OPINION: How not to win friends, but influence people

Richard Chataway
By Richard Chataway | 30 November 2012

Some behaviours exist on such a mass scale that changing them can seem an impossible task. How do we stop people drinking or eating too much? How can Bing persuade people not to use Google?
Perhaps the answer lies in the varied worlds of NBA basketball star LeBron James and TV illusionist Derren Brown. They tell us a lot about how communications can change ‘super-sized‘ behaviour.

Collective group behaviours (or ‘social norms’ if you prefer the jargon) are hugely influenced by what people around us are doing. You only have to spend time in a schoolyard to know that’s true.

The British illusionist, hypnotist and ‘mentalist’ Derren Brown specializes in influencing people to behave in ways you might not expect. In his most recent show ‘The Experiments’, aired on SBS, he persuades a studio audience to subject an unknown victim to a random arrest, destruction of his property, kidnapping, and ultimately murder (or so the audience think). It’s a sobering example of deindividuation - the ability for groups to undertake evil acts under perceived mob anonymity.

Fortunately, working in communications in Australia we rarely have to deal with that level of evil. Social norms are often much more benign. Take the recent trend, seen amongst the hipsters of Surry Hills and Fitzroy, of people with 20/20 vision wearing no-lens glasses.

Personally, I find this deeply offensive (I need my glasses to see, are you taking the piss out of my disability?) but despite my reservations this influences others. Visually unimpaired NBA All-Stars LeBron James and Dwayne Wade say they wear specs outside the court to make them appear more serious for potential sponsors, and to encourage (especially black) children to see academia as an equally valid route to success as pro sport. Four million Americans do the same.

So how can we, as communicators, influence these kinds of mass behaviours in positive ways? The examples above show that celebrities, or other key influencers, can achieve these ‘signaling’ effects for us. But this can backfire - look at Lance Armstrong.

Often a social norm takes a long time, and multiple interventions (i.e. not just communications) to change, as with football hooliganism, or drink driving. Mark Earls, author of ‘Herd’ and recent speaker to the Account Planning Group in Melbourne, advocates focusing on the interactions between individuals, rather than the people themselves.  Or, as Mad Men’s Don Draper observed: ‘If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation’.

I think it’s simpler. Frame an engaging message in the right way (as Derren Brown knows), and the ‘herd’ will follow. In other words – do communications well.

Richard Chataway
Director, Behaviour Change Unit

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