Why Triggering Emotions Won’t Lead to Lasting Behavior Change

For the past two months, we’ve been told to wash our hands, wear face masks, and social distance. We’ve come up creative ways to do them all—with viral handwashing dances, public pledges, Zoom parties with live DJs. Judging by the beautiful photos of eerily empty public spaces around the world, most of us have been willing to comply—for now. But when will the novelty wear off? And what will happen to our new habits, still necessary for the public health crisis we’re facing?

Some countries, like Denmark and Austria, and several U.S. states, have already started to relax the strict stay-home regulations and are counting on their citizens to make smart choices to protect themselves and others. But are we confident that we’ll keep up our good behavior when left to our own devices? 

The current crisis isn’t the first time we’ve tried to change behavior for the better. Encouraging people to get a flu shot or bring their reusable cup for their daily latte is essentially the same as getting them to wash their hands or keep six feet apart. We need people to do something unpleasant and seemingly trivial now for significant health or environmental benefit in the future. We have plenty of research and experience to draw from.

The question behavioral scientists need to answer is: How can we generate long-term behavior change when compliance isn’t exciting anyore? 

Emotions are, by definition, temporary. So is attention. Using activity-mobilizing emotions such as fun, hope, anger, or fear can work exceptionally well to kick-start a new habit, but we still have months or even years of behavior change ahead of us. What we need is a cocktail of policies—including regulations, incentives, and nudges—that will promote good habits, even when our motivation has died down. 

How can we generate long-term behavior change when compliance isn’t exciting anymore?

Here’s how not to do it. In 2009, designers created “Piano Stairs” at the Odenplan subway station in Stockholm. Each step was a piano key that made a sound when it was stepped on. The idea was to make it fun and easy for commuters to pick the healthy option of going up the stairs instead of taking the escalator. And it worked—for a couple of days. I can only imagine how fascinated and then annoyed commuters must have been at this installation. The initial excitement of your very own Tom Hanks-style dance from the movie Big must have quickly given way to the reality of rush hour, as commuters trampled over keys going up and down the stairs. To no surprise, the piano disappeared. 

But the video of the stairs gathered 23 million views on YouTube and is often still found in presentations by behavioral consultants. Similar gamification and “fun theory” nudges such as the voting trash cans I designed and tested at a Copenhagen street festival make for good TV, but quickly become boring as the novelty wears off. There are only so many times I will enjoy singing “Happy Birthday” or “Shake It Off” while washing my hands. 

So when the novelty fizzles out, how can we harness our current motivation and channel it into long-term change? The evidence is still sparse, but we do have several examples of behavioral interventions that have a longer shelf life. 

Perhaps the most successful example is defaults. Individuals defaulted into pension plans, two-sided printing, or renewable energy for their home seem to stick with the option. 

Salience has also proven to be effective in the long term. Placing vegetarian food on top of a menu makes it more likely that customers will select it, and real-time feedback while showering reduced energy consumption of hotel guests. 

When the novelty fizzles out, how can we harness our current motivation and channel it into long-term change?

What do these nudges have in common? They are typically not consciously noticed by the decision maker. Grabbing a ceramic cup conveniently stacked next to the coffee machine instead of a paper one from the cupboard does not require you to think about saving the rainforest before your morning coffee. The less conscious the nudges are the less they are prone to wearing off or even backfiring, regardless of whether you agree with the goal of the nudge or not. 

In a recent article, my colleagues and I explore the use of nudges as environmental policy instruments—another area where long-term behavior change is important. In that article, we propose classifying different types of nudges into two categories, “pure” and “moral,” based on how they affect decision-making. Applying that same lens to our current predicament could be helpful as we look for solutions that will last. 

We call the nudges described above, defaults and salience, pure nudges because they are simple changes to a preexisting choice environment meant to counteract simple inattention or laziness. They seamlessly blend in with their environment. 

Contrast pure nudges with the second type of nudges we classified: moral nudges. In our system, moral nudges are those that are fun or trigger fear, shame, or pride. Moral nudges reward “doing the right thing” with psychological utility or disutility. The nudges are meant to be consciously noticed. The most prominent one being the use of social proof—“9 out of 10 people in your city pay their taxes on time—you are currently not one of them” or “Compared to your neighbors with similar sized houses, you consume far more energy” or “Will you vote on Sunday? We will call you again and ask about your experience.” 

Social proof is powerful, no question—the frantic toilet paper buying we have seen in the past weeks was an unintended testament to that. In the short run, moral nudges can generate significant effects, but long-term behavior change is seldom. Further, moral nudges run the risk of backfiring. Individuals asked to donate repeatedly decided to opt-out of communication altogether, and others who regularly came out badly in comparison to their neighbors’ energy consumption were willing to pay money not to be contacted anymore. Deliberate defiance of these appeals could also explain the groups of college kids who went on spring break despite the health warnings or the Danish teenagers who now drive over the bridge to Sweden to party “because lockdown is boring.” 

To create lasting behavior change, we need to design choice environments that convert the initial emotional high and focused attention to long-term habits and norms that we will follow without emotional triggers. 

To create lasting behavior change, we need to design choice environments that convert the initial emotional high and focused attention to long-term habits and norms that we will follow without emotional triggers.

Take this example from my home town: Copenhagen has four large lakes in the city center, which have a small footpath around them that is popular for runners and people going for a stroll. At the start of the lockdown, the trail was converted to a one-way street to reduce the amount of tight face-to-face encounters. Currently, park guards control compliance, but already most people are in the habit of walking clockwise around the lake. A habit that can most likely be sustained with a simple sign and social norms. 

All that said, taking past research in account, nudging on it’s own, whether moral or pure, won’t be enough to stimulate the required behavior change. The gap between what we want now (our lives to return to normal) and what we need to do (diligent maintain hygiene and continuous social distancing) is just too large. But that doesn’t mean lasting behavior change isn’t possible. We need to combine nudges with traditional economic incentives and regulations.

For a clever and sustainable interplay of policy instruments, we can take inspiration from our traffic rules. We have laws, fines, and nudges (speed bumps or beeping seatbelts) that keep us and others safe on the road without invoking anxiety, shame, or fear every time we get into a car. 

Like fighting climate change or obesity, overcoming this health crisis will be a marathon, not a sprint. Nudges can make it easier to do the right thing, but we need to take into account how they differ in their short- and long-term impact on our behavior.  Our collective health depends on it.