A surprising way to change behavior

Karim Benammar
Article by: Karim Benammar
A surprising way to change behavior

We tend to believe that the best way to change people's behavior is by appealing to their sense of responsibility and community. In order for people to do good, it seems logical to appeal to virtues such as altruism and compassion. But how effective is this approach?


When micro-tourism entrepreneur Esteban Torbar asked what behaviors would drive the next shift in technology, forum guest Sharon Chang gave a surprising answer. She argued that we can never drive behavioral change mechanically, but that change happens when we appeal to other aspects of our nature, namely vanity and shame.


In this clip Chang explains how Alcoholics Anonymous successfully uses the shame paradigm to keep people from drinking, and how the vanity model works with trophy collection:


Video: Sharon Chang on vanity and shame


Vanity and shame define how we behave in a group towards others. We all have the paradoxical desire to fit in with the group and to stand out from it at the same time. We are ashamed of our behavior when we don’t fit in, and at the same time we need to display our status in order to stand out. Vanity and shame are thus two powerful drivers of human behavior. They can even be used to coax people into starting or stopping the same behavior. Take smoking: it started with vanity, since advertising made it cool to smoke. Now it’s considered to be a somewhat shameful activity, as smokers huddle in the cold outside of a building, needing to separate themselves from the group in order to get their fix.


According to Chang, we all have all these qualities in us - altruism, compassion, vanity, and shame. Altruism and compassion are deeper motivators that often require more work to dig up to the surface. When you need to influence people's behavior quickly and at a mass scale, you are more likely to succeed with the "path of the lowest resistance" - appealing to the most universal and accessible human behavior drivers: vanity and shame.


How might we use these two extremely powerful drivers in our desire to change the world? Have you come across effective examples of this strategy? Are there human behaviors that we need to influence quickly and at scale, and can we achieve this by appealing to vanity and shame?