3 common mistakes we make when trying to change others’ behaviour… and how to avoid them

26 June 2023

An eye-watering nine million adults in the UK are economically inactive. The UK is the only G7 country still with a smaller economy than pre-COVID.

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3 common mistakes we make when trying to change others’ behaviour…and how to avoid them

An eye-watering nine million adults in the UK are economically inactive. The UK is the only G7 country still with a smaller economy than pre-COVID. And older workers, in particular, are shunning the needs of the country by apparently opting to laze on the golf course rather than put in a hard day’s graft.

Yep, the UK finds itself in an almighty pickle.

But don’t despair: the government has a two-pronged plan – and one they confidently predict will “incentivise our most experienced and productive workers to stay in work for longer”. 

First, a 50% increase in the pensions annual tax-free allowance was announced to boost the motivation of older workers to stick around the workplace. Second, the lifetime allowance limit was ditched altogether. The aim here was to ensure long-term, typically older savers are no longer cruelly disincentivised to save.

All sounds very logical… but how can we be so sure these two simple acts will be enough to stop the UK economy from falling off a cliff edge? 

This article describes three common mistakes we make when trying to change the behaviour of others… and ends by posing the key question: what can we do to avoid making these three mistakes?

Mistake 1: Assuming people simply need a healthy dollop of motivation

Denise Wilkins is 52. She is a trained chartered accountant. Despite being unlikely to be spotted lounging on the golfing greens (only 14% of golfers in England are female), she “should” – on paper – be heavily influenced by the government’s pensions reforms.

However, here’s the rub. Despite not being a golfer, she, unfortunately, has a (severe) handicap.

Denise is – along with more than five million others in England and Wales – a full-time carer for her ailing 86-year-old mother. Therefore, despite the government’s expensive reforms, Denise is, sadly, extremely unlikely to boomerang back into work any time soon.

In her own words, she feels completely “trapped”.

Our first common mistake is, therefore, to assume a good dollop of motivation alone will be enough to change others’ behaviour.

you can do it

Mistake 2: Assuming people only need more information

In 2014/15, the UK NHS spent a whopping £6.1 billion treating obesity-related ill health. And if you calculate that’s costing each of you, the dutiful taxpayer, an arm and a leg now, imagine how skint you’ll feel by 2050. By then, not only may a pesky robot have run off with your job, but we’ll be obliged to contribute 59% more: £9.7 billion per year

In the absence of an obvious motivational lever (see Mistake 1 above), the second mistake we sometimes make is to assume providing more information will be a surefire way to change others’ behaviour.

Take the challenge above.

To tackle obesity and help the NHS stagger up off its knees, the UK government introduced new legislation in April last year. This required large businesses, including cafes, restaurants and takeaways, to clearly display calorie information of all non-prepacked food and soft drinks.

Again, this approach sounds sensible… however, does the average punter actually pay any attention to calorie information?

Sadly, the evidence suggests not.

One large-scale academic review showed even when this information did help to reduce calorie consumption, any positive effects tended to disappear within a few weeks. By that point, people had already begun to turn a blind eye to the information.

Have you ever succumbed to mistake two – and assumed more information will automatically create changes in behaviour?  

change for change

Mistake 3: Failing to plan properly for the future

Finally, tempting though it may be to believe, the UK government does not have a monopoly on flawed attempts at behaviour change. 

Take our own behaviour. While many of us make annual grand plans for change as soon as the Christmas decorations have come down, only one in four of us actually manage to stick to our New Year resolutions.  

But why are we so terrible at sticking to our plans? 

There are three main reasons:

  1. One may be the setting of inappropriate, unrealistic goals… or, worse, no specific goals at all.

  2. Second is a lack of plans made as to precisely when, where, and how a new behaviour will occur.

  3. Lastly, we sometimes neglect to put in place approaches to help monitor and provide feedback on progress over time. This can be hugely detrimental in starving us of proven ways to maintain our motivation as we are blown off course by expected and unexpected events.

Therefore, the common mistake three is to fail to properly plan for the future.

And if we don’t plan our own desired behaviours effectively, what chance have we got when it comes to those of other people?  


Wrap-up: What can we do about it?

This article has described three common mistakes when trying to change others’ behaviour:

  1. Assuming people simply need a healthy dollop of motivation

  2. Assuming people only need more information

  3. Failing to plan properly for the future 

But if they’re so commonly made, how on earth do we avoid making these three mistakes?

In summary, the best way to approach any behaviour change challenge is through the lens of a recognised behavioural model. Many such models are available and are suitable for an extremely wide variety of challenges.

In short, behavioural models help create far better outcomes by:

  • Steering us clear of incorrect assumptions we might make about behaviour

  • Minimising the risk of neglecting to consider potentially influential factors

  • Saving us a lot of unnecessary effort, time, and often money

Whether you want to influence consumers, healthcare professionals, business decision-makers, employees – or any other group – approaching the challenge using a behavioural model is an essential route to avoiding the three common mistakes above. 

Learn more about the wide range of applications of behavioural models in market research:

Chris Harvey
Founder at Activate Research