This is a legacy website for the Behavioural Design Lab. It is no longer updated.
Behavioural Design Lab Subscribe Bird Contact

Treat behaviour change like a zero-sum game

Design-thinking, Marketing, Psychology

Image by Flickr user Luigi Anzivino; used under Creative Commons Attribution licence

One of the most important laws in science is the ‘conservation of energy’.

In our Universe energy can neither be created nor destroyed, it can only change form. When you boil water, electrical energy is converted into thermal energy in the hob, which is transferred to the water molecules, causing them to move faster and heat up. Any increase in energy is balanced by a decrease in energy elsewhere.  The sum is zero.

We get our energy from respiration. Chemical energy from the glucose in our cells is released through a series of reactions. All parts of the body use energy but the brain accounts for about 60% of glucose use when we’re in a resting state. Making or inhibiting choices and actions causes neurons to fire, using up a constant supply.

This is often forgotten.

When we observe people making poor decisions, it’s easy to conclude they have made an active decision to do so. The default response it to offer advice and information to tip the balance of their decision, for example providing calorie information in restaurants to shift people to the healthy option.

By making important information more accessible, or telling people what to do, the assumption is we’re making life easier, taking off the pressure and showing them the correct path. But most of the time we’re asking people to do more, not less.

It takes time and energy to break the status quo, going from simple automatic actions to complicated decisions – learning to cook new recipes, counting calories, exercising more, spending less and so on. Over time these may become the norm but it takes self-control to stick with them.

The term ‘ego depletion’, coined by Roy Baumeister, refers to the idea that every conscious decision or action we make draws on a limited resource, akin to energy, which impairs self-control on subsequent tasks. Every decision we make drains more of valuable mental reserves, leading to ‘decision fatigue’.

In an early experiment, Baumeister found that people who forced themselves to eat radishes instead of chocolate gave up quicker on difficult puzzles. Similarly, people who were asked to suppress their emotions during a film performed worse at an anagram game requiring self-regulation.

Behaviour change must be treated like a zero-sum game.

If we’re asking people to do more with the same time and energy, then either something else must give way or the programme will fail. The challenge is to minimise the resources required to meet the desired goal.

More information is not the answer.

Good design is.

Making things simpler is difficult but that’s what good design does.

The way to tackle major problems like unhealthy eating or overspending is to design better products, services and applications that make it easy to maintain self-control, while conserving time and energy. Good designers work to achieve what’s best within the constraints.

Only by understanding the reality of people’s lives can we truly understand these problems. We can then design out any physical or mental barriers to help people go with the flow of making better decisions.

Most of the time the problem won’t be a lack of information.

It will be a lack of energy.

Behaviour change is a zero-sum game.

© 2015 Warwick Business School and the Design Council