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Through the looking glass: a cultural lens on behaviour change

2 girls laying down wearing glasses

The cultural environment for behaviour change.

In a nutshell

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. The overarching meta-trends that emerge when convergent global changes take place – for example in wealth, population, technology or even climate
  2. The macro movements and cultural shifts that result from these global changes
  3. 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.

"Culture is stratified and each component has its part to play in influencing behaviour."

Behaviour change ‘through a glass darkly’

4 layers of stratified culture:

  • National culture > The Kiwi influence
  • Cultural currents > Global influence in a local context
  • Culture of ethnic diversity > Diverse traditional cultural influence
  • Cultural geography > Environmental influence

If culture was just one single component, then life would be much simpler for marketers. Instead culture is stratified and, just like a microscope where each lens in the microscope adds an additional layer of clarity, each component has its part to play in influencing behaviour – and, thereby, creating opportunities for marketers and social policy makers to leverage behaviour change.

National culture

Individualistic societies have ‘loose ties that often only relate an individual to his/her immediate family and friends’. This sounds about right for most Kiwis compared to collectivist societies in which tightly-integrated relationships tie extended families and others into ‘in-groups’ who support each other against other ‘in-groups’ and are characterised by conformity.

An illustration of the Kiwi influence can be drawn from updated data based on Hofstede’s work on cultural differences in the psyche of people from various cultures and regions around the world. The data shows that, among other things, a significant difference between western and eastern societies exists in terms of collectivism (eastern) versus individualism (western). A strong orientation towards one or other of these styles of behaviour will obviously have some influence on the core tenets of behavioural science.

New Zealand has a high individualistic score so this element of the Kiwi psyche will inevitably temper our tendencies to behave in ways predicted by behavioural science.

As an example, let’s take the tenet of behavioural science that looks at people’s inbuilt bias toward commitment and reciprocity (because in evolutionary terms it made sense to ‘pay back’ favours in the hope you would be favoured in the future). If we want to use this concept to change behaviour toward our brand or social marketing initiative it will surely need a nuanced approach depending on whether we live in a predominantly collectivist or individualistic society.

The Kiwi ‘mates’ culture reflects New Zealanders’ style of ‘paying back’. It is the unique Kiwi spin on reciprocity that many advertisers and brands have used to good effect. ‘Mateship’ also reflects our low index on distance to power (we feel close to power and our ability to influence things), creating a behaviour style typified by mucking in and pulling your weight: fairness and justness extends to reciprocity in friendship, and teamwork in sports and work.

Whenever we look at behaviour change strategies we need to take stock of the relevant aspects of the Kiwi psyche and the national cultural influences that have shaped that. For every application of behavioural economics there are aspects of our national culture exerting an influence, accelerating or slowing down our hardwired behaviour.

New Zealand’s tall poppy syndrome is another example of our national psyche, but this characteristic is also subject to the tide of cultural shifts – a cultural movement towards a global mindset means that tall poppies like Xero are instead feted as examples of successful Kiwi companies becoming part of the global economy. The times they are a changing and we have cultural influence to blame, or thank, for it.

Local cultural currents

When we talk about local cultural currents, we really mean the way that global meta-currents are being translated and transformed by New Zealand society and are colouring the lens through which people look at things.

One example is what the TRA culture team have termed ‘audacious change’ which encapsulates the cultural shift that leads people to rebel against established institutions – think Brexit, Trump, the Occupy Movement and #MeToo. 

In New Zealand our institutions have not been as badly tarred, but neither have we been immune to scandal – the Panama papers, the government’s questionably legal raid on Dotcom, even the Aaron Smith debacle. The international events of the last few years also have a negative halo affect on us.

We can look at the implications of audacious change in relation to another core tenet of behaviour change: we are influenced by who is delivering a message to us. An example of this is the wide use of people in white coats in ads for any category that relies on science to sell its benefits. But as people lose trust in governments and institutions, they are becoming less successful as messengers.  We must look to culture to identify the messengers who can deliver our messages in a way that will be believed and acted upon, because cultural currents prime what we believe through who we believe.

Trump was believed because he was a messenger from the world of business, not the established ruling dynasties nor the institutionalised government representatives. Even well publicised ‘lie’ counts carried less weight than his power as a messenger.

auckland women's march
Source: Refinery29

Culture of ethnic diversity

The Hofstede data illustrates what we are up against for behaviour change strategies, with widely differing core cultural differences to address. If we take the area of behaviour relating to incentives, cost and value calculations where we know people have many hardwired biases, we can see how different ethnic cultural mores will play out on the New Zealand canvas of ‘always on sale’.

In New Zealand we have more retail sales and more products on promotion in stores than any comparable country. Our top retailers appear on prime-time TV promoting their sales and interest free promotions often supported by brands. New Zealand is on sale 24/7, 365 days a year.

Most behavioural biases around price and cost are driven by real or perceived comparisons. Context determines how we value things, and the Kiwi context is a sale price or an added value bonus such as an interest free period.

It is this price/value landscape that has created the mindset of born-here New Zealanders. We have higher than average take up of loyalty cards, typically we don’t tip and we plan our shopping around sales because the overriding driver is FOMO – “If I buy my fridge this week it will almost certainly be on sale for a cheaper price next week”. And it will be on sale next week, so we don’t have to deal with much delayed gratification.

Those from other ethnic cultures have a different perspective. For some a bargain will only ever be seen as such if some actual bargaining takes place, because the reward is derived from their bargaining skills not the absolute price. A sales price tag is not seen as a bargain in their terms and the seller of a sale item is seen to be foolish – or worse, dishonest. For other cultures, sales are viewed as shoddy and suggest low status with a negative halo affect on quality.

Retailers and marketers need to develop cultural intelligence around different ethnic groups, which will result in different language and frameworks for incentives in order to achieve the same behaviour as born-here New Zealanders.

Cultural geography

Though intuitively we may see New Zealand as a rural nation, the reality is we have become highly urbanised. And, increasingly city dwellers are moving away from the urban communities they grew up in into new neighbourhoods.

We tend to think that Brexit or Trump couldn’t happen here, but the facts show an increasing separation between liberal city ‘elite’ and the provinces; between CBD luxury apartments and working class suburbs; and between the places we live in and the places we identify with.

The implication for the way brands and policy makers apply another tenet of behavioural science – social norming – as a behaviour change tool, is that it needs to be seen through the lens of cultural geography. For example, during this current state of relocation flux, those changing communities may not respond to their new neighbour’s norms.

An example of the power of neighbourhood social norming can be seen in an experiment where a model of car was parked in several locations within a neighbourhood. Enquiries and sales of the model and of the general marque were monitored over several months and both showed an unseasonal and marked increase. Though not recommended as a sales campaign, there are broader lessons for how the changing geography will impact on the importance of social norming to influence behaviour and decision-making.

Social media may replace and become increasingly important for spreading norms via a virtual rather than physical demonstration from members of one’s social group. The growing success of website and app Neighbourly is further evidence of a society finding new structures to replace those of smaller, more intimate rural communities.

Culture is intangible but its influence is tangible and powerful

Culture is like the air we breathe; it affects every function in our body from the pallor of our skin to the beating of our heart. Cultural currents are the same – they influence everything we do and how we think.

Companies cannot afford to be out of sync with the pulse and momentum of cultural currents and those with good cultural acumen will be better able to leverage the influence of culture to effect behaviour change. And that requires more than reading the latest ‘top 5 trends for 2017’ report – it requires cultural intelligence across all aspects of the business from brand marketing, to customer experience, partnerships and employee experience.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA
Colleen has a curious and strategic mindset fueled by 40 years of experience in business across Europe, North America and APAC countries. With a fascination and deep understanding of what it is to be human, specifically applying principles from cultural sociology, social psychology, behavioural science, and cultural analysis, she brings breakthrough insights to brand strategy, creative development and customer centricity.

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