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The Impact of Framing On Subliminal Behavior

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When conference organizers provide dinner for attendees, they usually plan a regular meal and a vegetarian option. Most people choose the former, but not because they prefer meat. Instead, it’s how the options are presented that makes guests into omnivores or vegetarians.

According to Mark Gunther, the framing makes all the difference:

When a meat-based entrée is being served, and people are offered a vegetarian alternative, about 5 to 10 percent will request it.

But what if the choices were reversed? Organizers… tried an experiment: They made a vegetarian lunch the default option, and gave meat eaters the choice of opting out.

Some 80 percent went for the veggies, not because there were lots of vegetarians in the crowd of about 700 people but because the choice was framed differently. We know that because, at a prior conference, when meat was the default option, attendees chose the meat by an 83 percent to 17 percent margin.

Whether you love hamburgers or eat nothing but vegetables, it’s easy to see the difference between these two outcomes. But for organizers, one type of meal could be preferable to another. What if vegetarian meals were less expensive, or the topic of the conference was to highlight new cooking techniques for poultry? In these scenarios there’s more at stake than just the menu. Subtly nudging one choice over another can have a significant impact on final results.

organizational productivity implementation

© Flickr user Victor1558

This may seem like the psychology of manipulation to you, but you don’t necessarily have to take it in such a sinister way. Understanding the way people think and the way that framing can impact outcome can be hugely advantageous when managing people or putting business processes in place. Gunther discusses these benefits in his original post.

Might there be broad-based ways to promote a vegetarian diet, while giving people the freedom to choose what they want? How can smart-grid technology be designed to encourage people to conserve energy? Which “green” marketing messages work, and which don’t? Can the insights of behavioral economics help fight climate change?

Those are the questions that engaged the policy makers, academics, and business executives at this BECC (Behavior, Energy and Climate Change Conference) event, which differs from most conversations about climate change. Typically, when politicians, environmentalists or corporate executives  discuss the issue, they focus on technology (solar, wind, electric cars) or regulation (cap-and-trade, the UN climate talks). The BECC crowd focuses on another powerful lever, albeit one that doesn’t get as much attention: human behavior, and in particular the irrational, emotional, self-defeating, short-term, inconsiderate, and plain old silly human behavior that most of us engage in every day.

At AccelaWork, we love to analyze the interplay of incentive and outcome. We first covered this topic back in 2006 with a discussion of corporate productivity and car mileage.  We analyzed a proposed ban on employee productivity while texting and driving. We highlighted the efforts of a car company to make boring tasks business improvement solutions. And just last month, we discussed employee satisfaction and public restroom graffiti. All of these things are just further examples to highlight how useful it can be to focus on the process of recognizing the most effective ways to change behavior.

So much of what we do in business and government is to change behavior. We must recognize, however, that the least effective way to change behavior is through edict and enforcement. Instead of telling stakeholders how we want them to act, adjust the incentives. If you want change at your organization, don’t try to force it. Draw on the ideas and passions of stakeholders and the power of human behavior. Reach out to our business improvement consultants to learn more.

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