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7 Principles for Changing Behavior from @DanielPink: #SXSWi 2015 Recap

As I spoke to a fellow SXSW attendee in the shuttle earlier in the day, I mentioned I was planning to attend behavior expert Daniel Pink’s session about fear, shame, empathy, and more ways to change behavior. The gentleman’s response was, “Is that a presentation, or a therapy session?”

Although I didn’t quite know the answer at the time, Pink’s topic ended up being thoroughly enticing and the audience walked away with a number of valuable takeaways applicable to both business and life.

I’d heard of Daniel’s books, Drive and To Sell is Human, but didn’t know much about him beyond that. He has a lot of tangible experience “in the field” and was able to provide actual, first-hand examples to all of his assertions.

In addition to holding a degree in linguistics, Daniel is the co-producer of NatGeoTV’s show Crowd Control, which is an “undercover science invention show.” In it, Pink and his team strive to change behaviors of people in common, everyday scenarios.

Here were his seven principles for behavior change:

1. Fear Can Be Good For Business

At first, this may seem counter-intuitive. But, when you think about it, there’s a lot of truth. For example, if a company isn’t doing well, a CEO can inject fear by noting, “we need three more deals by end of the month or we are going out of business.” You bet this will have a greater impact than a boss simply conveying to employees that they should make more sales.

Pink shared a case study they did with people on a simulated flight. Most of us don’t pay attention during the safety schpeals airlines give at the beginning of every flight.

In the conducted test, the stewardesses running the presentation used verbiage like, “Pay attention, or you are significantly more likely to die.” The safety information cards used in this simulation also showcased more vivid imagery of people catching on fire.

While this exaggeration of a common situation was humorous, the study did indeed show that explicitly invoking fear sparked greater attention and action on behalf of the participants.

2. Persuade with Questions

Another critical element in influencing behavior is utilizing questions, as opposed to statements. Questions elicit more active responses and causes the wheels to turn more actively in the person being asked the question.

Pink highlighted Raegan’s use of the question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” during the 1980 U.S. presidential election.

Questions like these are effective as they cause people to come up their own reasons for doing something and believing in you for asking the question.

That said, only utilize this tactic when the facts are clearly on your side. When presidential candidate Mitt Romney proposed Raegan’s same question to Barack Obama during a debate in 2012, the notion was immediately abandoned. Most individuals were not better off four years prior, in 2008, when the economy crashed.

Pink also shared a personal anecdote as an additional example. He (“hypothetically”) has a 16-year-old daughter, Elisa, who tends to have a messy room. Simply telling Elisa to clean her room doesn’t typically invoke action.

However, Daniel turned the tables by posing the question: “On a scale of 1-10, how ready are you to clean your room?” Elisa’s answer? “Two.”

This may not seem like a desired response, but it actually opens the door to additional conversation that can be productive.

Pink suggests following up with:”Let me ask you another question, why didn’t you pick a lower number?” This forces the other person to start coming up with their own reasons for doing something. Therefore, much more likely to do it.

3. Use Social Proof

Pink shared another study conducted during Crowd Control – one involving hotel towels. How do you get people to re-use their towels?

In leaving a simple “Help save the environment” message, only 35% of individuals opted-in to re-using their towels.

When the messaging shifted to, “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment,” the number increased to 44%.

When a third similar, yet slightly more specific message was employed, only edited to suggest that 75% in room XXX re-used their towels, the number rose even more.

Pink highly suggested Robert Cialdini’s book Influence. In his book, Cialdini refers to the above scenario as “social proof.” You want to convey the idea of “this is how we do things around here.” If others are behaving a certain way, that’s your ticket.

Another example here involves cell-phone walking lanes in Washington D.C. There are two parallel lanes side-by-side, one for walkers on their cell phones and the other for those not on their cell phones.


When Dan’s team hired actors to wear orange vests and encourage compliance, people got really upset about being told what to do.

Tweets even started pouring in stating the “government was going too far” in mandating people to walk in a certain lane based on whether or not they were on their phones.

When they shifted the use of the actors, though, things changed. When the actors took off their orange vests and simply blended in with the crowd, walking around in the appropriate lane based on whether or not they were using their phone, people started following along.

This further drove home the notion of social proof and that people will willingly partake in something if they believe their direct peers are, too.

4. Make Time to Rhyme

This was a fun example that brought Dan’s linguistics background into the mix.

A study was conducted wherein two groups were shown the same proverbs, only one was presented in a rhyming manner, while the others were not.

IMG_9973When asked if they agreed with the proverbs, the individuals with the rhyming ones astoundingly agreed with the messages, while the folks with the non-rhyming ones disagreed (even though the same message was conveyed in both cases).

Rhyming has been shown to enhance “processing fluency” which allows people to absorb the message better. The same is true of alliteration.

Haribo is a brand that does this well. They’re a gummy bear candy available in numerous countries. In each language in which they market themselves, they always use a rhyme.

5. Make It Easy for People to Do Something

In the next study, students were asked to identify who is least and most likely to donate to a food drive. These actually tend to be pretty accurate; your peers are strong gages of you.

After students were polled, letters were sent both groups of students (those deemed likely to donate and those deemed likely not to). Two sets of letters were sent out: a general one that simply opened, “Dear Student…” and more personal ones that were directed to the student’s specific name and contained a more personalized message.


Unsurprisingly, those deemed not likely do donate and who just received the general letters did not donate.

But, those who received specific letters, in both groups, were substantially more likely to donate as a result.

What is most fascinating is that thee was 3x pick up rate among those less likely. This provides a big lesson in influence and behavior change.

“When we try to predict people’s behaviors, we always over weight the importance of personality and underweight the importance of the context.”

The best way to change peoples’ minds is to give people a reason to act. Make it easy for people to do something.

6. Put a Face on It

The next experiment involved handicap parking spaces. After noticing that many were unjustly occupying handicap parking spaces in Austin, Dan and his team conjured up a more practical way to stir up empathy.

They added actual faces of wheelchair-bound individuals to the conventional blue-and-white handicap parking sighs to convey that parking in these spaces isn’t a victimless crime.

Incorporating the principles of rhyming, these images were accompanied by, “Think of Me. Keep it Free.”

A hidden camera caught various vehicles pulling into these spaces, then immediately pulling out. In fact, 100% of non-handicapped individuals who pulled into the spaces left. Not a single person parked illegally. Then, just two days after removing the new signs, there was a violation.

The point here was to put a face on your message.

“Don’t make it abstract; make it complete.”

7. Try Stuff!

Finally, Dan discussed the bicycle theft problem in New Orleans. Stealing bikes has unfortunately become common in NoLa so they were curious as to whether there may be a way to attempt to deter this behavior.

A study has shown that men with larger faces (relative to the face’s width:height ratio) tend to be more aggressive. So, they found an actor with a large face to dress up like a police officer and take some intimidating photos.

They then created a large number of life-sized, cardboard cutouts of this officer, and placed them around bike-heavy places.

Good news and bad news. The good news is, bike theft was indeed deterred by the mere presence of these cut outs. The bad news? The thieves stole the cut outs instead.

Dan’s point here was simply to “be empirical and try stuff.” It may turn out differently than expected, but it can make a valid social experiment nonetheless.

Which of the seven principles do you think can make an impact on your personal or business life?

All photos taken by author.

Category Careers
Debbie Miller Social Media and Content Marketing Professional | Writer at Social Hospitality

Debbie is a marketing communications specialist that has worked in digital marketing, content development, and social media for over 10 ...

7 Principles for Changing Behavior from @DanielPink: #SXSWi 2015 Recap

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