Do behaviour change campaigns really work?
In the aftermath of the catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires that claimed 173 lives in 2009, the Victorian government spent millions of dollars on a campaign encouraging people in high fire risk areas to leave early on days of extreme fire danger. Astonishingly, post analysis of the campaign indicated that, while 60 percent of people had told researchers that they would leave, less than 1 percent actually didleave.
What’s at work here? How is it that people’s best rational intentions can be so comprehensively abandoned?
More importantly, how does this inform governments around the world that spend billions of dollars attempting to encourage health-positive or socially progressive behaviour?
Our work with Australia’s leading neuro-marketing expert, Dr Peter Stiedl, led us to develop some remarkable insights into the human brain and how it works. Here’s the executive summary.
A brain in three parts
In the late 1940s, eminent US scientist and Yale research fellow, Paul MacLean, developed the Evolutionary Triune Brain Theory, proposing that the human brain was in reality three brains in one: the reptilian complex, the limbic system, and the neo-cortex.
Part of the theory (now widely accepted) is based on an understanding that the limbic brain developed throughout our evolutionary development, whereas the rational brain has formed largely during the latter stages as we began to become human. The limbic brain is highly adapted to the needs of a dangerous and threat-filled environment. It is attuned to fight or flight. It drives our emotional responses, urges and impulses. And it is powerful.
By contrast, the more recently developed neo-cortex or reasoning brain is what we use for all the really smart things we do. It can help us rationalize things, make arguments, do the math, design, create and orate.
But up against the more limbic system, it’s a weakling. And it’s at the mercy of our more primal instincts.
Back to the bushfire case
The Bushfire Royal Commission held in the aftermath of Black Saturday recommended a public education campaign encouraging people in high fire-risk areas to leave early on days of extreme or catastrophic fire danger and seek shelter in urban centres.
The result was a ‘shock and awe’ campaign so disturbing as to be given a ‘restricted’ rating limiting its scheduling to after children’s viewing times.
Thought the authorities; surely this approach, so soon after the Black Saturday tragedy, would be enough to galvanise at-risk communities into action.
You can only imagine their disappointment when follow-up research indicated that, although 60% of promised to leave, only 1% acted.
It was only through our work with Dr Steidl that we began to understand that it wasn’t just psychology at work, but physiology as well.
Simply put, our limbic brains win every time in a contest against the reasoning brain. In fact, the limbic brain can even persuade the reasoning brain to shift its reasoning if it suits it.
So while the reasoning brain had acknowledged the fire risk warning and was saying “I probably should go,” the limbic brain was responding to the fact that there was no clear and present threat – no fire coming over the hill, no sirens, no smoke.
So the limbic brain downgraded the threat to the point where it was less pressing than the usual matters of family life. And the rational brain simply caved in for the sake of convenience.
Getting around the limbic brain
I remember talking to Stewart Byfield, a co-author of the original Drink, Drive, Bloody Idiot campaign. In this landmark Victorian TAC campaign, the behaviour change challenge was addressed very effectively through a combination of legislation, enforcement and education.
But framing risk to the limbic brain was still incredibly difficult – especially when targeting young men. And is it any wonder – evolution has primed young males to be risk takers (hunters, fighters, explorers, protectors). Being risk averse would have been somewhat counterproductive in times when the limbic brain was forming.
Stewart explained the importance of research in the development of the campaign. It showed that convincing young males that speed and alcohol were lethal combinations was impossible if the threat was framed in the context of harm-to-self. While subjects could be coached to ‘say the right thing’, deeper analysis showed that their limbic brains simply couldn’t rationalize themselves as anything other than unbreakable. So the risk had to be framed as the loss of a friend – a best mate maimed or killed. It was only the notion of survivor guilt that tipped the emotional scale in favor of a behavioural shift.
This insight enabled the message to be framed in a way that made sense to the limbic brain. Its success speaks volumes for the approach.
The same technique was used (reportedly with success) by the NSW RTA to target young men in a road safety campaign where irresponsible driving was equated to being compensatory behaviour for being poorly ‘endowed’.
What could an effective wildfire safety campaign look like?
With the limbic brain designed to respond to a dangerous world, the question arises as to how bushfire risk could be framed in the absence of smoke and flames. The answer, we felt, lay in another key limbic instinct – the tribal urge. Humans have evolved to want to cluster – for protection, for sexual contact, for social interaction. How could this innate need be leveraged to change behaviour?
The answer is simple, but not easy.
Communities in bushfire prone areas are usually tight. They’re small and closely connected. So social opprobrium could be a powerful tool in encouraging behaviour change.
If the effects of not leaving could be shown to put other community members at risk, then the community should be encouraging compliance. And if this community sentiment were communicated powerfully, the consequence of being outside the pack would be social censure and even excoriation.
But there’s a challenge here. This approach will only work if the threat is authentic. If not, the ‘herd’ will quickly dismiss the very threat that would underpin its members’ motivation for change.
Lessons to be learned
Tens of millions of dollars have been wasted on ‘behaviour change’ campaigns over the years. In most cases, this is of no concern. Politicians feel better and are seen to have ‘done their duty’. Public servants have acted responsibly and, if held to account, can point to the education programs they’ve invested in.
But if the need for behavioural change is indeed consequential and important to people’s lives or public wellbeing, your campaign should be built on the following ingredients:
- The risk must be real and credible in the first instance
- It must be framed in a way that motivates the limbic brain
- Wherever possible, your behavior change campaign should be supported by the legislative and enforcement changes. These are clear signals to the limbic brain that the ‘herd’ (community) attitude is changing and what the new behavioural expectation is.
Only then is it time to get creative.