Skip to main content
To Change Behavior, First Change Your Message

To Change Behavior, First Change Your Message

Friday, October 4, 2013

Imagine you’ve created the perfect food for children over 6 months old. It’s highly nutritious, easy to grow and prepare, cheap, available, flavorful, and culturally acceptable. You’ve even designed an education campaign that will explain all of the benefits of consuming your food. You expect that families will switch over to this food as soon as they can. After all, it’s the only rational thing to do. But, in real life, things are unlikely to evolve according to your plan. People are more likely to look the other way than to adopt your wonderful new food. 

What could be going on? 

The fact is that getting anyone to change his or her ways is a hard task. Presenting people with information about why something is a good decision has almost never been a successful strategy for behavior change. 

 If we don’t work with the ways people actually think and behave then even the most wonderful nutritional innovations won’t benefit those they are meant to help.
On top of that, we often don’t act in our own long-term interests, even when we lose a lot by not doing so. As a consequence, we smoke cigarettes, eat poorly, and shorten our own lives.

These are some of the problems that the team at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and I are looking at from the perspective of social science. 

Recently, we held a workshop for a number of organizations working on child nutrition. We described different lessons and findings from social science research and behavioral economics, which deal with how people really behave. And the attendees, in turn, told us about some of the specific challenges they see in their work.

For example, one organization, HarvestPlus, has new high-iron beans that they distribute to farmers. They’d like the farmers to “pay it forward” at harvest by giving some of the new beans to other farmers to grow, keeping some beans, and selling some beans. But they find that farmers underreport their harvest in order to keep more beans for eating and selling. What’s to be done?

Using some of the behavioral economics principles we’d talked about at the workshop, HarvestPlus came up with an interesting idea: host a lottery to determine in advance who, in a group of farmers, would get the beans or plantings each year. 

This way, the “paying it forward” would not be abstract. The farmers would know exactly who they need to give the beans to and who they’d hurt by reneging on their promise. On top of that, they could carry out a socially salient celebration at the time of exchange to make the contract not just between two individuals but a part of the whole social group. HarvestPlus also wanted to add a chart to indicate who was on duty for the bean redistribution. That marker would let everyone know who was supposed to do what, at all times.

From what we know about human behavior, these changes to the marketplace are likely to be more effective than simply asking the farmers to give back some of their beans. (But of course all ideas should be tested).

This is just one type of application. I am hopeful that over time, more and more organizations will apply lessons from social science to nutritional interventions. These kinds of interventions will go beyond the assumption that all we need to do is to present people with information in order for them to be moved to take action on that information. These interventions will take into account the complexity of human nature.

After all, if we don’t work with the ways people actually think and behave then even the most wonderful nutritional innovations won’t benefit those they are meant to help. 


Durham, NC 27708 | 919.681.6019


Gross Hall, 2nd Floor
140 Science Drive
Durham, NC 27708


Erwin Mill Building
2024 W. Main St.
Durham, NC 27705

Social Media

Follow @dukessri on twitter