Five myths about behaviour, and why they won’t go away


Here’s something that has always confounded me.

If behavioural science is so good, why aren’t more people using it?

Like Robert Cialdini’s famous study on social norms influencing hotel guests to reuse their towels. I’m still to visit a hotel that is correctly using a message about how many guests have re-used their towels to get me to do likewise.

The thing is, when people read or hear about behavioural economics, and more broadly, behavioural science, they typically get excited.

It’s like a light bulb has gone off for them, and suddenly the strange things people do - they strange decisions we make - make sense.

Why do I overpack for my holiday? Underestimate the time a project will take? Buy stuff on sale because, well, it’s on sale?

But these same people go back to work and forget all about it. Yes they’ve got some fun stories to share at their next dinner party, but they’ve completely missed the opportunity behavioural science offers to improve both their business and personal lives.

Bottom line? The science of behavioural influence has failed to influence behaviour!

Here are five examples of beliefs about behaviour that have been busted by science but, like a cockroach, refuse to die.

1. Money motivates us to perform

Actually, after a point at which our basic needs are met, money doesn’t motivate performance. In fact, in cognitively challenged tasks, monetary incentives can impair performance.

And yet, the thing that comes to mind the fastest when we’re talking about motivating people to do something? Money. And when we ask the people we’re trying to motivate themselves, what do they think would work best? Money.

Money is alluring for two reasons. It is unequivocal. You know its value. A dollar is a dollar is a dollar. 

And money is flexible. You get to choose what you do with it.

But money is also impersonal and transactional. It makes us more selfish, creates a sense of entitlement and dilutes reciprocity.

2.  To do better we need to know better

Education and information campaigns are great. Great for advertising agencies, that is, because they land big contracts to create ads and collateral.

But do information campaigns change behaviour? Not really.

Information doesn’t mean info-motion. Knowing doesn’t mean doing. We know we should save for retirement, but in Australia we have compulsory superannuation because we can’t be trusted to do it by ourselves!

It’s hard to argue with giving people information, of course. It’s safe. But it also means the onus is fairly and squarely on the recipient to engage with, understand and act on what they learn.

3. Specific goals work best

The more specific your goal, the better, right? How else will you know what to do?

The problem with making your goals concrete is it makes it BORING. In the words of behavioural scientist and author Ayelet Fishbach, it turns it into a chore, and we don’t like chores.

You are better to make them abstract so you are reminded of the purpose of your goal - why you want to bother. So “look after my fitness” is better than “go to the gym 5 times a week” because it gives you more avenues to creatively meet your goal.

And yet, people think getting into the nitty gritty is the best approach. SMART goals, for example, that emphasise specificity and getting down to the nitty-boring-gritty. In workplaces this seems to me to be more about control than it does getting the best from your people.

4. Numbers are objective

A bizarre thing happens when numbers are presented in a spreadsheet or graph. We believe they’re factual, truthful and objective.

The media excitedly publishes the latest opinion poll and businesses churn out 5 year projections.

All based on the assumption that numbers don’t lie. They are a single point of truth.

I’m guessing the allure is because numbers represent a distillation of information. There’s an absence of commentary so we all think we are taking the same meaning. A 1000 to me is 1000 to you.

But numbers are subject to interpretation and sensemaking. We compare it to reference points to understand whether it is good or bad. If I’m a BabyBoomer downsizing, that house for $1.5m is inexpensive, whereas if I’m a Gen Z trying to get in the market, it is out of reach.

And while I’m not saying numbers are wrong (#notallnumbers), I am saying we forget to query the source of the number. A satisfaction rating of 8/10 might seem factual, but it was based on subjective interpretation. I might think you giving me 8/10 means you really like my stuff, but you meant it to mean “you’re ok, I suppose”.

5. We are rational 

The biggest myth of all is that we are rational - that we always make decisions on the basis of facts and logic. Sometimes yes, but oftentimes no. 

It feels like we use logic because we spend most of our day explaining (to ourselves or others) why we did something or imagining what we would do.

But in terms of logic:

  •  Logic is retrospective - we join the dots and explain our behaviour in hindsight so it makes sense.
  •  Logic is hypothetical - we believe we’ll act in a particular way in a future circumstance, even though we probably won’t.

For an insight into what this means, check out my video on where behavioural economics fits in the customer insights landscape.

The problem, when it comes to influencing people to influence behaviour differently, is we think logic will work better than feelings and associations to convince them to bother.

I’m doing it now. Trying to convince you of the merit of behavioural science by laying out my argument.

The problem for behavioural science and for me in this piece, is that these beliefs, and many like them, prevail. Watching this is a sugar hit but won’t change your behaviour.


Three reasons

  •  We are creatures of habit, and behaving in a new way is effortful. In short, we are Lazy.
  •  We are loathe to try something different in case it fails. In other words we are Scared. Why be great when you can be safely mediocre? And
  •  We don’t know where to start. We’re Confused.

Any behaviour change, whether it’s starting to use behavioural science in your business, getting a customer to click a button, or a colleague to reply to your email, requires we overcome these three barriers. Lazy, Scared and Confused.

But how Bri? I hear you ask.

The easiest way if you want to be shown exactly what to do is to just do this.

Just Do This is my online membership program which cuts to the chase and shows you exactly how to use the best of behavioural science in your business, protecting you from falling back into old habits and relying on outdated, debunked myths about human behaviour.

The science of influence may have had an influence problem, but you don’t need to.


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