Charlotte Rush17 December 2019

Why giving people choice is the secret ingredient to changing behaviour

Demanding that someone change their behaviour is as frustrating as trying to accelerate your car out of quicksand. The more you put your foot down, the further you sink in.

The reason why is because all humans have an innate psychological need for autonomy. Autonomy is a desire to feel in control of our own behaviour.  Every day we seek to demonstrate this autonomy through our own agency – our capacity to act independently and make our own choices. When this agency is threatened, we lack the motivation to act. So, when seeking to influence others, we need to provide autonomy and the choice to choose.

If you are guilty of relying upon control when attempting to change behaviour, here are three tips to influence others by tapping into the power of autonomy:

1. Give choice to increase compliance in tasks that people don’t like doing.

Can giving people the opportunity to demonstrate autonomy increase compliance in tasks that we dislike, such as paying taxes?

In one study conducted at Harvard Business School, participants were given $10 compensation to complete a task. They were advised that they would be asked to pay a 30% tax by leaving $3 in an envelope on their desk before leaving the lab. More than two thirds of people complied with giving tax when given the option to provide input on how the tax money would be used to benefit other lab participants (e.g. snacks and enhanced incentives for future participants). This was in contrast to a second group who were not given any option on how the tax would be allocated, with only one in two participants in this group complying.

What this research highlights is that giving people a choice enhances their sense of control, even with tasks we dislike. This control motivates people to act (or in this case, comply).

2. Give people the option of doing nothing.

What if we gave people the choice of doing nothing? Researchers at Wharton Business School and Mack Robinson College of Business were interested to understand the impact this might have on people’s behaviour when working towards goals.

In one experiment, they asked participants to complete a word-search puzzle. The task was to identify as many words as possible with researchers measuring how long participants persisted. Participants were told they would receive a performance-based bonus and that familiarity with the topic would improve their performance.

The first group were given the option of two choices: a word-search puzzle on famous actors or capital cities. The second group were given the same options as well as the option to not participate (no one selected this option). Finally, the third group were given the two options plus a third unattractive topic: famous ballet dancers. Again, no one selected this third option.

The group that was given the option to not participate persisted significantly longer than the other two conditions. The researchers argue that the awareness that you have selected to do something when you could have done nothing reinforces your preference for the option chosen. This results in greater persistence towards goals.

This highlights one way in which to increase your commitment to a goal – by giving yourself (or others!) the option to do nothing.

3. Remind people that they have exercised their control.

I was in San Francisco a few years ago and a friend told me that I could design my own shoes at the local Converse shop. Despite never before owning a pair of Converse shoes (and never actually wanting to own a pair), I was thrilled with the idea. If any of you are familiar with “the IKEA effect”, you probably understand my delight – we humans have a tendency to overvalue our own creations.

collection of researchers from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience in London were interested to explore whether you actually need to create something to value it more, or if simply believing you have created something is enough to increase its value.

Participants were first asked to evaluate 80 different Converse shoes on a screen. Afterwards, the shoes were split into two groups – the “create” group and the “just watch group”. For the 40 shoes belonging to the “create” group, participants logged onto the Converse site and re-created the designs using the online design application. For the remaining 40 shoes, participants watched a video of the shoe being created.

Two hours later, participants were again asked to rate the shoes. The researchers found that participants rated the shoes they thought they had created two hours before higher than the ones they remembered just watching. However, if a participant incorrectly recalled “just watching” a shoe that they had re-created, they no longer rated it higher. That is, if their memory failed them, the perception of increased value was lost.

Firstly, you don’t have to “create” something to value it more. When setting up a new goal, process or habit, can you get people to perceive that they created it, even if you have done all of the design handywork?

Secondly, we must remind people that they have exercised their control. When people forget that they have exercised their control, they are likely to place less value on a chosen option. This may then influence their likelihood to ‘pick up’ a new behaviour.

Next time you rush to demand that someone change, think instead about how you can create a sense of choice to more successfully change behaviour!