The cultural environment for behaviour change.
In a nutshell
- There are many factors that influence people’s behaviour. Culture is an incredibly powerful one which has a major influence on our interpretation of people's hardwired behaviour patterns.
- While there are deeply coded universal behavioural patterns and decision-making biases that we all follow, these are subject to distortion by the cultural environment. So for brands and social policy makers, the core tenets of behaviour change principles have to be leveraged through the relevant cultural lens.
- Culture is stratified and each component has its part to play in influencing behaviour – and, thereby, creating opportunities for marketers and social policy makers to leverage behaviour change.
Behavioural economics and other disciplines in the cognitive sciences have given us a framework to understand people’s behaviour and decision-making – and consequently a way of looking at how we can change behaviour.
These core tenets of how we behave and how we make decisions are both universal and hardwired in our brains, so as marketers we have no choice but to work with these behavioural patterns and use them to our advantage rather than pushing against them. For example, our inherent desire to copy others (because it is a safe strategy and a way of saving us energy by not having to make our own decisions) is being used very effectively in social media strategies that leverage social influence and endorsement. Influencer marketing is a direct application of this that is proving very successful when executed well.
However, thinking of everyone as automatons simply playing out their hardwired behavioural ticks and decision-making biases – like characters out of Westworld – is tendentious thinking because it focuses on only one force driving our behaviour. As we know, there are many factors that influence people’s behaviour. Culture is just one of these forces – but an incredibly powerful one which has a major influence on our interpretation of these hardwired behaviour patterns.
A bias is only a predisposition, not a predetermined result. Biases push us a particular way but the end result depends on what other forces are applying resistance, or alternatively, supercharging our biases. It is a similar concept to the nature/nurture balance – a child may be born with a propensity to develop in a certain way but parental influence can steer whether they grow up to be a smart successful entrepreneur or a smart successful criminal.
Cultural context is a significant force, exerting a gravitational pull that influences even hardwired behaviour and decision-making
Culture acts like the coloured lens that a photographer uses to see a landscape in a particular way, or the wide-angle lens that both captures and distorts reality. The universal behaviour patterns remain, but they are coloured and bent by the cultural environment.
Culture spans traditional and contemporary forces, so in referring to ‘cultural influences’ we pull together a number of different but connected concepts. Culture includes traditional ethnic beliefs and values, as well as long-established societal and political structures and accepted behavioural mores.
But culture isn’t static. The dynamic facets of culture are made up of three elements:
- The overarching meta-trends that emerge when convergent global changes take place – for example in wealth, population, technology or even climate
- The macro movements and cultural shifts that result from these global changes
- The local cultural currents triggered by the unique characteristics of New Zealand
Today’s prolific media landscape means cultural shifts have high salience and are constantly evolving by gaining or losing momentum and changing shape as they do.
Cultural currents change shape and evolve when they land in a particular society because they have to navigate the incumbent cultural beliefs and traditions. These global movements do not land on a blank landscape when they sweep across New Zealand. They slow down as they reach obstacles caused by entrenched beliefs, economic and political or geographic barriers. They can also speed up when the build on an existing mindset. For example, in New Zealand we already have a strong attachment to the land and to conservation, so the sustainability movement had a headstart. The result is New Zealand’s unique cultural context – a blend of the existing and the new.
Is understanding New Zealand’s cultural currents just interesting and maybe useful for creative work? At TRA we believe, and the evidence supports our view, that it’s much more than that because culture is such a powerful influencer of behaviour. As marketers, this is incredibly relevant to us because understanding what people actually do and how they behave in relation to our brands, messages and strategies is our ultimate goal.
The interface between behavioural science, social and cultural influence
It’s not enough to generalise about social endorsement, we need to understand which social groups exert the most influence for any particular behaviour trait. For example, research mapping social group influence shows that people are 80% more likely to smoke if 2 out of 3 of their friends smoke, whereas only 23% are more likely to smoke if their parents smoke. Mapping social group influence is equally applicable to brands so we can leverage knowledge of which social groups exert the most influence on behaviour in regards to our brand/product or social behaviour-change strategy.
Let’s take smoking as an example of how these three lenses – behavioural science, social influence and cultural influence – come together.
Behavioural economics: Smoking is a habitual behaviour (putting aside the physiological addiction) and habits are ritualised behaviour patterns which are triggered by something such as morning tea – the eponymous ‘smoko’.
Social influence: All habits need a reward in order to reinforce the habit – social endorsement is an important reward and thus a reinforcement of the habit. The New Zealand ‘smoko’ acted as a habit reinforcer because of the positive sense of belonging and bonding created by the social experience. Even the ‘smoko’ name came about because of the commonality of the habit.
Cultural influence: The role of cultural currents in smoking behaviour is multi-layered. It might, for example, be a relevant tool if you are trying to get people to give up smoking – particularly as the research shows that friends are better at reinforcing smoking than they are at reinforcing quitting.
Fully understanding the prevailing cultural currents around wellness – incorporating physical, cognitive, spiritual and emotional wellbeing – could be a relevant and useful tool to encourage quitting. Or, alternatively we could tap into an eddy of the cultural current of experientialism that is pushing people to cram as many unique experiences into their lives. An understanding of this cultural influence might be used to frame smoking as a barrier to cramming (e.g. not enough money to do everything they want, or limited to activities that permit smoking).
The cultural lens is a powerful one and offers marketers big opportunities to understand and influence behaviour if they have good cultural acumen and the tools to read the zeitgeist.
Culture is a distorting lens on behaviour
Cultural currents provide people with a frame through which they see the world, and each person’s is different. Imagine a restaurant where three friends are dining – one scours the menu for new and untried ingredients or flavour combinations as they are pursuing the cultural current of experientialism; another of the trio is evaluating the best options in regard to calories, wholefoods and organic products, as they are currently immersed in the wellness movement; and the third of the trio engages the waiter in a conversation about whether the fish is caught in a sustainable way, as their interest in ecology and the sustainability movement is high at present.
All three diners are driven by the same core behavioural need of hunger, all are engaged in a social group, but each has a different cultural agenda which will lead to different decisions around menu choices. This lens is applied each time a decision is required in a person’s life – for example, culture will influence whether to give to a charity, wear a seat belt or decide which insurance brand feels like the right choice.
While there are deeply coded universal behavioural patterns and decision-making biases that we all follow, these are still subject to distortion by the cultural environment. So for brands and social policy makers, the core tenets of behaviour change principles have to be leveraged through the relevant cultural lens. And that requires cultural currency through deep analysis of cultural signals.