skip to main content

It doesn’t matter if you’re right: Businesses need to understand human psychology to have a positive impact

Content Strategist Charlie explores the marketing psychology you can use to promote your solution - whether you're in energy, finance, healthcare or elsewhere.

Think back to your teenage years, if you dare. 

It’s a weeknight. You’re at home. You’ve finished your homework and, being the upstanding citizen you are, you remember that the rubbish collection is due tomorrow. You decide to take the bins out.

You get up from the sofa, you put your shoes on, and you’re practically reaching for the back door when you hear it shouted from another room:

“Take out the bins!” 

Maybe it’s your mum, maybe your dad, maybe a goody-two-shoes sibling collaborateur. What’s important is that it’s unbelievably annoying. 

You were just about to take out the bins. Now you’ve never wanted to do anything less in your life.

Why?

After all, surely someone telling you to take the bins out doesn’t make any difference. You were just about to do it anyway. What’s changed, however, is your attitude. 

Before, you were taking the bins out of your own volition – it was a choice. Suddenly, it’s become an order. Even though it has no impact on the action you’re taking, it’s completely changed your willingness to carry that action out.

We like to think of ourselves as purely rational beings, able to assess situations based on all of the evidence available and take the most beneficial course of action. Not so. There are a huge number of irrational psychological factors that impact our willingness to pursue any action at any time. 

Human psychology poses a huge challenge for organisations that want to change people’s behaviour to have a positive impact on the world

Take these examples:

  • An energy company that wants more businesses to install smart meters in order to help make the UK’s energy consumption more efficient and reduce our carbon emissions.
  • A financial advice firm that wants more people to spend responsibly and avoid ending up in debt.
  • A healthcare provider that wants to encourage more people to come in for checkups.

In all of these cases, the fact that these organisations are in some way “right” about the positive impact of the action they’re proposing isn’t sufficient to inspire that action. It doesn’t matter if reducing our carbon emissions is good for businesses and the planet, or that avoiding debt is key to a financially and mentally healthy life, or that regular checkups can help catch treatable illnesses early. 

If you want to have a positive impact, you need to understand the underlying psychology that inspires people to act

Last month I had the opportunity to attend a webinar titled The Psychology of Sustainability, hosted by Gavin Sheppard from Pinwheel, and Patrick Fagan and Dan Thwaits from Capuchin Behavioural Science.

In the webinar, Patrick described the impact that misunderstanding psychology had during the COVID-19 pandemic using the advert below.

Uber’s “No mask. No ride.” campaign was intended to be a firm, foot-down approach that would ensure that customers were taking the right precautions to prevent the spread of COVID. 

A study after the fact, however, showed that the campaign not only increased negative attitudes towards Uber, but to the very idea of wearing a mask at all. 

Why? 

Although you can easily argue that Uber was right to encourage action which would prevent the risk of spreading COVID, its approach fundamentally misunderstood the psychology of its customers. People react badly to being told that they have to do something – just think back to our bin example.

People are far more likely to agree to take an action if it is framed as a beneficial and voluntary one

This is sometimes called the “but you’re free” rule. For example, “you can upgrade to our new fancy broadband package for just an additional £5 a month… but you’re free to stick with your old package.” 

You might find it frustrating that people would react negatively to something as simple and positive as wearing a mask. The fact is, however, that you can’t rely on being right about an action being beneficial – you need to make your audience feel that it will benefit them if you really want to have a positive impact on the world.

Here’s another example from COVID.

The University of Essex released a study on the effectiveness of the NHS texts sent to members of the public to encourage vaccination uptake. 

For a start, the study found that over 50% of recipients thought they were being targeted by fraudsters. Based on its findings, the study went on to make the following recommendations to increase trust in these types of texts:

  • Provide autonomy-supportive messaging: Phrasing which emphasised the recipients’ freedom to choose was important in increasing their trust in the message – and ultimately the likelihood that they would take action. The study gave the following example – “Here is the information about the vaccine (…). We trust you will make the right decision.”
  • Highlight positive vaccination social norms: For example, “Most people in your community recognise the positive value of the COVID-19 booster vaccine and are vaccinated, do it too.”
  • Use trustworthy message senders, such as GPs/family physicians: The study encouraged using warm language from a trusted source which highlighted its own credibility. For example, instead of saying “You are invited to book your COVID-19 booster vaccine,” the study suggested language like “As your local GP and a health expert who cares for the local community, I would like to invite you to book your COVID-19 booster vaccination.”
  • Text messages should highlight vaccine benefits AND risks: The study gives this example – “The vaccine reduces your chance of becoming infected and protects you against severe forms of the illness. It also protects your loved ones by reducing the risk that you infect others. COVID can be severe, don’t risk it. Vaccines may cause side effects, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The most common side effects are very mild (e.g., sore arm, fever) and severe side effects are very rare (e.g., allergic reaction).”

Understanding the psychology behind why we act is incredibly important. In the case of COVID, it had the potential to be life or death.

So what psychological techniques can you do to help your organisation’s message get through to people?

Don’t just say what you want, say why

People are far more likely to do what you say if you give them a reason – even if it isn’t a particularly good one. 

For example “get the COVID vaccine” might seem sufficient from the perspective of a medical professional or civil servant. “Get the COVID vaccine because it reduces your risk of contracting COVID” might seem like an arbitrary difference, but psychologically it has an impact. 

You can try this out in your day-to-day life. Asking “Can I cut in front of you in the coffee queue?” isn’t nearly as effective as “Can I cut in front of you in the coffee queue because I need to get to a meeting/pick up my kids/go to the toilet?” The “why” doesn’t need to be some water-tight rational argument – but showing that you’re willing to explain yourself at all already makes a difference to people’s willingness to listen.

Highlight the benefits and risks

People are more likely to believe you if they don’t think you’re painting a skewed picture of reality. 

Imagine, for example, that you are a sustainable energy consultant. Your job is to help businesses create a plan to get them to Net Zero. Seems great right? But your prospective clients have other considerations – their bottom line, for example. 

You’re more likely to convince them if you’re transparent about the downsides of transitioning to Net Zero – the need to find funding for new energy infrastructure on their sites, for example – than if you only focus on the positives. At the end of the day, it’s about trust. 

Appeal to self-interest

If you work in a field like healthcare, sustainable energy or any other work where you’re trying to change the world, appealing to your audience’s self-interest might feel counter intuitive. After all, who asks “what’s in it for me?” when the health of their fellow citizens or even the planet itself is on the line. 

Well, it turns out… pretty much everyone.

You need to be able to show why your product or service adds material value – not just moral value – to your prospective clients or customers. To go back to our sustainable energy consultant example, you might highlight how instaling onsite solar panels and smart meters has the potential to massively reduce energy costs for the business over time. 

Use the identifiable victim effect

Have you ever noticed that charities like WaterAid almost always feature the image of a child who lacks access to water? 

People are far more likely to take an action to help someone if they are introduced to the victim (or an example of a victim) by name. This is known as the identifiable victim effect.

It might seem obvious when we think of charities like WaterAid, but there are plenty of sectors which face similar challenges and miss the opportunity to take advantage of the identifiable victim effect. If you’re a financial advice firm, for example, and you’re trying to encourage responsible spending during the cost of living crisis, you might end up listing the negatives of overspending without actually showing an identifiable person who has fallen into debt – which risks your stats falling on deaf ears. 

There are many more psychological techniques and findings that organisations aren’t taking advantage of. 

The risk is that when you’re working in a business that’s doing good in the world, you think that work speaks for itself. 

Unfortunately, it doesn’t. 

Our decision making is tied to so many different factors – too many to take for granted when you’re trying to make a difference. Your organisation needs to understand psychology – the psychology that underlies marketing – if it wants to influence positive behaviour and effect positive change.

Charlie Stewart

Charlie Stewart

Content Strategist // Founding Member

Charlie brings his creative flair developing content and copywriting across all of our campaigns.

I’ve got plenty to say

View my other articles and opinion pieces below

Hearts, minds & pockets in the climate crisis

Ask yourself these questions. These are two examples of actions taken by speakers at the Better Business Conference in Manchester last week, which I had the opportunity to attend. While I understand the motivation behind both approaches, I also respectfully disagree with them.  In this article, I want to attempt to explain why, and to […]

wind turbines