Changing Behaviours: Cognitive Fluency

Written by Simon Jack (guest contributor)

Our brain prefers to think about things that are easier to understand. It’s the law of least effort and the desire to find the path of least resistance, without getting too bogged down with options.

Throughout evolutionary history, our brains have developed to ensure they can work as efficiently as possible, without exerting the brain cells any harder than necessary. This is your chimp brain calling the shots. We filter out the clutter and focus on things that are simple, accessible and eye-catching. We much prefer when things are presented as clearly as possible.

If we are given to too much to think about at once, we can suffer from what’s known as decision fatigue. This is where we have choice overload and it becomes easier to do nothing. You might have heard this as the KISS principle- Keep It Simple Stupid!

This principle was wonderfully illustrated in a jam taste test experiment, where one group were asked to sample 6 flavours and another had 24 flavours to choose from. After tasting, both groups were asked if they would like to purchase any jam. The group that had the fewer options bought around a third more. It was easier for them to come to a decision.

When it comes to influencing behaviour, the simpler and more obvious an action is, the more likely it is to be carried out. You want to stop a particular behaviour? Simply make it smaller, farther away or harder to do. Many people have cut down or stopped smoking because it’s nigh on impossible to go for a cigarette in public places without subjecting yourself to the cold and rain. The usual associations of smoking become tainted and less attractive.

Let’s look at a few other examples of behaviour change in practise…

Tackling obesity


Food traffic light labelling was introduced for one purpose- to make it obvious to people what they are eating. With an obesity epidemic, it’s now paramount people are able to make more conscious choices rather than remain oblivious or in denial about eating habits.

Getting kids to eat more healthily


If you want to encourage healthy eating in children, one answer is to simply make the healthy food choices more prominent and easy to access. This is exactly what one school did. Where once the salad bar was at the back of the room, they positioned it in front of the checkouts to ensure it couldn’t be missed. Kids started eating three times as much salad when salad became an easier choice.

Changing the default option

We are wonderful at taking the default option. Most people won’t ever change their default ringtone and will stick with the default font in the documents they create. Default is mentally effortless.

However, defaults can be the difference between life and death. There’s currently a debate in England about making organ donation upon death an opt out option instead of an opt in as it is currently. Take a look at the below graph. The difference between the European countries with donation rates of near 100% and those closer to 0% is a mere tick in the box. Where people have to consciously opt in, this is asking them to do extra thinking. Many just don’t bother. 


The same is now true with email permissions and the new GDPR regulation. Are people going to want to opt back in so readily? Hmmmm. Read my post on why email is dying, where I take a look at how we'd expect behaviours to play out in light of this change.

Now you appreciate the power of simplicity. Using cognitive fluency to change behaviour is about realising the effort barriers to action then working out how they can be lessened or removed. Talk to me if you’d like to explore how this principle and others relate to your behaviour and change challenges.