How to Change Behaviours: Social Influences

Written by Simon Jack (guest contributor)

We are more likely to do something when we see someone else do it first. In scientific terms, it’s called mimetic desire. It’s the idea that we don’t really desire anything different until we see another human doing it.

Most human desires are provoked by others. Our species may have evolved yet our brains still retain throwbacks from herding behaviour. There’s safety in numbers and you don’t want to be the vulnerable one with your neck sticking out. It’s the bandwagon effect; the more people doing it, the more likely your are to get on board.

As part of finding social acceptance, we are also heavily influenced by confirmation biases, where we predominantly listen to information that matches our own beliefs. We seek out people that fit our values and opinions that match our own. No-one naturally wants to be an outsider for the sake of it. What it comes down to is a sense of trust and respect. The less we conform, the less we are trusted.

When we take part in shared social interactions, our brains release the chemical oxytocin, which is dubbed the ‘trust hormone’. Everyone knows their place and gets along. Without this process, it would be the social equivalent of the front of the queue at the department store doors on Black Friday.

Authority figures also provide huge social cues. People we look up to and admire give us a sense of social permission so we can feel comfortable taking steps without the fear of looking strange or feeling awkward. The fashion industry wouldn't exist without this behaviour pattern. You may not have dreamed about buying that tangerine turtleneck embellished with sequins, but once you see a celeb wearing it, you Amazon Prime it so you can show it off the very next day.

What does this mean for behaviour change? Well, once you understand the social influences underlying someone’s decisions, you can begin to re-engineer those decisions. Let’s look at a few examples…



In 2011 there was a climate change campaign in Japan called Coolbiz. The behavioural issue  they were tackling was Japanese businessmen wearing traditional suits and feeling particularly warm in their sweltering offices. This meant the solution was generally to whack up the air con. Unfortunately this was bad for two reasons. Firsty, Japanese women in their work skirts were freezing. Secondly, air conditioning is the enemy of climate change action!

The answer seemed simple; just turn down the air con and get the men to take off their suit jackets. But the businessmen didn’t want to take off their jackets because they believed dressing down at work was socially unacceptable. The premise of the Coolbiz campaign was to target business leaders and influencers in Japan to show the way. Once they visibly dressed-down themselves, employees took notice and were free to act with certainty that their actions are socially acceptable.

Utility Consumption


Many utility companies are now using social influence to encourage their customers to use energy and water more efficiently. They do this simply by showing your consumption in relation to your neighbours. If you are consuming more, there’s a sense of social responsibility and perhaps even healthy competition, which encourages you to take positive action.

The flip side of this is if people are using less than their neighbours, they may perhaps see this as an excuse to consume more. However, the utility companies embrace this by giving praise and positive reinforcement to ensure they continue their current consumption behaviours.

This Girl Can

this-girl-can-300x150.jpg‘This Girl Can’ is a campaign to get women and girls to shake off any stereotypes of what is traditionally a male sport or activity. The campaign shows women of all ages and backgrounds taking part in a myriad of sports. It allows other women to physically put themselves in the picture and believe it is very possible for them to do it too and that there are no preconceptions to worry about.

Once you learn how to identify the social cues that influence decisions in different situations, you are armed with a very powerful method of influencing behaviours for positive change.

Talk to me if you’d like to explore how this principle and others relate to your behaviour and change challenges.