Those who study social influence have learned that it is sometimes much more effective to use modest rather than strong pressures to change a person’s behavior. The well-known foot-in-the-door technique is an example. Obtaining a person’s agreement to carry out a small request first is more effective in gaining their subsequent compliance to a large request than asking them for a large request first.

Other research has shown that a person’s interest in pursuing an intrinsically enjoyable activity is often undermined by rewarding them for it. Similarly, superfluous threats for engaging in an undesirable behavior can sometimes increase rather than decrease its occurrence. In a word, deliberate attempts to change a person’s behavior are often most effective when a subtle, low-key approach is used. While a heavy-handed approach may induce immediate compliance, it rarely leads to a lasting change.

The studies by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein reviewed in their recent book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness are consistent with these findings. They report that very subtle, almost undetectable alterations in the environment can exert considerable influence on behavior.

Placing an image of a fly on the urinals of the men's room at the Amsterdam airport reduced “spilling” on floor by 80 percent.

In a cafeteria replacing the large tables that seat many people with small, tables for two led people to eat less. This nudge is based on research indicating the amount of food people eat in a restaurant increases as of the number of people at the table increases.

And when the high calorie deserts (pies & cakes) are placed well back in the desert section of the cafeteria or in another line, they are chosen less often than the low calorie deserts (fruit) that are placed in the front. A simple rearrangement of many food items like this is said to increase or decrease their consumption by “as much as 25%.”

A vending machine that uses the traffic light system to label various food options reduced the selection of junk food items (soda & chips) by 5% when users learned there was a five cent surcharge for those marked with a red light. In contrast, sales of the green light items increased by more than 16%.

When the parking spaces in the city of Florence, Italy were reduced in size so that they accommodated a car about the size of the Smart, there was a sharp reduction in the number of large sedans, utility vehicles, and trucks that entered the central city.

Providing feedback to a highway driver about how fast they are driving by posting a large miles-per-hour roadway monitor tends to reduce speeding behavior. Providing moment-to-moment feedback to a homeowner about the cost of energy they are consuming tends to reduce their consumption. When this feedback is adjusted for time-of-day rates, further reductions in usage occur.

In a word, a simple redesign of the normal environment or the use of very low-key, often unobtrusive, techniques can often play a powerful role in changing behavior.

Advice is like snow: the softer it falls…the deeper it sinks into the mind.

---Samuel Taylor Coleridge