You know how you sometimes lie awake at night planning to do something the next day – and then fail to do it? Well, you’re not the only one. We all do it.
Me, too. I’ll resolve not to have butter on my toast in the morning. Or walk to work. Or decide that, tomorrow night, I’ll wind down for sleep by doing the cryptic crossword instead of flicking through TV channels, because I know that screen time before bed makes sleep harder. And what’s more, I really, really, really mean it. Every time. But I almost never follow through on these decisions. Why not? It’s not because I change my mind and decide that I was wrong.
Here’s the counter-intuitive thing. The reason we don’t follow through on these good intentions of ours is that one of the main ways we understand human nature is wrong.
We’ve all grown up with a clear sense of self, believing that we’re in control of our actions. We take account of facts and opinions, make up our mind, then enact the decision we’ve made. And because I think I’m in control, I think everyone else is, too. So, when I want to influence someone’s behaviour, my instinct is to persuade them. If they’re doing something different, I assume that they’re doing it for a reason. So I try to change their mind.
Though we grow up with this understanding, there is a mountain of evidence that this isn’t what we humans are really like. Our evolution to be arguably* the most successful species on the planet has many quirks we’re beginning to understand better, but which are not yet in the mainstream and which overwhelmingly haven’t been reflected in how we have designed public services and shaped localities.
So what are we really like? Well, we have loads of mental shortcuts. Why? Because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage to leave much of their brain’s cognitive capacity available to spot and instantly deal with predators. This is why you find it harder to apply your willpower if you’re already doing an ‘effortful’ mental task. It’s also why you’re really good at pattern recognition; your ancestors who realised that the leaves rustling nearby might be due to a predator were the ones who got to influence the human gene pool by running for cover and living long enough to pass on their genes.
Life expectancy has typically been under 20-30 years for most of human existence, so it’s no surprise that we also have mental shortcuts that help us grab the resources that will help us through the night, or the winter, and hold on to what we’ve got.
We also have plenty of short-cuts that help us be social, since human co-operation has also give us a real advantage. These biases have a much bigger influence on us all than we’d like to admit; in short, no-one likes to be the odd one out.
As I said a few times in my session at iNetwork’s recent Shaping Demand conference: this is what we’re like. And I think these insights are really helpful in taking new approaches to managing demand.
Freed from believing that people always have a reason for their actions, we can try to systematically examine what people do that creates demand for public services, and understand how it happens (not why).Freed from the need to change people’s minds when we want to influence their behaviour, we can concentrate instead on making self-sufficient behaviours easier and seem more normal.
And we can make this evidence-based understanding of human nature accessible, in order to involve staff, citizens and others in co-producing new designs and approaches.
The question for each of us is: how are we going to make sure this happens, rather than going the same way as my late-night commitment to walk to work tomorrow?
[*ants might beg to differ]