Smoking ban, and persuasion

During the course of last week I had two different unrelated conversations on the same subject.

The question was asked by both people: ‘Why has the smoking ban worked?’

I was interested because of my fascination with how ideas spread and how do you get people to comply with rules by changing their behaviour?

The smoking ban certainly provides an excellent case study.

Yes, there is a clear-cut punishment in the smoking ban, where people can get fined if they don’t comply either as an individual flouting the rule or being the owner of premises allowing smoking.

But then again, you can get fined driving fast and breaking the speed limit yet you don’t need to drive far to witness drivers transgressing this rule.

A couple of key issues are:

Yes there is a clear black and white message: you cannot light up a cigarette or smoke in a public place. So, communication of the message is made easy, both formally and informally.

The issue of smoking triggers a core motivational need – your safety and well-being is compromised by someone else smoking, so you could more likely to supervise, deter, or coerce others to comply.

The behaviour change only requires small steps. If you want to smoke you can make a short journey outside the building, and it’s dead easy to comply (particularly if you don’t have a nicotine habit). You just simply don’t smoke. Other social campaigns – such as litter – are handicapped by the small step challenge: if you can’t see a litter bin within 50 metres you are less likely to hold on to your own rubbish, or pick up litter as I do.

I still think there is something more profound at work here though. I think it is captured in one of my conversations when the person, a smoker admitted, that as a result of the ban they smoke less, because when in a public building, ‘they couldn’t be bothered to go outside for a smoke’.

Bingo! I thought to myself. A key element in why the smoking ban is successful is that it is intrinsically motivated: you change your behaviour because you want to, or are driven by a greater need, or want to avoid the dissonance created through your actions.

There’s a great deal of research on rewards and stimuli for changing behaviour and in encouraging creativity (Check out the brilliant work by Teresa M. Amabile

If you want someone to do something they have got to want to do it. They need to come to the conclusion in their own mind that it is something that will make their world better in some way.

So, the smoking ban works because people want it to work: non smokers enjoy the benefits of smokefree environments, and smokers can either make small steps to avoid directly confronting and flouting the smoking ban, or can rationalise to themselves that the action is not in their interest to take.

So, really we should be applying this thought process to any social change. Then I got thinking about dangerous dogs.

Well, it was actually while walking through Cardiff last Friday lunchtime and seeing three lads in different parts of the busy city centre with their very fierce looking dogs, that got me thinking about dangerous dogs.

Now, I do have an interest in this subject. Although not a dog lover, I share my home with my wife and a West Highland Terrier called ‘Dylan’. (Already an image may be emerging of a very cute dog: and yes, even I have to admit this.)
Sadly, my wife and Dylan and were savagely attacked by a Mastiff dog. It was completely unprovoked and seems to be part of a growing social trend of savage breeds being owned by people where there is an inverse relationship between the intelligence of the owner and the viciousness of the dog.

The Government recently tentatively announced plans to address this situation. But in their mix of plans for pet insurance and dog chipping they seemingly failed to overlook the need for intrinsic motivation to ensure compliance.

It was then I got the idea for a new initiative to address the issue of testosterone-driven young men needing to assert their masculinity by having very aggressive breeds of dog. Why don’t we have a new web site, where anyone can send a photo of a young man with an aggressive dog?

What if we called this web site, ?

Do you think any young man would want to be seen on this? It provides a forum for directly undermining and possibly reversing the macho statement perceived to be inherent in having a dangerous dog.

The riposte ‘Haven’t I seen you on’ would be a great meme, where even if their photo wasn’t on the site, the message and word-of-mouth would circulate well beyond.

So, in order for people to have your way, you need to frame the message and behaviour change in terms of the target, and what would they say themselves to get them to accord their actions with what you want them to do.

Intrinsic motivation – don’t leave home without thinking it isn’t in your interest to do so.

And also, by the way, if by chance you do see me walking my wife’s dog, please don’t take a photo of me and send it to any new web sites.

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