Behavior Design: How to Influence People to Act More Sustainably

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In his webinar “Sustainable Behavior Design,” regeneration expert and sustainable behavior strategist Jorn Craeghs shared with us some incredible insights into behavioral sciences and how they can be the basis of how we think of behavior and influence behavior in a positive way to contribute to sustainability. 
In case you missed the webinar, here is a quick recap of the main takeaways of the session!

So many ideas for sustainability. So little action.

This is the main frustration sustainable behavior design revolves around. The fact is that we know we could potentially solve all the big sustainability issues in the world with the ideas that are already out there if it wasn’t for the fact that those ideas are not put into practice: they are not used enough, embraced enough, bought enough, etc.

There is still what we call the ‘intention-action gap.’ ‘Action’ means that we have to do something; it’s the link between an idea and the actual impact that idea can have. And to do that, we have to make actual choices – different choices – and change our behavior.

For example, one societal problem is skin cancer. We have invented a solution to this problem: regularly using sunscreen. Sunscreen is easily found in any supermarket, pharmacy, or online shop. But if people don’t apply it before heading out, the invention will be useless. 

Another example that may be more connected to the business world is bad company culture. Now, one solution for it would be to bring honesty and transparency into every business interaction. Too often, though, those are just abstract concepts for people: if we think of a behavior that fosters transparency and openness, we might, for example, turn to feedback. Giving constructive feedback after meetings is a habit that would have a significant impact on that issue. Still, if we don’t stimulate it and make it part of our modus operandi, we’re just spreading ideas and not making any impact. 

That’s why Jorn Craeghs founded NONO: a sustainable behavior agency relying on behavioral sciences to change people’s and companies’ behavior to generate and spread actual change, to figure out why people aren’t showing sustainable behaviors and how to stimulate it instead.

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The foundation of behavioral science

Behavioral sciences teach us that the human brain has two systems of thinking:

  1. System 1 is unconscious: it’s fast, automatic, intuitive, and regulates our flight or flight response, for example.
  2. System 2 is conscious, intentional: it’s slow, takes up a lot of energy, and it’s rational.

Turns out, humans rely much more on their system 1 of thinking when it comes to decision-making and behavior. 

This leads us to the fact that humans are predictably irrational beings. If we dive into behavioral sciences, there are more and more insights into how we make decisions. They also help us understand those decision-making processes to change and influence habits and behaviors. 

That’s helpful when it comes to sustainability and motivating people to act more sustainably and change their habits. On a behavioral level, this means that three elements need to be in place for behavior to happen.


This formula means that no behavior will ever happen if Motivation, Ability, and Prompts (or triggers) aren’t in place at the same time. 

Fogg Behavior Model of what elements behavior depends on

This is crucial when we think about engaging the workforce. We will only create an impact when we can get people to change their behavior to act differently. And so, we have to consider this formula to ensure that there are enough motivation, ability, and prompts to stimulate change on an irrational level.

Turning big leaps into small steps

The first barrier holding people back from acting sustainably is on the level of ability. Sometimes it is hard for people to act sustainably because sustainable behavior feels to people like a big leap.

Here’s an example. It would be beneficial for the environment if we all stopped eating meat. On a perceptional level, though, if we spread this message, it would feel unimaginable to people because ending meat consumption would be a massive step for them.

At the same time, the sustainable options out here are also the less available ones. Think of the big fast-food chains in the world: only the dedicated few customers who are vegetarians or vegans find them on the menu at the bottom of the list. So, in reality, taking sustainable actions is often a big leap in our perception. 

So how can we boost ability?

The simple answer is to break those actions down into small steps. 

To go back to the previous example, the message ‘less meat’ does, in reality, works better than the message ‘no meat,’ and it has shown better results in the short and long term. This is more imaginable and achievable for people now, and maybe in the future, the following step will too. They can also see eliminating meat altogether as an imaginable option. 

The technique of chunking is another way to break things up into smaller steps: we can break up actions and behavior so that it becomes more manageable mentally. If we dilute tasks people will feel like they can actually do it all.

At the same time, we should also be thinking of how we can turn certain actions into default behaviors. Often the sustainable option is the alternative option, and the non-sustainable option is the default option.

Burger King, another fast food restaurant, actually thought about this, and in Vienna, they turned the sustainable option into the default one. If you go into Burger King there and you order a Whopper, you get the plant-based one, whereas if you want the option with meat, you have to ask for it. This is an excellent way to make the unsustainable option the alternative instead of the other way around.

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Turning negative social norms into positive ones

If we delve into the motivational barriers, a subconscious barrier we experience is that of negative social norms. 

When people rationally understand that some behavior is unsustainable, they look around them and see that many people act normal while doing an unsustainable behavior (flying way more than they should, driving to work when they can take public transportation, etc.). So because of that, our rational thinking understands that it’s unacceptable, but our subconscious thought doesn’t register that because so many people are doing it; therefore, it must be normal. 

People who want to stimulate sustainable behaviors sometimes even add to that because we launch campaigns and put a spotlight on the undesirable behavior to make the problem big and draw attention to the urgency at hand. However, subconsciously, our brains think that behavior is probably still acceptable because so many people are still doing it. Behavioral sciences show that by doing this, the chances are much higher than they are actually stimulating the bad behavior because it’s normalized. 

However, social norms can also be turned around and used for the better. For example, you should spotlight the positive behavior and social norms that can be a positive booster and motivational trigger for consumers.

It is not because it’s not evenly distributed that sustainable behavior is not happening out there. So how can we start distributing it more evenly? The more direct way is to use a language that accentuates the rising trends of sustainable behaviors to give people the idea that it’s actually a widespread behavior and they should hop on board.

Think of the so-called ‘solar panel effect’: the amount of solar panels within the shortest distance from a house is the most critical factor in determining the likelihood of that house also having a solar panel when compared to a host of socio-economic and demographic variables.

Social comparison also stimulates people to be more energy efficient: a sustainable energy provider wanted people to act more energy efficient and share the performance of each user compared to their neighbors. Nobody wanted to be less than others, so they became more energy-efficient. 

Moving from outgroup to ingroup messengers

The messenger is the person bringing a message across, the trigger(-er). And when someone is perceived as an outgroup – someone who is different from you because they don’t share the same values – then often people don’t even pay attention to them. And the trigger and the message aren’t effective because they don’t even come across. 

We also see this in organizations; people sometimes won’t be convinced and won’t pay attention because they feel no connection with the messenger bringing that across. The way to then get a message across and stimulate the right kind of behavior is by thinking of ingroup messengers and how we can bring the message across with someone from an ingroup so as to stimulate actual behavior and actions, depending on who we want to influence.

To truly bring a message across to a vast audience, then, we need different stories from different messages. And that goes for your organization, too: who is the right messenger to reach the people you want to reach?

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