What Makes Behavior Happen?

When designing a campaign, it’s useful to understand what makes someone tick. What is driving their actions? What is the combination of forces that is pushing them to do a certain thing? 

Behavior change is at the core of every marketing, communications, or branding campaign. On the surface, this seems fairly straightforward, but making it happen is much more challenging. That is why we begin by examining the competitive landscape and evaluating the behavioral drivers employed. Understanding this is critical to creating a campaign that has the strongest overall influence.

A successful campaign elicits an action or reaction from the target audience, but individuals continuously encounter other efforts to influence them and change their behavior.  Some of these attempts may even directly contradict your message, while some are entirely independent. 

This landscape of overlapping and contradictory influences is called competitive behavior change.  At its core, this is the understanding of what causes someone to choose one action in favor of another, and gives you a powerful advantage over your clientele and your competition.

We tailor our strategies according to the hierarchy and interaction between seven (7) behavioral drivers, each of which will be discussed in greater detail in this blog series.

These drivers are ranked by their ability to influence behavior (i.e.: everything else being equal, a higher-level driver will evoke behavior more strongly than a lower-level one, and in the case of multiple influences, the higher-level driver will win out). 

The 7 behavioral drivers are:

  1. Stimulus-Response: Reflexes or reactions, subject to very little personal control.
  2. Inertia: The tendency to keep doing whatever you're already doing, referred to colloquially as "the low cost of doing nothing." 
  3. Loss Aversion: The reluctance of to part with something that is already yours. 
  4. Reinforcement: Receiving something positive as a consequence of performing a particular action. 
  5. Punishment: The inverse of reinforcement: a negative consequence from engaging in a particular action. 
  6. Valuation: The emotional response we feel about a task, object, or person. 
  7. Calculation:  The objective, factual interpretation that we make about a situation or object. 

Drivers seldom occur in isolation and it is possible to overcome a higher-level driver with multiple lower-level drivers.  Given a choice, an individual will choose the strongest balance of drivers.

Over the next seven (7) blog entries, we'll examine each of these individual drivers in detail, discuss examples, and show you how they can be used to maximize your campaigns.



In our first post, we introduced how behavior is affected by seven (7) different drivers.  Over the next several posts, we’ll go into more detail about each driver, examining what they are and how they can be leveraged for success in the world of PR. And there’s no better place to start than with the most powerful driver of all: stimulus-response.

But what is stimulus-response? And what makes it the most powerful driver of the seven?

Stimulus-response (SR) is your immediate reaction to the most important and pertinent input.  To put it simply, SR is an automatic reflex, meaning that this action is subject to very little voluntary control and often pre-conscious (occurring before you’re even aware). 

Sensory Input

A classic example of stimulus-response is Pavlov’s dogs.  In the late 1800s, Ivan Pavlov conducted an experiment where he rang a bell before feeding his dogs. After a period of training, Pavlov could simply ring the bell – with no food in sight – and the dogs would begin to salivate automatically. He conditioned the dogs to associate the sound of the bell with the arrival of food.

However, not all SR behaviors require training, but that doesn’t negate how effective they are. It just gives you more options. Consider the standard patellar reflex test when/where the doctor taps your knee with a rubber hammer – your leg extends and contracts automatically, right?  This is another example of SR behavior: a fast, unthinking response to a stimulant.  It’s so emblematic of the concept, in fact, it is actually the namesake of the old adage, “knee-jerk reaction.”

While these examples explain stimulus-response, you might be wondering how they are relevant to the commercial environment…

Let’s consider the handshake.  It’s so ingrained that we often don’t even notice it. But did you know that responding reciprocally to an extended hand is virtually automatic in most Western cultures? Not voluntary. A-U-T-O-M-A-T-I-C. Try it next time you’re in a conversation – at a slightly unexpected point, extend your hand normally, and watch how quickly and automatically the person you are talking with responds.  Because of this, though seemingly innocuous, the “handshake reflex” can be employed to great effect in negotiations and in marketing.  We are conditioned to view handshakes as a sign of acceptance, cooperation, and amicability.  By strategically cueing your handshakes, you can increase the agreeableness of the other party, and even push concessions that would otherwise not have happened.

SR is unique because it occurs (at least partially) outside the brain. Other drivers, which we will discuss in the ensuing posts, occur exclusively within the brain, and almost entirely within the midbrain and cortex.  SR, on the other hand, largely involves reflexes stored in the inferior gangli, small clusters of nerves in the spine and in the muscle groups. Because they are stored outside of the brain and are activated before we can even think about them (a “fixed-action-pattern”), SR behaviors, while powerful, tend to be less useful in business communications and interactions precisely because responses are so specific and fixed. 



In our last section, we talked about stimulus-response. While a powerful driver of behavior, its restrictions make it not especially meaningful in marketing and business. This space is where behavioral inertia can be an effective tool. In this post, we’ll explain how.

Behavioral inertia is often referred to as, “the low cost of doing nothing.” Put simply, it happens – for lack of a better word – because our brains are lazy, and changing behavior costs energy. This results in our tendency to stick with the available default options and prioritize convenience over other potential benefits (aka the “Default Bias” or the “Status Quo Bias”).

We see this in our personal lives all the time. Consider the “choice” of two similar stores; we tend to choose the most convenient option (i.e. the one that doesn’t require us to cross the street). This is inspite of the fact that the other store may have better prices or higher quality products…



We also see inertia on an institutional level. Let’s look at this through the lens (excuse the pun) of Kodak. In 1976, Kodak held 85-90% of the market share in both film and cameras. Despite a Kodak employee actually inventing the digital camera, the company chose to focus on traditional film. As a result of this organizational inertia, the company succumbed to the rise of the digital camera and went out of business.

Because behavioral inertia is so common, it can readily be leveraged in a business setting. The best approach to utilizing inertia is to embed your objective within your message. Instead of fruitlessly spending time, energy and money to change someone’s behavior, make your message, outcome, or product a part of that behavior.

For example, installing software is a fairly common occurrence. Yet how many of us change the custom installation option? We tend to stick with the “standard” or “complete” option (the status quo), regardless of our needs. Defaulting to the zero-thought option saves us time and energy that our brain is not inclined to expend.

In a competitive behavior environment, inertia will almost always be the primary competing driver. If you can’t embed your outcome into existing inertia, you have no choice but to try and disrupt it (and this comes at a high cost). The fact that there are multiple brain processes supporting inertia and that they occur in independent circuits makes inertia especially difficult to overcome and simultaneously makes it one of the most important components of any successful campaign. In order to create truly novel behavior in your target market, overcoming and creating a new inertia is a must.


Loss Aversion

In our last entry, we talked about behavioral inertia. While inertia is a powerful mover of behavior, it’s a challenge to use as a tool to re-construct preexisting behavior. Therefore, as a rule of thumb when it comes to using inertia in marketing, the best approach is to align your message with behavior that already exists. Long story short: don’t change it, use it.

While we have only previously discussed what are seemingly “ingrained” behavioral drivers, there are drivers that exist that can be used to actually create active interventions. One such driver is: loss aversion.

Simply put, losing things we already have in our possession outweighs making equivalent (or greater) gains (i.e., the pain of losing $20 is greater than the pleasure of gaining $20). We see this with money, objects, relationships, status, and even emotions.

Loss aversion can be traced back to survival instincts when we faced legitimate life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. If you have food or shelter, it makes no sense to part with that security for the possibility of something greater.

Loss aversion was famously characterized by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky as “prospect theory.” The concept was so ground-breaking that Kahneman won the Nobel prize in economics for this work. In this study, research subjects were asked to estimate the dollar value of a coffee mug. So, what happened? Participants said they would pay no more than $3 to buy it but wouldn’t sell it for less than $8. The results? The mug “gained” value once it was in their possession and therefore parting with it required greater compensation.

Outside of the laboratory a classic example of loss aversion is the “30-day money back guarantee.”

Try a product for 30 days; if you don’t like it, you can return it for a full refund.

This tactic isn’t new and persists because it works. However, it seems counterintuitive - wouldn’t this result in a huge amount of returned, used merchandise? Surprisingly, no! And this is because of loss aversion. After 30 days, users believe the product is theirs even with a guarantee of a full refund! The reason? Giving up possession represents a “loss.” Therefore, almost no one returns something after a trial. To put this into numbers using the mug example, companies would need to offer a 266% refund for people to return their purchase.

At the end of the day, loss aversion is largely a matter of one thing: ownership. As much as possible, make your target audience feel like they already have a share of whatever you’re offering. If it’s a physical product, let them hold it. If it’s a service, make them imagine themselves using it.

While the phenomenon of FOMO (fear of missing out) is logistically irrational, people frequently imagine how their lives would be improved if they were at an event or utilizing a certain product. Even though that person never had that experience or utilized that product, people feel an innate and intimate sense of loss for something that has never even been theirs.

Leveraged properly, loss aversion allows gradual change to your offerings – increased prices, altered scopes, modified timelines, etc. – without any fear of customer loss. Once you have established yourself as a “provider,” it takes a massive or prolonged change for them to walk away…

The fear of losing you is too powerful.

While not as inherently strong as behavioral inertia, loss aversion is a highly potent driver of behavior. Layered with additional driving elements, or layered with multiple dimensions of loss aversion itself, loss aversion can be a valuable tool to overcome your audience’s existing inertia and create the results you desire.



In our previous blogs, we discovered three behavioral drivers that can shape behavior and strengthen a marketing or PR campaign. However, each has their imperfections or inflexibilities. So, what is the most powerful active way to shape behavior in the direction of your choosing?


Reinforcement (see, we just reinforced reinforcement!) is a fairly simple concept. Essentially, it is an outcome or contingency that makes a behavior more likely to occur again (i.e.: an individual receives a reward for performing a task and therefore is more likely to repeat it).

Reinforcement operates primarily through the dopamine system in the brain. In general terms, the brain uses dopamine as a signal for reward. When a reinforcing event occurs, the amount of dopamine produced briefly increases. The brain interprets this increase as a good thing and tries to get more. This is what makes the behavior that preceded the reinforcement more likely to be repeated.

While the terms are frequently used interchangeably (even this author is guilty of it sometimes), it’s important to differentiate between reinforcement and reward. Reward refers to an outcome that is positive or enjoyable to the recipient. <u>Reinforcement</u> is any outcome that makes the precipitating behavior more likely. While it might seem like anything that is a reward should also be a reinforcement - and vice versa - this isn’t always the case. Consider: you call someone on their mobile phone and receive no answer. You then text them and receive a response 30 seconds later. There was no specifically positive outcome here - the response simply completed the action - but in the future you will likely text rather than call; texting has been reinforced.

A great example of reinforcement in the business space is the rewards program. Most companies have them, but the most effective tend to be the most simple, like the local coffee shop’s punch card, “buy 10 cups and your 11th is free.” This tactic works phenomenally well at generating repeat business and reinforcing purchasing behavior at a remarkably low cost; the transactional value of the punch card is no more than 20 to 30 cents per visit but it still drives people back to the store. Even more effectively, it establishes habitual visits to the store. If material reinforcers are impractical for whatever reason, one of the simplest ways to reinforce behavior is to play to a person’s sense of self – a simple “I like you” is enormously powerful (if you’re skeptical about this, read up on the legend of Joe Girard).

It’s important to point out that the reinforcement context matters. For example, a $20 bill might be a great reinforcer for a college student, but probably mean very little to Jeff Bezos. And food as a reward is effective…until you’re not hungry anymore

In addition to context, timing matters as well. Remember how one of the key elements of reinforcement is that it must be potentially repeatable? Adjusting how quickly or how reliably you offer a reinforcer can influence its effectiveness. This is known as schedule of reinforcement.

There are two general types of schedules: fixed and variable. These are pretty much exactly what they sound like – a fixed schedule provides a reinforcer after a fixed time and/or fixed number of responses, and a variable schedule is, well, variable. While intuitively it might seem that an aggressive fixed schedule would be the best way to drive a behavior, this actually isn’t true. Variable schedules of reinforcement actually create much greater reinforcement and, most importantly, result in much stronger internalization of behavior (adopting the reinforced behavior as a baseline or inertial behavior). Therefore, withholding established reinforcers is one of the best ways to create craving.

Though it’s right in the middle of the hierarchy of behavioral drivers, reinforcement is often the best driver for getting exactly at the behavior you want to facilitate. It also naturally lends itself to establishing behavioral inertia long-term. In any messaging, marketing, or sales campaign, a nuanced understanding of reinforcement needs to be part of your toolbox.

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