How to Persuade People to Change Their Behavior


Directives aren’t particularly effective in driving sustained behavior change because we all like to feel as if we are in control of our choices. We avoid doing what they suggested because we don’t want to feel like someone else is controlling us.

Our innate anti-persuasion radar raises our defenses, so we avoid or ignore the message or, even worse, counter-argue, conjuring up all the reasons why what someone else suggested is a bad idea.

So if telling people to do doesn’t work, what does?

Rather than trying to persuade people, getting them to persuade themselves is often more effective. Here are three ways to do that.

1. Highlight a gap.
• You can increase people’s sense of freedom and control by pointing out a disconnect between their thoughts and actions, or between what they might recommend for others versus do themselves.
• Take staying at home. For young people who might resist, ask what they would suggest an elderly grandparent or a younger brother or sister do. Would they want them out, interacting with possibly infected people? If not, why do they think it’s safe for them to do so?
• People strive for internal consistency. They want their attitudes and actions to line up. Highlighting misalignment encourages them to resolve the disconnect.

2. Pose questions.
• Questions shift the listener’s role. Rather than counter-arguing or thinking about all the reasons they disagree, they’re sorting through their answer to your query and their feelings or opinions on the matter. And this shift increases buy-in.
• It encourages people to commit to the conclusion because while people might not want to follow someone else’s lead, they’re more than happy to follow their own. The answer to the question isn’t just any answer; it’s their answer, reflecting their own personal thoughts, beliefs, and preferences. That makes it more likely to drive action.

3. Ask for less.
• Especially in times of crisis, health organizations want big change right away. Everyone should continue to stay at home, by themselves, for two more months. But asks this big often get rejected. They’re so different from what people are doing currently that they fall into what scientists call “the region of rejection” and get ignored.
• A better approach is to dial down the initial request. Ask for less initially, and then ask for more.
• Take a big ask and break it down into smaller, more manageable chunks.