Tag Archive for behavior change

Identity and Action

A friend just pointed me at a fantastic* study of voting behavior, well-summarized at Language Log.

People were asked about their future voting behavior in one of two forms. Some people were asked whether they were going to vote. In other words, they were asked to predict their future behavior. However, a second group were asked if they were voters. These people had to predict what they might do in context of their identity as “voter,” or perhaps more likely, “someone who is actively engaged with civil society and shows it by voting.”

Guess which group was more likely to vote**? The second group – the ones who were reminded of how the specific action (voting) would advertise a positive element of their identity (being a “voter”).

We all use our actions to advertise who we think we are, especially when those identities are supported by a community that we’re a part of. For example, I think of myself as a reader. I advertise my reader-self all the time – by reading in public, by talking about books with friends, by writing about what I read here on this site. I get lots of social approbation for being a reader, too, whether in the form of explicit compliments or access to awesome people who like to talk books with me.

The study authors point out, though, that voting is quite private behavior. It’s also something that only happens once in a while; you don’t exactly get regular reinforcement for it! Perhaps the identity-invocation works so well because people aren’t getting it in the course of their ordinary voting lives. If people were reminded of themselves as voters every day, I bet we’d see a positive effect on voting rates in this country.

Of course, the question becomes who thinks of themselves as “a voter.” I had a fascinating conversation with Jay Blahnik*** at the GE Game Changers Summit yesterday about just this issue. He explained that he works with people who run – but that some people who run very seriously are hesitant about taking on the identity of “runner.” Within the community, there’s a concept of what being a runner means, and who gets to define that concept, that leaves some people out. For example, before Nike+, “runners” didn’t listen to music. Some people ran a lot but also listened to music, which left them outside the bounds of the “runner” identity. Of course, now that aspect of being a runner is changing!****

What I’m wondering is this. Does being a voter work like being a runner? Do some people simply not feel included by that identity, even as they participate in the behavior it describes? What do people think they have to do to “be a voter”? Do they see it as a personal quality, like competence or moral behavior, that relies largely on their own individual actions, or are there people who implicitly decide who’s in and out?

Of course, I’m also thinking hard about how we might answer these questions for the identity of “learner” someday!

* Not a surprise; Carol Dweck was a co-author, and I respect her enormously.

** It actually turns out that both groups were more likely to vote than average – possibly because of having participated in the experiment in the first place! But the difference between the groups is still robust, and the implications of the study still significant.

*** Who is fantastic!

**** The term “gamer” is contested, too – but in a much more depressing way, because the term is often deployed to exclude anyone who isn’t straight, white and male. For example, Lesley Kinzel dissects the impressive sexism displayed by a bunch of Battlefield 3 players who excluded women from their LAN party.

Fear Fails

I just came across a piece on the likely effectiveness of the new, gruesome cigarette warning labels developed by the FDA. The idea is to scare people into quitting by graphically illustrating the consequences of smoking, right there on the package. Think this will work?

Nope, me neither.

Over 70% of American smokers already want to quit. That’s over 31 million people – an enormous number. Most of them will fail. The gap between desire and performance suggests we’ve been largely successful at educating people about the risks of smoking, but much less successful at helping them actually stop doing it.

The point of failure isn’t educational. It’s behavioral.

Telling someone, “Stop smoking or terrible things might happen to you someday!” is about as ineffective an intervention as you can imagine, even when it’s backed up by images. Our brains don’t do well with might or someday, especially when the decisions that get us to might and someday are repeated, daily behaviors. It’s easy for us to talk ourselves out of a conditional and faraway goal; after all, this cigarette won’t kill you. And if the little decisions get repeated often enough, they may take their toll on your willpower* – or hit you at a time when you’re not in the mood to think about your long-term goals in the first place.

Is it any wonder that fewer than 5% of smokers successfully quit on their own? When we say, “Just stop smoking,” we’re asking smokers to do something extraordinarily difficult and complex. However, we often speak and act as though it’s easy. This is a lie, and it’s one that is deeply damaging for smokers – especially those who have tried to quit and failed.

That’s why I’m so proud to be involved with the Lit2Quit project. When my students first came to me with the notion of a smoking-reduction game, I told them they had one restriction: they could not tell people to quit. That’s not the missing link for most quitters. What they came up with – and what I’ve been honored to be involved with, over the past two years – focuses on the behavioral aspect of quitting. When you’re not feeling serious or goal-oriented, you might still be willing to play a game; when your willpower is not at its best, the game helps reduce your cravings so you’re more likely to be able to manage them.

The difference between our project and the FDA’s new approach is fundamental. The FDA seems to believe that more information will help people quit smoking. The assumption is that people only smoke because they don’t really understand how bad it is for them; if the FDA can just communicate the facts more effectively, people will change their actions. Our project assumes the opposite. People who want to quit know what to do, but the hard part is translating it into action. That’s where we can help. As we collect our data, we’re finding out just how much!

* There’s some indication that the resource-depletion model of willpower may actually be a mindset issue; if you believe that your willpower gets depleted over time, it does, but if not, not. However, there’s enough long-standing research into willpower as a depletable resource that I’m not yet ready to toss the notion without further personal investigation.