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Prompting Behavioral Change With One Simple (and Overlooked) Fact

Roy Bendor Cohen
March 15, 2021

In the Olympic sport of curling, a curling stone is released along ice with the goal of getting the stone to stop as close to the center of the target as possible. The athletes (sweepers) then get ahead of the stone to sweep the ice, or remove friction, to help guide the stone to its desired end point. Unlike other sports where power and force is one of the primary determinants of success, curling shows us how removing opposing forces can help guide something to where you want it to go.

When considering getting someone to take an action or move to a new state, there’s an interesting psychological idea here that Daniel Kahneman so aptly described as the number one lesson in psychology. On The Knowledge Project’s podcast, he shares:

“When you want somebody to move from A to B in terms of their behavior … There are two ways of doing it: You can push them or you can ask the question ,“Why aren’t they doing B already?” Which is an unusual question ... When you ask this question ... you get a list ... of restraining forces ... Behavior as an equilibrium. There are forces pushing you one way, and there are forces pushing you the other way … What we tend to do when we want to move people from A to B is to push them, we add to the driving forces ... This is actually not what you should do. You should work on the restraining forces and try to make them weaker … This results in less tension in equilibrium.”

This beautiful idea was first described by Kurt Lewin, who is often considered to be “the founder of social psychology”. In essence, they’re recommending to focus on restraining forces rather than driving ones; it’s such a simple insight, yet so powerful.

This notion is valid and relevant for different contexts related to behavioral change (and any field in which we aim to shift people’s status quo), including:

increasing conversion rates

boosting retention

creating engagement

changing management

In my work helping organizations, I have seen this pattern occurring repeatedly. People place most of their efforts in driving forces - trying to motivate, encourage, push, move forward, By doing so, they often neglect restraining forces, or the barriers that prevent the target behavior from happening in the first place.

By looking at the restraining forces, we open up an entire window of opportunities - a space of categories and realms to consider:

Emotional and cognitive barriers -This category is broad and deserves an article for itself. It entails all the barriers we impose on ourselves, which are often called ‘friction cost’ or ‘hassle factor.’These barriers can be simple or complex to overcome as they range from building trust to more deeply rooted feelings like “imposter's syndrome”.

Physical barriers - This is about the environment. The way a place or space is designed. For example, if you’re trying to cut out sugar, you may put sweets in a cabinet out of sight and reach, which serves as a barrier. Or, in a digital sense, it may refer to the number of clicks it takes a user to get to the desired end point.

Habits and routines - These are very strong forces. Any psychologist knows that creating new habits is the holy grail for sustainable change. Habits, once they form, become unconscious and automatic. If a veteran employee has used the same system for 25 years, then addressing those habits will be more fruitful than motivating the employee by touting the benefits of switching to a new system.

Lack of resources - The most prominent examples are time and money. This seems trivial, but they are nevertheless important to acknowledge. This barrier should be approached with care though, as it often serves as an excuse for not doing things, even though the true root cause of inhibition could stem from one of the aforementioned categories.

The restraining forces are usually unconscious, which means that people are not necessarily aware of them, and as such, do not report them as being the cause for their inaction.

A Renewed Focus to Propel Action

We worked with one of our clients in the financial industry who sought to drive their customers to use digital channels rather than the phone for customer support.

During our work, we realized that most of the company’s efforts were focused on pushing the callers towards the digital channels, rather than creating a more appealing digital platform that could have become the preferred choice.  

Our solutions focused on both driving and restraining forces. We helped the company to understand the need to design a digital experience that invites people to find their answers (self-service) for the most popular inquiries. At the same time, we suggested adding (a bit) of friction to the phone option, which helped to subconsciously drive people to opt for the digital channel naturally. For more examples of driving and restraining forces in action, check out our work with Start-Up Nation Central and Glowlit.

Applying Restraint to Move Forward  

The next time you think of a situation in which you hope to move other people (or yourself) from point A to point B, pay close attention to the barriers at play. You might find something valuable and actionable there.

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