Julie Dirkson on the Science of Behaviour Change

ATD2015 session M221 is with Julie Dirksen, who is interested in the funny side of human behaviour. Why do humans do what they do? And why don’t they do what they should do? We teach people things and test them to prove that they know it. We run skills assessment sessions, training sessions and do all sorts of things to be sure that people are able do what they need to do, but they still don’t. Think compliance, think about new processes, think about systems you introduce.. How come all that learning doesn’t create sustainable behavioural change? (Or just ANY change). Let’s find out…



We are all two people

The first problem Dirksen sees is that we are all two people: We have a “rider” (the one who knows where he wants to go) and an “elephant” (the emotional beast that needs to start walking). If you want the elephant to advance, you send him a message. But the elephant doesn’t always do what the rider asks.
An example: You are told that exercise is good for you. The rider says “Awesome! Let’s plan some fitness activities and start doing it. I am bound to see some results in a few weeks.” But the elephant says “That sounds awful. “The Voice” is on the television and I’m eating my burger.”

Who is going to win?

What is going on

Dirksen explains that the rider (rational) is the one who thinks of the future and who judges what is good and bad in the long-term. But the elephant (emotional) only cares about now. So I can easily have conflict.

The elephant is asking how easy the reward is compared to the effort required and how big the reward is perceived to be. If he sees a small win now and it’s easy to achieve, he will prefer that to a small win much later. If the effort is perceived as high, then the reward may not seem worth it. Unless the reward is high enough. Or I’m going to get some output quickly.

How can I do this?

What we need to do is show the elephant a better balance in terms of size, tangibility and immediacy of the reward. If you know the tax declaration is required tomorrow, you can probably convince the elephant that sleep is not so interesting tonight after all.

OK, tell me how!

Here are Dirksen’s tips for bringing some of that balance to get some real behavioural change.


Change the size of the reward. Maybe.

Even if you can’t change her real reward, you can maybe add in some points or badges or cash or prizes. Dirksen suggest this might work to get the fire started a little, but if you are using too much of this type of extrinsic reward style, what you will really do is reinforce the behaviour of “Doing it for the other reward” rather than doing it because it’s good, the right thing to do. This might work for a little while, but Dirksen suggests that eventually those rewards will not seems as appealing. There are only so many sweets you can offer before the kids are “full” and won’t tidy their rooms for sweets anymore.

Make the reward more tangible

Dirksen shared an example of research where people were shown the tangible impact of using too much paper: During a speech about reducing paper use, one group of people is shown a video of trees being cut down. Another group is not. After the course, as participants are leaving the room, the facilitator knocks over a glass of water and stands back to see what happens when people are offered paper towels to clean up the water. Results? Those who had seen the video used on average 25% less paper towels.

In the training world, if we want to make things more tangible, we can use roleplays, simulations my, trials, observations, tinkering etc..

But Dirksen says it is absolutely key to make the elephant see the tangibliity, not the rider. To do this, you have to create some feeling, not more knowledge for the rider. Examples:

  • Don’t tell smokers it is bad, make them smoke so much they feel sick. Then repeat, until the elephant feels sick!
  • Find ways to visibly show progress to learners. As they get better, reinforce success by showing them “the progress bar” going up


Make it easier

No-one wants to put too much effort into something. So we need to make it easierf or the elephant to move forward.

One example is the use of prepared scripting. Get your learners to prepare in advance what they will do when the time comes. That way they won’t have to think too much. “If I get into situation X, I will do Y.” (This can help with the 20-second rule we saw from Dick Ruhe yesterday.)

Another way to make it easier is to help the elephant understand what others do. The elephant wants to blend in. If it has to think for itself about what is right, it will give up and take the easy habitual option. But if it gets a clear sign about what is the socially accepted norm, it will just naturally want to confirm. So: Share stories!

That’s all folks!

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About Dan Steer

Wandering corporate trainer, learning and development consultant, conference speaker and professional El-Magico. I help people get better at stuff by creating and facilitating Infinite Learning © opportunities. The world would be a better place if everyone was doing what he loved and doing it well. I am working to bring out the "El Magico" in everybody. Training in presentation and communication skills, leadership, social media for learning and marketing, learning and development management + personal effectiveness.

Posted on May 18, 2015, in Learning Management and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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