The 80/20 Principle To Influence Behaviour Change

When helping someone change their behaviour, almost all of us use the intuitive model that’s been ingrained in us from an early age.

It’s a simple, three-step method that seems perfectly logical.

The Intuitive Model

  • Step #1 — Get their attention with a wake-up call.
  • Step #2 — Show them the consequences that happen if they don’t change.
  • Step #3 — Give them a road map that shows them how them how to change.

Makes sense, right?

Here’s the one downside of this model: it doesn’t work.

Vital Behaviours

Our model for influencing change — the Influencer Approach — looks at three things.

  1. What are the results you’re after?
  2. What are the behaviours that drive those results?
  3. What can you do to influence those behaviours?

Right now, I want to take a deep look into the vital behaviours. Before we can help influence change, we need to know what to change.

Imagine your daughter came to you and said, “I found the person I want to marry. We’re deeply in love, so what can I do to make sure our love lasts?”

Would you know what to say?

It turns out, the researchers have answered this question pretty well.

First you have to look at the crucial moments in a marriage. It turns out most married couple have about 300 disagreements each year.

That’s right — 300! Think about that for a second.

To be fair, these disagreements aren’t over major marital issues. They’re over small things like leaving the sink full of dirty dishes or not mowing the lawn on time.

The amazing thing is that if you look at happily married couples versus less happily married or divorced couples, the number of disagreements isn’t any less.

Disagreeing is part of being a couple.

The difference is, happy couples can disagree in ways that are honest, frank, respectful, and loving.

So, if your daughter asked you how to make love last, you wouldn’t tell her to reduce the number of arguments. That’s what our Intuitive Model would lead us to say, but eliminating disagreements is not the problem.

Instead, you’d teach her how to resolve disagreements in a way that’s loving and honest.

The vital behaviour that needs changing isn’t the number of disagreements — it’s how the we resolve the disagreements we’re guaranteed to have.

Which Behaviour Changes Make The Most Difference?

It turns out the 80/20 rule is right — 20% of behaviours drive 80% of change.

For instance, in the United States about 100,000 people die every year from hospital-acquired infections. What’s the vital behaviour that would most significantly reduce these deaths?

Washing our hands.

Across the world, about 4.5 million people die in traffic fatalities every year. What are the three biggest behaviours that could change that?

  1. Driving at safe speeds.
  2. Eliminating drunk driving.
  3. Wearing our seatbelts.

Of course, other behaviours are responsible for traffic fatalities, like distracted driving for example. While these other behaviours are indeed serious, we’re trying to find the behaviours that make the most difference to get the results we want.

In this case, the result we’re after is fewer traffic fatalities and these three behaviours are most responsible.

Back when I was in graduate school in the 1970’s, I was working at the Stanford Heart Disease Prevention Clinic. We studied people who lived in San Jose, California, trying to separate the healthy from the unhealthy.

This was a long time ago and so much in the world has changed since then, but it’s not difficult to guess that human behaviours haven’t changed that much.

What are two things that healthy people do more of than less healthy people?

  1. They exercise, and
  2. They eat right.

What’s one thing that less healthy people do more of?

  1. They smoke.

Those were the big three in the 1970’s, and they’re still the big three today.

You’re a smart person and I’m sure you know a lot about living a healthy lifestyle. Many of us, though, know more about living a healthy lifestyle than we actually put into practice.

That’s the influence problem, and it’s the next step in the Influencer Approach, but remember: before we can influence change, we need to know what to change.

Latest Blog Posts

Stop Apologising

Have you found yourself in a relationship where you find yourself constantly apologising and feeling like you’re being taken advantage of? Genuinely expressing sorrow and


Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Improve communication, habits, productivity and more with weekly insights and tips from our authors and experts.

Join our 10,000+ community.