The science of behavior change 

No-shows – people who don’t cancel their unused restaurant reservations – are a huge problem for restaurant owners.  At Chicago’s Alinea, routinely rated one of the world’s finest restaurants, just two canceled tables means the restaurant loses money for the night. What can restaurants owners do to reduce no-show rates?

Getting doctors to comply with notices to wash their hands has long been a thorn in the side of hospitals. Although this simple measure limits the spread of sickness — and would reduce the nation’s hospital health care bill by billions of dollars — many doctors simply ignore it. And years of awareness programs urging doctors to wash up or use disinfectant gels have had little effect.  How can hospitals more effectively motivate health workers to keep their hands clean?

As much as people obsess about negotiating the lowest possible price for a new car, that’s not where car dealerships make their money.  That would be the finance and service departments, where dealerships arrange financing and sell extras like extended-service contracts.  In essence, dealerships are in the business of selling cars so they can service and finance them.  What strategies can dealerships use to encourage cars buyers to sign up for extended service contracts?   

The standard approach to solving problems like these is information - communicating the reasons why changing course is important - and incentives. A hospital, for example, might send out emails to physicians reminding them of the importance of hand washing or offer rewards to surgical teams with the highest compliance rate. Sometimes this approach works. Often it does not.  I work with organizations whose initial efforts to change behavior have failed.

Human behavior doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it is carried out in a rich environment.  Changing even small features of the environment can have a profound influence on how people think and act.  I use insights from the fields of psychology and behavioral economics to help companies change the habits of their employees and customers.  Behavioral science has uncovered a variety of tools for changing behavior.  For example, restaurants can cut no-show rates in half with a simple influence technique. To get doctors to follow hygiene protocol, research shows that communicating the relational impact of their actions outperforms standard interventions. And dealerships can dramatically increase sign up rates for extended warranties by altering the choice architecture, such as changing the default option. 

I help companies with a wide range of behavioral design challenges.  The list below illustrates the kind of issues I help organizations overcome:

  1. How to increase the average donation rate at a non-profit’s main fundraising event

  2. How to increase customer loyalty without using loyalty cards or other monetary incentives

  3. How to improve employee compliance with new data security procedures

  4. How to improve employee engagement despite stagnant wages

  5. How to increase collaboration across departments


My Approach to Behavioral Design 

My approach to behavioral design focuses on four critical elements of behavior change.

1. Identify the behavior

The first step in the process is to identify the behavior or set of behaviors that you wish to change.  This can be straightforward when the problematic behavior is concrete (e.g., high turnover rate).  But very often the desired change is too broadly construed or difficult to measure – e.g., wanting to improve team performance – and requires carefully breaking down the broader objective into its basic behavioral elements.  Goal-setting is also essential at this stage. The right behavioral design strategy for increasing donation rates by 5% likely isn’t the best approach for doubling last year’s fundraising totals.

2. Find the barriers

The development of effective behavioral change strategies requires knowing what barriers prevent people from changing their behavior.  Barriers aren’t static. They differ across individuals and time.  It is thus vital to have a fine-grained understanding of how the barriers operate. 

3. Develop a strategy

Behavioral science has identified a wide variety of strategies for behavior change.  The third step involves examining the feasibility of the various behavioral design strategies and selecting the most promising.  Common strategies include commitment devices, choice architecture, choice defaults, social norms, feedback systems, goal setting, physical convenience, visual salience, prompts, and social proof.

4. Implementation and assessment

The final step is to generate a plan for implementing and assessing the behavioral design strategy.  Behavioral design strategies are ideally pilot tested prior to large-scale implementation. 


IThe first step is to send an email describing the problem you want to address:  If I think I can be of service, the next step is to speak by phone, so I can better understand your goals and expectations.

I look forward to hearing from you.