How Do We Motivate Behavior Change?

In the late 1960s, Stanford University professor Walter Michel began his now classic “Marshmallow Experiments.” He offered four and five-year-olds a choice: they could either have one marshmallow now (he put it in front of them) or, if they waited 15 minutes, they could have a second.

Not surprisingly, most of the kids couldn’t wait and chose to gobble down the first marshmallow. But a few showed restraint. Michel observed that the children who waited to double their marshmallowy profits had found ways to distract themselves and focus on something else.

Michel followed these kids throughout school, college and into early adult-life, and found that (on average) the kids that could delay gratification did much better in school, at work, and even in their marriages than those who gobbled down that first marshmallow.

So what does this mean? It’s simple. Delayed gratification is difficult while instant gratification is obtainable and easy, making it hard to see the benefits of long-term payoffs. Saving money for retirement, exercising for optimum health, and making changes for the environment are all extremely difficult because we don’t get an instant pay off. We have to consciously work for something we cannot initially see.

Behavior change campaigns need to be conscious of this reality in order to be successful. Although most people can understand the long-term benefits of a change, changes like this are not as compelling as something with instant gratification. Successful behavior change campaigns allow audiences to celebrate small, incremental wins that bring them closer to the bigger picture and the overall goal.

Let’s take clean water, for example. Many people state that they are motivated to keep their creeks, rivers, bays, and oceans clean. That’s a huge goal and it can take a long time to see noticeable changes. But choosing to pick up your dog waste all the time in order to keep stormwater clean (and ultimately larger water bodies of water), is an incremental step towards accomplishing that larger goal. Personal barriers (like “I don’t have a bag,” and “other people leave their dog waste”) and motivators (“I want to be a good neighbor” and “this protects my kid”) are way more powerful when it comes to the smaller actions that contribute to the larger goal.

So how do you keep an audience engaged with a campaign goal as big as keeping the ocean clean? You use your resources and social media platforms to constantly motivate your audience by allowing them “little wins” that move everyone toward the larger goal.

Start conversations over social media that allow your audience to engage. If you’re trying to clean the ocean, encourage your followers to make Facebook pledges to pick up after their pets, and make your quippy sound-bites educational! Show your audience how their small actions will collectively make a big difference, all while helping keep lawns lush and shoes clean.

Always think big—but remember to start small and add on from there. Count every step, celebrate every win, and make it a big deal! Despite how far a single action/change may feel from a long-term goal, celebrating the little wins keeps your audience engaged and ready for the big win up ahead.

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