What do these events have in common with communications?
- The Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés had his men scuttle their ships so they couldn’t retreat from battling the Aztecs.
- In mythology, Ulysses tied himself to his ship’s mast to survive hearing the song of the beautiful yet dangerous Sirens.
- Moving to a personal event: Couples who elope are 12 times more likely to divorce than couples who get married at a wedding with 100 or more guests.
The connection is the ongoing struggle we face between our good intentions and our actions.
Each of these is a type of commitment device. Ulysses and Cortés realise the limits to pure willpower, so they take steps to help them stick to their plans.
We can all relate to this. Our goals might be about what we eat or when we spend too much money ¾ anything when our good intentions are in our longer term, rather than immediate interests.
In the first two examples, the commitment device provides a severe negative consequence to prevent failure. These methods may work, but they’re not always practical. I’m not sure how they’d realistically help me with my own goal of not snacking while in the office. We need to find more practical ways to close the gap between our good intentions and our actions.
This is where behavioural sciences come in. We can use insights from behavioural science to appeal to the more subconscious and instinctive factors that influence our decisions and actions.
We can easily build these into communications strategies when we want to influence behaviour. And they do not require us to actively "decide" to bind our future action. A behavioural commitment device would differ from what Ulysses and Cortés did, by asking for a promise to follow through. For example, this could take the form of something said in front of friends, or a signed declaration.
This helps explain the third example: why couples who marry in front of lots of friends and family are much less likely to divorce. It’s because they take their vows in front of people who they care about and who care about them. The legal marriage commitment is no different than eloping. But breaking a promise made in front of friends and family triggers an additional psychological cost.
Here are four ways you can use behavioural commitment devices in communications.
1. Make the commitment public and sharable.
Commitments that are made in public are more effective because people feel a greater sense of accountability. A U.S. website, stickK, encourages people to commit to health goals, such as doing more exercise, and share them on social media. This sort of public sharing can be more subtle. Weightwatchers has always encouraged members to state their weight loss goal in front of others and monitor this through regular public weigh-ins.
2. Use the "signature effect."
Your handwritten signature plays an important role in your life. You sign your name on important documents. And by signing particular documents, you can commit yourself to years of marriage, mortgage payments, or military service. Because of associations with these legal obligations, this has meant the mere act of signing your name influences your behaviour. So if you want someone to commit to something, ask them to sign a promise.
3. Ask your audience to commit to do something later.
An immediate downside to the desired behaviour may put people off. For instance, there are upfront costs to saving for retirement and no immediate benefits. In these cases, allow people to delay the desired behaviour. This worked to great effect in an employee pensions saving initiative in the U.S. called Save More Tomorrow. People made a commitment to put more money into their retirement savings ¾ but only when their salary increased at a later date.
4. Finally, if you want your audience to stick to something, help them to make a plan ¾ even if it’s simple.
If you say you’ll do something, and plan specifically for where and when, you are more likely to follow through and cope with setbacks.
Dan Berry is from Hill+Knowlton Strategies’ in-house behavioural science team, H+K Smarter.