The Subtle Influencer: How to Modify Your Surroundings to Influence Behaviour


Imagine yourself as the influencer in this situation: At a casino, you want more people to use the stairs rather than the escalator.

Start brainstorming.

How can you convince them to take the stairs?

First, check out this time-lapse video of the control condition. As you watch, count how many people take the stairs during this hour.

Only a few choose the stairs. So, how do we influence more people to choose the stairs?

Think about your choices for motivating people:

  • Maybe you consider a personal motivation strategy?
  • Maybe you re-frame the choice?
  • Is there a skill you need to develop?
  • How could social influence affect choosing the stairs?
  • Is there an incentive you can provide?

Although any source of influence has the potential to change behaviour, we implemented structural influence.

We realised that most people follow the crowd (fairly mindlessly) when deciding which route to take through a building. We wanted to jar them into alertness and give them the chance to choose.

So, we added one structural cue. At the bottom of the escalator and stairs, we posted a sign that read, “Want to burn 7 calories?” with an arrow to the left.

Watch what happens.

Isn’t that remarkable? Just a basic sign resulted in so much change.

Don’t Underestimate The Small Cues

Sometimes, we’re naive about what shapes our choices. Small cues nudge us in ways we grossly underestimate.

The fifth and sixth sources of influence — structural motivation and structural ability — use space, data, cues, tools, processes, and other environmental factors to influence others. The space we inhabit affects our choices.

If you wonder why your kids play more video games and read fewer books, look at the design of your home. What’s enshrined at the centre? What’s convenient? What has comfortable chairs nearby? The home environment itself promotes TV over reading.

Structural factors profoundly affect our choices.

As we strive to influence others, we must learn how to use our surroundings to make bad behaviour more difficult and conscious, while making good behaviour easier and obvious.

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