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Remember that people think based on emotions and feelings just as often as they do cold, hard logic.
Remember that people think based on emotions and feelings just as often as they do cold, hard logic.

Five human behaviour myths busted

If behavioural science is so good, why aren’t more people using it? BRI WILLIAMS examines a few common myths about consumer decision-making.

There’s something that has always confounded me. When people read or hear about behavioural economics, and more broadly, behavioural science, they typically get excited.

Suddenly the strange things people do, and the strange decisions we make, start to make sense.

Why do I over pack for my holiday? Underestimate the time a project will take? Buy stuff on sale, just because it’s on sale?

The issue is we have the tendency to quickly forget these insights. Sure, they might return as a fun story or anecdote to share at the next dinner party, but all-too-often we completely miss the opportunity to apply these insights to our professional work.

Bottom line? The science of behavioural influence has failed to influence behaviour!

Let’s examine several beliefs about behaviour that have been busted by science, however, remain stubbornly ingrained in the public’s consciousness.

Money motivates us

After a point at which our basic needs are met, money doesn’t motivate performance. In fact, in cognitively challenging tasks, monetary incentives can impair performance.

This should be widely understood by now, however, what is the thing that comes to mind immediately when we’re talking about motivating people? Money! When we ask the people we’re trying to motivate, such as our sales staff, what do they think would work best? Money!

Money is alluring for two reasons. It is unequivocal. You know its value. A dollar is a dollar. And secondly money is flexible.

You get to choose what you do with it.

But money is also impersonal and transactional. It makes us more selfish, creates a sense of entitlement and dilutes reciprocity. When it comes to motivating staff, we should look for other avenues beyond simply a bigger payday.

Know better do better

Education and information campaigns are great. Great for advertising agencies, that is, because they land big contracts to create ads and collateral.

However, do information campaigns change behaviour? Rarely!
Information doesn’t mean ‘info-motion’. Knowing doesn’t mean doing. We know we should save for retirement, but in

Australia we have compulsory superannuation because individuals can’t be trusted to do it themselves!

It’s hard to argue with providing people information, of course. It’s safe. But it also means the onus is shifted to the recipient to engage with, understand and act on what they learn.


The more specific your goal the better, right? How else will you know what to do? The problem with making your goalsprecise is it makes them boring.

To paraphrase the words of behavioural scientist and author Ayelet Fishbach, it turns it into a chore, and we don’t like chores.

You are better making goals somewhat abstract so you are reminded of the purpose of your goal. Focusing on the goal of ‘looking after my fitness’ is better than ‘going to the gym five times per week’ because it leaves the door for more creative ways of achieving the goal.

People tend to think getting into the nitty-gritty is the best approach. SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound), for example, that value specificity and getting down to the tiny details.

In a retail environment this seems to me to be more about control and micromanaging than it is about getting the best results from your staff.

We are rational

The biggest myth of all is that we are rational; that customers always make decisions on the basis of facts and logic. It’s a nice thought; however, it’s not true.

We have a habit of explaining most of our day away. Logic is retrospective however; we join the dots and explain our behaviour in hindsight. Logic is also hypothetical and we believe we’ll act in a particular way in a future circumstance, even though we probably won’t.

The problem, when it comes to influencing people in an attempt to adjust their behaviour, is we think logic will work as a superior vehicle to play on feelings and associations.

Think about it like this – and I’m doing it right now – my article is trying to convince you of the merit of behavioural science by laying out my argument piece-by-piece. It’s human nature, but it’s not always effective.

In order to get the best out of your staff, don’t be afraid to look for ways beyond just money to promote improved performance. Remember that people think based on emotions and feelings just as often as they do cold, hard logic. Find ways to make goals achievable in a creative sense – avoid becoming stagnant and trapped by detail.


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Bri Williams

Bri Williams is founder of People Patterns, a specialist consultancy that applies behavioural science to everyday business issues. Visit:


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