to a study that was conducted in a poor Kenyan village, where the objective was to get people with very little to save for a rainy day. Giving reminders and financial incentives helped, but Dan found that the key was something small: every week that they saved, the Kenyans got to scratch out a number on a coin. The small feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that came with actually being able to see their savings accumulate on the coin did more to encourage saving than any less tangible enticements.


Why do we brush our teeth twice a day?
Or rather, why do we brush our teeth even on the days we skip the gym, eat 40 chicken wings or drink a six-pack? “If an alien came to Earth and asked, ‘What organ do people care the most about it?’ It would be our teeth,” says Dan. “Why do we care care more about our teeth than our livers?” As Dan explains, it’s because we’ve been conditioned to be concerned that our breath is minty fresh,  and not out of any deep-seated desire to have healthy enamel. Choice architecture means sometimes we do the right thing but for all the wrong reasons.

Dan says behavioural economics can be applied to our daily routines to encourage ourselves to be more productive, smarter and better-prepared. In order to make the right choices, we have to create environments that make the correct decisions the easiest ones to make.

“Now that we live a very complex life with cars, computers, Facebook and doughnuts, life is much more difficult. We need to figure out the crutches for our mental lives.”