Podcast #6: Colleen Ryan on what it takes to change people’s minds

There’s this great story about this Imperial Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, who refused to surrender at the end of the Second World War. He ended up holding out in the Philippines for 29 years after the war had ended. He wouldn’t listen to his family, friends or anyone who told him it was all over. It was only in 1974 when his former commander came to him and relieved him of his duty that he finally laid down his arms and returned home.

Although this soldier is clearly on the extreme side of the stubborn scale, there’s a bit of him in all of us. Humans reject change. We don’t like it. Whether it’s updated bank notes or a new face on the 6pm news, it always takes us a while to get used to change. And in an industry that’s all about changing people’s minds, this can be a bit of a challenge.

So, in today’s episode, we talk to TRA head of strategy Colleen Ryan about how we can go about changing people’s minds. 

StopPress: Hi Colleen. How are things going on your side?

Colleen Ryan: They’re going well from my side. Thank you. It’s a lovely day today.

We’ve spoken a few times over the last few months about human beings and from our conversations I’ve deduced that humans tend to be quite stubborn creatures. Would that be something fair to say?

I think it’s fair to say and I think the word stubborn has come about because we didn’t really understand why we behaved the way we behaved, so we appeared to be stubborn and irrational and now we know that that’s true. We are irrational. Whether we still need the word stubborn, I don’t know.

It’s funny because the perception that we have of ourselves is often that we’re these rational creatures, calculation every decision that we make, but you’re suggesting that that’s not the case at all?

It’s the case that we make some decisions, but if those decisions don’t kill us, then we just keep making that same decision. We’re like a record on repeat. If it worked once, it will work again and why listen to something else? So it’s really more learned behaviour. A lot of what we do is learned behaviour, but also a lot of the reasons we behave the way we do are actually hardwired from, not just birth but from the beginning of mankind really. We are very sophisticated creatures these days, but actually a lot of our behaviour is based on pretty primitive needs.

But I suppose that creates a major issue for advertising agencies that are in the business of changing behaviour. You’ve mentioned that there are three core strategies that we could, perhaps, use to change someone’s behaviour. Could you maybe elaborate a little bit on those strategies? What are they? How do they work? How do you change the way somebody thinks if we are hardwired, if we’re records on repeat? How do you go about shifting that and changing the tune, essentially?

It’s not easy, is the first thing to say. But, what we’ve learned is how not to do it. A lot of what we know now is the things that we used to think worked. For example, a good many dollars have been spent over the years in changing people’s attitudes. We know pretty much conclusively now that attitudes don’t drive behaviour. For example, there’s no point in trying to persuade smokers that smoking’s bad for you. Every smoker will hit the high points on an attitude scale of, “It’s bad for me. It uses up a lot of my money. There’s all kinds of good reasons why I shouldn’t smoke, but here I am with”-

They’re not secrets, either.

No, absolutely not. We know that attitudes don’t change behaviour. We also have to start our thinking from the premise that fundamentally people don’t want to change their behaviour. It’s really, you’ve heard the term I’m sure, lazy thinking, and it’s true. Why change? Change is a nuisance. It disrupts your life. You were talking earlier, you’ve just moved house. How traumatic has that been? You have to learn a new way to get to work. You have to work out how the taps work. There’s some lovely experiments where they do really simple things like just change the way the fridge door opens. Instead of opening left to right, right to left.

I suppose that’s also why we use a spatial metaphor for it, we call it the comfort zone. It’s a space.

That’s exactly right, and change makes people uncomfortable. All change makes you feel uncomfortable, so .. And it loads our brains up, so you change the way the fridge door opens and now you’re holding the milk in the wrong hand and you can’t open the … so you’re now tucking the milk under your arm to open … It’s absurd, but it’s true. You can’t think of anything else while you’re doing that. We think of our brains as these amazing machines. Indeed they are, but actually practical things give us cognitive overload. If we can take a whole bunch of those things out of our decision making every day, then we free up our brains to do the more interesting and exciting and useful things.

You’ve mentioned that there are three potential ways that we could pressure somebody into, perhaps, changing their opinions or their minds a little bit. Do you maybe want to touch on those three methods?

Yeah, there’s the very many variations on that, but there’s a lot. The work of Daniel Kahneman, of course, has taught us a lot about the way we think and he refers to System 1 and System 2.

It’s a slightly blunt instrument, that, and I also think it can be misleading to make people think there’s only those two ways that we think. Whereas our levels of consciousness are much greater. If you’re trying to change a behaviour that’s happening at the utterly unconscious level, and a lot of our behaviour is at the unconscious level, you need one kind of strategy. If you’re trying to change a behaviour that’s happening on the autopilot habitual level, then you need another strategy. For example, for habitual behaviour you need to find a way of disrupting that habitual behaviour.

If I go back to the idea that attitudes don’t affect behaviour. I’ve got really bad attitudes to coffee. I think it’s terrible stuff. It’s acidic. It melts my bones. We don’t farm it well around the world. It stains my teeth, but I go down and buy two long blacks every morning. If you’re going to change my behaviour around drinking coffee, you’re not going to do it by changing my attitudes. But you could do something at the point at which I’m standing at the counter ordering my long black. You can disrupt my behaviour at that point, and that’s more likely to create a behaviour change for these kinds of habitual behaviours. Then there are behaviours that we do give a little thought to. Those when you have to make a choice. When you have to choose from a menu or have to decide which camera to buy. Those do involve our cognitive processes.

Then we’ve also got our own inbuilt biases and these really are, they’re hardwired biases. Loss aversion comes from the fact that it used to be jolly hard to go and hunt for food and hanging onto it was really important. Some of those things, but and you can’t fight against them. They are hardwired. In terms of behaviour change, you have to look at which of those biases is causing the behaviour and work with it.

You get things like defaults. Sometimes you have to tick a box if you want something. You have to tick a box if you don’t want something. The results of that kind of behaviour change can be phenomenal. You can switch around a 20 percent uptake to an 80 percent uptake by simply changing the default. The best example is from the organ donation sector. One of the Scandinavian countries used to have a system whereby if you, on your driving licence, if you were willing to donate your organs if you were killed in an accident you had to tick a box. Now on their driving licence … And they had about a 20 percent uptake. Now on the driving licence it says your organs will be given for donation unless you tick this box to say they can’t be. Now there’s an 80 percent uptake.

What would a marketing manager wouldn’t want a result like this.

Then, obviously, we know also that there are some decisions we do really take great pains to try to be terribly rational about. You’ve just taken out a mortgage. I would hope you didn’t do it on a whim.


You spent a little time. You discussed it with your partner. We, historically, would have thought that was a purely rational set of decisions. Whereas what we now know is long before you even thought about making that decision, your brain was washed through with the emotions that you feel around the brands that you could have chosen from for that mortgage, the type of mortgage, all of those things were affected by your emotion.

What are some of the impacts that drive that behaviour? Would it be your peers? Would it be society? Would it be the culture that you’re in? What are some of the things that drive that hardwired decision-making?

Okay, so there’s three big buckets, really. There’s you as an individual and any mother will tell you that two children come out with different personalities. You know you are different. You may have a sweet tooth and I’ve got a more savoury tooth. They’ve even found now that … You know people talk about being a morning person or not a morning person? That’s hardwired in the DNA. Of course, you can fight against it. If you’re not a morning person but you end up with a job that requires you to start at six in the morning, you get over it, but most people would say they are naturally one or the other.

You’ve just given me a great excuse for being ten minutes late to work, every day.

Exactly. Some of it’s about you as an individual, so that’s the nature aspect of nature/nurture. The two other big influences on our lives are social and cultural. Social is the various social groups that you interact with. We are herd animals.

But our lives are complicated, so we don’t just run with one herd. You will run with maybe, I don’t know, maybe you play squash so you’ll have some friends at the squash club. There’ll be the people you went to school with. There’ll the people you worth with. There’ll be your family. Each of those social groups will exert a different kind of influence upon you and affect your behaviour. For example, I belong to a book club. Ladies of a certain age, and probably that book club would influence things like the clothes that I wear or the hairstyle that I have. A different social group would influence my behaviour, for example, I wouldn’t discuss with my book club whether I’ve investing enough in my pension.

But there are other friends that I have where I would have those conversations. Whether it’s worth buying property or whether we should be putting it in investment schemes. Different social groups will influence different parts of my life and different behaviours.

So to understand the individual you need to understand the social groups?

Yeah, so you have to do social network mapping. For example, something like civil defence where we would like everybody in the country to be well-prepared. It’s hardly a country that isn’t volatile, is it? I mean, we’ve had in recent history, of course, a massive event in Christchurch. Nevertheless, the number of people who are well-prepared is very low, or number of households. Which social group is it? Is that about the neighbours? Is that about your family? Who would influence your behaviour around that? Social network mapping is a really good way of looking at that.

Then the third big influence in our lives is culture. That’s traditional culture and, obviously, each ethnic group has its own morays and ways of behaving, but also the current … This big cultural currents that sweep the world and have different applications in different cultures, influence everything. If you and I go out for lunch and we take Claire. I might look at the menu and I’m into sustainability at the moment, so I’d ask them whether the fish was line caught. You might be into a wellness at the moment and you’d be looking at the menu to see which dishes-

Pete’s paleo diet.

Yeah, exactly. Claire’s is massively into experientialism so she’s trying to find the dish that’s got the most exotic ingredient. We’re looking at that, all three of us are looking at that menu through a cultural lens. It’s like wearing coloured glasses in a way. Culture has a big influence on our behaviours. If we look at behaviour change, the first thing you have to look at is, how is that behaviour established first of all? Those are the influences. Is it a individual personal thing. Is it more influenced by social networks or is it more influenced by culture? Different markets will lend themselves naturally to greater influence from one or other of those. I think of them as like big planets that are exerting a gravitational pull and if you’re nearer to one, you get pulled more that way than another.

Oh, wow.

Different markets will be positioned differently around that. Those things influence us. That’s how the behaviour was established initially. The second thing we need to look at is, so now that behaviour is established, how is it being reinforced? What are the triggers that happen that make … We all know that something happens and you do something else, without thinking about it. What are the triggers? What are the involuntary stimulus that we are unconsciously possibly seeing or feeling or smelling or hearing that make us behave in that way? That’s the next stage.

Then the stage after that, the behaviour change is, how do you make the pathway to change relevant to the influences, but also easily and effortless because nobody will change if it’s difficult. Easy is the mantra of any behaviour change.

You have to make it easy. The other really big thing … I think this is the bit that gets neglected a bit is, it then has to be rewarding. I have to do it, and I have to be rewarded by it.

That I made the right decision, that it wasn’t …

Yeah, and it has to be an emotional reward, and it has to be constantly rewarded. Something like civil defence. There you go, you buy your kit, you get your water and your bars of chocolate and all the batteries you need, and then, hopefully, you hope you may never use it. It’s like a parachute.

It’s kind of like buying insurance. You never really want to use it.

You never really use it, so there has to be a more immediate reward. You can’t wait 25 years for the next earthquake to go, “Well, I did the right thing there, didn’t I? I feel good about myself.” There’s no reinforcement in that, so then … for behaviour change to be reinforced, there has to be a more immediate reward and it has to be an emotional reward. You have to feel good about what you just did. You have to get an upper in some way. That’s one of the ways we work with clients is, how are we going to reward people for doing this to keep them in the game? Because you lapse very quickly. Anyone knows anything about addiction knows …

The first non-drinking day is not the good one, it’s the next one and then it’s the next one.

On the topic of this pathway to behaviour change and shifting people’s perceptions and so forth. You guys are doing some interesting work with Auckland Council at the moment in terms of getting people onto bicycles. How are you going to get more Aucklanders onto bicycles and what are some of the pitfalls that you guys are facing in your research?

Yep. You’re not going to do it by wagging fingers at them or telling them what to do or shouting at them. We know that doesn’t work. Even financial incentives don’t work. Everyone would give up smoking, wouldn’t they, if it was just about the money.

Of course.

Why would I pay for my gym that I never go to?


We obviously have to find more subtle ways of doing that. You go back to those influences really. You look at the social environment, so we have to make it feel normal. I don’t want to be the zebra running in a herd of horses. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only person out there walking to work in not my work shoes but my trainers, and I’m going to train when I get there. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only person on the bike. You got to make it feel like everybody else is doing it, so it feels like the socially normative thing to do rather than the old thing to do. That’s a social thing.

I suppose that’s also, I mean, there’s always going to be a very small percentage of people who want to be odd.

Yep. The vast majority of people want to be part of a bigger group. But everybody who wants to be odd, wants to be odd with the other odd people.

Yeah, they don’t want to be odd by themselves.

Odd is a strange thing, because you just want to be odd because you want me to look at you and go, “Oh he’s odd like those other odd people.” It’s still part of a tribe. It’s just the odd tribe.

It’s like the hipster tribe, essentially.

Yeah, exactly. The hipster tribe is exactly that. It’s quite interesting, those odd tribes. The rules around them are pretty complex. There’s even the hipster that’s not not really hipster. The rules about them are in many ways more rigid than they are around looser sort of social groups. Yeah. We didn’t want people to relate [cycling]to the middle aged men in Lycra. It’s not a pretty picture.


Already it’s in my head and I can’t erase it. We needed to find a better thing for them to relate to, so that’s the social thing. The individual thing. The individual thing was about reward, but what we found was we asked people to do this for an experiment for a period of time, and people get a not the buzz they thought they’d get out of it. They thought they’d feel a bit worthy and doing the right thing, but actually people went, “I love it. I listen to my podcasts,” or, “I have this head space, like I walk home. By the time I get home I’m actually calm because I’ve cleared my head.” So people realise there was a mental, personal, individual-

Like a perk.

Reward. Yeah. We needed to get that across, and then the cultural codes have to be right as well. It has to be seen to be the way things are going in the world. People in Amsterdam bike everywhere. Again, it’s about being normative, but it’s about creating the right cultural codes that people can then relate to and feel relative-

It’s about being normative and progressive at the same time because you don’t want to create the perception that you’re moving backwards by getting a bicycle.

No, and that’s why it’s really important to understand people’s culture because there are cultures in the world where riding a bicycle is seen as a backward step. It means, poor people ride bikes, people who can’t afford taxis or cars. Now we’ve got a massive amount of ethnic diversity in Auckland that’s wonderful. It’s making it a fascinating city, but we also have to take some of those cultural diversity issues onboard because you as a Kiwi, you’ll go out with your kids at the weekend and ride the bikes. Riding bikes is good Kiwi stuff, so now we just got to get you to do it going to work.

Whereas if you’ve come from some of the Asian countries, you don’t want to be seen riding a bike because you’ve come here to better yourself. You have to take those traditional cultural codes onboard as well as the current trend towards fresh air and exercise being good for you. But these traditional cultural codes are also very important. You just have to understand them because you have to just address them somewhat differently.

You go to a new country and you will see things and you’ll ask local people about it and they’ll look at you as though you’re mad. They don’t even see those things anymore. There is a difference between these big cultural trends that affect us and our traditional cultural mores as well.

Particularly, when we’re dealing with behaviour change, you want that message to resonate with the person that you’re trying to talk to because if that message isn’t reflective of the way that they think or the way that their brain has been pre-wired, you’re not going to change anything.

In fact, one of the things we found was that a very worthy attempt to make drivers give space to bikes on the road. You know you’ve seen the ads: give the rider a bit of space, share the road.

Well, that was actually feeding on the fears people have about riding bikes, which is it’s dangerous. Here was something which was a very good attempt to make it safer for cyclists but actually we were reconfirming a habit, which is, “Ooh, I shouldn’t be out there on my bike on the road, you know, it’s okay on the park at the weekend.” We can inadvertently sometimes change behaviour in the contrary way to the way that we would like to have done that.

Do you have any other thoughts on changing Kiwis’ behaviour and any advice that you would, perhaps, want to give to advertising agencies or anyone working in this space?

Yeah, I guess one of the big shifts that it’s made me think about because of the knowledge we have now about human behaviour, is that traditionally we’ve always looked deeper. So, that’s a superficial response or it’s a post-rationalized one, let’s dig deep into this brain and try and uncover these deep psychological drivers. Whereas actually probably we should be looking wider rather than deeper. Looking at the cultural codes, looking at the social environment. Behaviour is driven very much by those things. Yes, of course you might be driven by a need to impress and look good, and that’s a personal individual thing. But to whom?

That’s fascinating, though.

Who are you looking good for? Which social group? What cultural codes are you applying to what looking good is okay?

Yeah, that’s quite contrary to the trends we’re seeing at the moment where everything’s about the individual, getting us deep and learning as much about an individual as possible, but you’re not going to change just an individual by itself because, as you said-


We’re herd creatures, so you should be looking at those cultural codes rather than whether this person is inclined to wear red pants on a Wednesday, for instance.

That’s right. Context is everything and it’s a bit existential. Context is everything. Words are meaningless without context. The way we respond in a social environment will massively affect everything. What we say, the brand we choose to buy, what we tell people about it afterwards, how our memories are laid down. Theses things have a huge impact on our lives, and culture does too. That’s a really underplayed one, I think, because … A friend of mine talked about culture as being like a goldfish in a bowl. You’re in the water. You look out from the bowl. You don’t realise there’s no water out there. Culture is the water we’re swimming in.

That’s a great metaphor.

[Culture] has an impact on everything that we do. Looking wider rather than deeper is probably the change that people need to take on board when they’re looking at how to change behaviour.

I think that’s a great point for us to leave the discussion at and I think it’ll give a lot of people something to think about. It’s definitely given me quite a few things to think about today, and it’s been an absolute pleasure sitting down and talking to you, Colleen.

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