- It is hard to convince people to do something in which the primary benefit is only in the long term.
- Attaching the behavior to a deeply held value can be convincing.
- This values-alignment approach can be implemented in short interventions.
- These short interventions have small but reliable influences on behavior.
We often try to convince people to do things by demonstrating to them the benefits of taking the action we’d like them to take. When the benefits of the action are immediate, then this strategy works well. If I show you a delicious dessert, for example, it looks wonderful, and it is obvious that it is going to taste good, so getting you to try it may not be too difficult.
When the benefits of doing the action are long-term, though, this same strategy is not as effective. You may not want to eat a serving of steamed broccoli—certainly, not as much as you want to eat that dessert. (I like broccoli, but I still like dessert better.) Most of the benefits of eating broccoli (and other healthy foods) are long-term. You are more likely to stay healthy if you eat a diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole foods. But that effect happens over many years of eating well.
Even though these situations are quite different, we often use a similar strategy to be convincing in both. When talking about situations with long-term benefits, we trot out studies and other information about the positive outcomes associated with good behavior and hope that they will be convincing. And—often—they are not.
All hope is not lost, though. Interesting research by Christopher Bryan, David Yeager, and their colleagues has tested a framework for influencing behavior called values alignment. They have done studies in several domains with several kinds of behaviors, but for now, I’ll focus on studies looking at getting adolescents to eat healthier food.
Schools often teach about healthy eating by focusing on the science associated with the long-term positive things that happen when you eat a healthy diet over the course of your life. Unsurprisingly, these messages often have a hard time competing with the many tasty snacks high in salt, sugar, and fat that are readily available.
The idea behind values alignment is to find some important core motivation of an individual and then to demonstrate that the desirable behavior provides a way to achieve that core motivation.
For example, many teens want to express their individuality and bristle at the conformity that school, parents, and society promote for them. These researchers developed messages that pointed out that companies engineer snack foods to make them hard to resist and then focus their marketing messages on teens in order to entice them into being consumers of these products. Students were also shown advertisements and given an opportunity to change the tag lines to promote individual decision-making.
The aim of this activity was to help teens see how resisting unhealthy snacks was actually a way of expressing their individuality and nonconformity by rejecting marketing messages that were crafted to affect their behavior. This activity could be done in less than two hours as part of a school curriculum.
Studies suggest that (compared with the more traditional method of teaching the facts related to healthy eating) this intervention had both a short- and long-term influence. In the short term, teens given the values alignment approach were more likely to say they would eat healthier foods. In a longer-term study done over three months, students actually chose healthier foods from the school cafeteria.
Interestingly, this approach worked better for teen boys than for teen girls. Teen girls were more often swayed by the fact-based approach. The authors speculate that many teen girls have internalized the ideal of being thin, so the fact-based approach may have aligned with their values. Further research would have to explore this possibility.
It is important to say that this simple and brief manipulation had an impact on behavior across a large number of students who were part of the study, but the overall influence was small. In studies like this, the aim is not to convince a particular person of a particular thing at a particular time but rather to have an overall impact on the behavior of a group.
From a practical standpoint, the impact of a small influence on group behavior can still be significant. If even a small percentage of people engage in healthier behaviors, that can reduce the number of people who have preventable medical conditions brought on by unhealthy eating. In addition, this small number of people engaging in good behavior can serve as role models to others, which could create a virtuous cycle of positive behaviors.
More generally, this work demonstrates that one path to influencing other people's behavior is to understand what they value and help them see that engaging in a particular behavior will actually enable them to support that goal.
Bryan, C.J., Yeager, D.S. & Hinojosa, C.P. A values-alignment intervention protects adolescents from the effects of food marketing. Nat Hum Behav 3, 596–603 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0586-6
Bryan, C.J., Yeager, D.S., Hinojosa, C.P., Chabot, A., Bergen, H., Kawamura, M., and Steubing, F. (2016). Harnessing adolescent values to motivate healthier eating. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(39), 10830-10835. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1604586113