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The unthinking brain in a social cultural context

man laying down with blue fence surrounding him

Applied behavioural science is a framework for our system 1 brains, but how do we reconcile that with cultural differences and our search for meaning in life?

In a nutshell

  1. Applying micro behavioural science to change behaviour suggests that people are as amenable as a puppet on a string. Yet the evidence suggests it’s not that easy to get people to jump when we pull the string.
  2. The word nudge is often used to describe actions we can take that will push people toward making the decision/behaving in the way we want them to
  3. Social and cultural factors exercise a gravitational pull on our behaviour. They pull us towards conforming and our brains balance personal agency versus the norms of the collective
  4. In an ideal word to optimise a behaviour change programme the pulls and the pushes need to be aligned and part of a concerted effort. The challenge to marketers is to find the interface between micro behavioural science and macro socio cultural influence because it is where the key to changing behaviour lies.

Applying micro behavioural science to change behaviour suggests that people are as amenable as a puppet on a string. Yet the evidence suggests it’s not that easy to get people to jump when we pull the string. At a macro level, social and cultural context exerts a significant influence on our behaviour, pulling us to act in a socially and culturally congruent way, so which do we choose in order to influence behaviour? Or is it a matter of balancing the push and pull of the micro and the macro?

Behavioural Principles are a good starting point.

The application of the principles of applied behavioural science has had significant impact and success on behaviour change programmes. In some instances, the shift in behaviour has been huge. Many people will be aware of the effect that changing the default for organ donations in Norway had on people’s behaviour and the extent of the effect makes a few points increase in brand share look like a very poor relation. So ‘how can I use this science to achieve that level of change’ is not a surprising response. And, occasionally, great results follow, especially for online transactions for example, where defaults are very effective – though beware they can erode goodwill (and even prompt legislative restriction), as some of the airlines discovered when they rolled insurance in to the fare as a default.

But if it works so well why, at a recent Marketing Association event, did nearly half of the marketers say they use these principles as a lever for behaviour change only infrequently.


Figure 1

Although there are success stories out there, if it was that easy for marketers to become puppet masters by simply applying some basic behavioural economic principles, we would be seeing many more behaviour change success stories and it’s troublesome to imagine how that would play out if all the competitors in the category were applying the same principles. I nudge you to make a decision favourable to my brand and my competitor nudges you back to a decision favourable to their brand – like a game of ping pong. The same would be true of social policy compliance and public health programmes – applying the science should have us all doing the right thing. Yet we know behavioural nudges work with some people and not with others.

The role of culture

Perhaps the answer lies in some early stage research that is emerging which is questioning how these basic principles of behaviour play out cross-culturally – are they universal or are they culturally construed? Almost all of the experimental work to date has been conducted with WEIRD people (Western, educated, industrialised economy, rich, living in a democracy) and in fact most of it with WEIRD students. Early evidence from the research suggests that there may be cultural differences between nations and between world-views (Western vs Eastern for example) or different economic situations (relatively wealthy industrialised US vs rural, relatively poor Africa), suggesting that cultural context plays a part in how behavioural nudges work.

Context is, of course, already a principle of behavioural science. But the context that behavioural science focuses on is ‘in the moment’ context (and as a result the insights industry has rightly moved its focus to ‘in the moment’ data collection). This type of context takes into account situational context, priming/framing/anchoring, and levels of consciousness, cognitive overload etc. In so far as it takes in to account copying behaviour, it nods to the role that social influence has, but again primarily at the moment of decision making.

But let’s get back to basics

We do know that using behavioural principles explains a lot of decision making behaviour. For example, knowing how people choose between options is where we can see this in action and has resulted in the widespread use of choice architecture.

When faced with choices of different value (monetary or product features, for example) people will tend to choose the middle option. Why? Because it is a safe survival strategy. Extremes are dangerous or less reliable, so we gravitate to the middle ground. 

Figure 2

This type of shortcut (called heuristics or cognitive biases) is hardwired in our brains and allows us to make quick decisions without any effort. Many of those decisions are not optimal – the recency bias for example leads us to make decisions based on some recent salient fact without weighing up all the facts or using statistical probability. Behavioural science studies have demonstrated that our intuition around statistics is generally very poor which underpins many of the shortcuts that run contrary to the actions we should take if we based the decision on a rational consideration of all the facts.

It’s hard to accept that smart human beings can act on such simplistic shortcuts, after all we think we have ‘superior’ cognitive skills to other species – language for example or the ability to act collectively. But other species have their own form of communication and many forms of collective behaviour. So it’s not those cognitive abilities that separate us and indeed unconscious copying of other’s behaviour is another principle of behavioural science, another shortcut.

So if we are so smart, why do we use these shortcuts. Simply put, life would be too exhausting if we didn’t. Imagine having to make a considered decision for everything you did, even those routine daily activities would be a massive drain on your brain’s energy. Our brains already use 25 percent of our energy (ever wondered why you are hungry after a day of working through a difficult problem or why you can’t concentrate on a difficult problem if you are hungry?). Habits take away a lot of decision making and for activity that doesn’t have a habit, short cuts give us a low brain energy solution.

Figure 3

We can think of these shortcuts as push factors – and the word nudge is often used to describe actions we can take that will push people toward making the decision/behaving in the way we want them to. Choice architecture is one example, by putting the thing we want them to choose in the middle, we are relying on people’s shortcuts to push them toward our preferred option.

And we comply with these nudges when they make our life easy, fast (efficient) and cheap on energy because they address our primitive brain’s survival strategy, leaving us more time to do the things we need to survive. 

The Conceptual Brain

The human brain does have cognitive faculties that other species don’t share, specifically our ability to think conceptually. Being able to think conceptually means that we can communicate ideas and share concepts, even with people that we have no personal contact with. We can share social constructs such as honesty, we can share intangible ideas such as God, we can share a way of thinking such as democracy – there is a common understanding of these ideas whether or not we all agree upon them.

And it this conceptual brain that is the source of the social and cultural ideas that influence us. But why social and cultural? Because we are a herding species. We are more like horses than lions. Loneliness is a major health risk, a cause of poor mental and physical health.

Figure 4

The social and cultural influences work at several levels. The first, seeing what other people are doing, is an extension of one of our cognitive shortcuts, unconscious copying. People will copy what other people are doing because it’s a fast and easy way to make a safe decision. If what others are doing isn’t killing them then, why not do the same. But this is an ‘in the moment’ context and occurs at an unconscious level. The best way to get people to choose a particular car model, for example, is to park a few of them in their neighbourhood.

At a conceptual level seeing what other people do in general i.e. not just in the moment of a decision (empirical social norms) is a way of relating to a particular group and establishing your identity. And, it’s a two way transaction i.e. we read the signals from other people’s behaviour but we also create the signals. Take laughter for example. Laughing out loud is almost always done in front of other people (30 times more likely that when we are alone), putting out a signal of what we find funny but at a much deeper level what is acceptable, what is normatively incongruent, and what is safe behaviour.

Whereas knowing what people/society/a group you identify with expect of you creates social normative pressure, because if you want to be part of the group you have to play by the groups rules (albeit unwritten and even unconscious rules). No one wants to be thrown out of the herd, because running with a herd is another survival strategy – it’s safer to hang out with others. Sometimes empirical and normative social norms don’t align whereby “I think society expects me to behave in a certain way but I don’t think other people are behaving in that way”.

And, last but definitely not least being part of a group feeds our desire for immortality, for meaning in life beyond just our short lifetime. Think about how many myths and stories concern hereditary narratives, reincarnation and how we want to leave a mark in our profession or pass on wisdom to our grandchildren.

These social and cultural factors exercise a gravitational pull on our behaviour. They pull us towards conforming and our brains balance personal agency versus the norms of the collective – do I do what is best for me if it excludes me from my group? Ostracisation is a powerful weapon and puts our survival in real jeopardy.

Figure 6

Slightly more of the marketers at the Marketing Association event said they were using social and cultural influences to change behaviour:

Pie graph 2

Pulling and Pushing at the same time

In an ideal word to optimise a behaviour change programme the pulls and the pushes need to be aligned and part of a concerted effort. The challenge to marketers is to find the interface between micro behavioural science and macro socio cultural influence because it is where the key to changing behaviour lies. And this is a dynamic systemic model so effecting change in one part of the model impacts all other parts.

Let’s take driving behaviour as an example. A few facts to kick us of:

  • Visitors to New Zealand rate very highly how kind, friendly and helpful Kiwis are.

  • But they wonder where those characteristics disappear to when they experience our driving.

  • Kiwis rate themselves as having a strong sense of fairness and tolerance.

  • But we kill nearly 400 people on the roads every year and anyone with an ounce of self-awareness will admit that we are intolerant and aggressive drivers.

So what’s going wrong and can applied behavioural science principles help? Can we push people to change their driving behaviour. The short answer is yes, applying behavioural principles can help. Police in India have introduced a system whereby vehicles wait longer for traffic lights to go green if they honk their horns too loudly. It seems to be working.

However, there are many deeply seated cognitive biases at play in driving behaviour. Habit is a big one – imagine the cognitive load if you couldn’t rely on habitual behaviour when driving. And, as with all aspects of our intuition as regards statistics, we are hopeless at estimating outcomes and drive to inaccurate assumptions. For example, we vastly over estimate how much sooner we will arrive somewhere if we drive a little faster and we vastly underestimate breaking distances. We ascribe intent to other drivers behaviour when more likely it was accidental or unintentional. So there is plenty of fertile ground to experiment on with behavioural nudges.

Figure 8

But that won’t be enough unless we also look at the social and cultural pulls on driving behaviour. To understand the social pulls we have to understand who people identify with and what they understand to be the rules and values they are expected to adhere to.

And although there are some local nuances in behaviour, (for example we have different ways of acknowledging other drivers depending where we live. In Auckland drivers flash their lights, in Wellington they honk their horn and in Waikato they wave) the dominant influence is Kiwiness. Every nation has it’s own unconscious cultural code. It’s the way we recognise one another, it’s why expats hang out together, and it’s how the collective consciousness of the nation works.

Figure 9

Cultural codes are not static and instead evolve over time. They evolve from earlier codes that developed in response to the social and cultural environment of the time. Evolution is driven by global currents and local conditions – things like the economy, population change, living conditions (urban vs rural), technology and so on. They don’t change overnight and, as a result, there is often some tension as the codes evolve, so behaviour doesn’t always keep up. Think of the way language changes to reflect contemporary cultural codes, but how hard it is to adopt new language so we ‘slip up’ and are called out for political incorrectness. One example is how we struggle to adopt gender neutral pronouns.

An important Kiwi code that influences driving behaviour is our deep seated individualistic streak which originates from the mindset of the early European settlers who had to forge their own path, in their own way.

Figure 10

Though we have retained respect for individualism the code has evolved to create the very liberal and open society we have today. Kiwis are proud of their ‘firsts’ in human rights (women’s voting rights, civil union act etc.). But there is strong evidence that the individualism still has a self-centred component. So, as regards our personal norms, 50% of us are more focused on ourselves and close others, rather than on wider community. One in three Kiwis are both individualistic and aspirational ‘want to get ahead’. The result is that we drive to the old code of Man Alone not the new code of Individuality.

The gap between the old code behaviour and new code social and cultural norms creates friction. Friction is where we can effect change – but we have to use push and pull tactics. Yes we can address old habits and introduce choices that nudge people in the right direction, but we also have to persuade and demonstrate to people that others are behaving in the right way – the BP ‘thank you’ campaign is an example of how we might start to do that.

Figure 11

If organisations can identify these gaps between new codes and old code behaviour there is a competitive opportunity to not just influence decision making but also to own the territory. Tensions and friction is always a fertile area for brands and organisations because it has relevance to people’s lives as they navigate the gap between what they believe and how they behave.

Another core Kiwi code is a belief in social equivalence which stems from early European settlers establishing a classless society. 

Figure 12

The idea that ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ was liberating and empowering and in stark contrast to the limiting class structured societies they had left behind. But money always establishes a pecking order and the code has evolved by maintaining a sense of fairness into a desire for a level playing field for all. So that means we don’t like the idea of entitlement or a ‘hand out’ mentality. Instead we want to see people be given the opportunity to make good for themselves. 

So how does that work for how compliant and law abiding we are – how does it impact paying our fines, evading public transport fare paying, paying by cash to avoid GST, buying something that is probably stolen?

Figure 13

The new code works to pull us in the right general direction because society establishes laws and rules to make it fair for everyone, to level the playing field. And also generally speaking Kiwis are compliant, they respect the law and are honest. But… yes, there is always a ‘but’.

Whereas we want a society where everyone gets a fair opportunity for a good life, we also hang on to the idea that rules need to be for everyone and clearly not everyone is playing by them. So, if we see others not playing fair why should we? Around one in three Kiwis think it’s OK to bend the rules. Half don’t think New Zealanders in general are honest and the media loves telling us about the ‘well known name’ rule breakers.

Can applied behavioural principles solve the problem? It’s common sense and empirically proven that if we make it easy to comply with rules then that’s what most people do. Make it hard to buy a train ticket and non-compliance will increase. Make it easy to pay fines and more people will pay them. Make the right thing to do the default and make sure people have the capability to comply. 

But, we still need to address the social norms and align them with our New Zealand cultural codes. If people don’t believe others are complying then the ‘bend the rules’ mindset comes into play. If people don’t feel the normative pressure to comply i.e. they don’t think that New Zealanders expect them to always comply in order to create a fair society the push factors are diluted and work arounds are established as habitual behaviour which is hard to break. (if you’ve always paid your cleaner cash, it’s going to be tough to make you change with pushes alone).

Culture as well as social pulls

Another examples is from one of New Zealand’s utility companies who enable customers to make a charitable donation through a small regular fixed contribution added to the monthly bill. Despite the charity being one that is close to Kiwi hearts, take up was quite low.

This is a classic scenario for behavioural nudges, whether by the use of defaults, choice architecture (would you like to donate $0, $5, or $10?) or leveraging heuristics like using a specific person as the recipient of the benefit of the donation instead of a ‘cause’. Without question it is possible to push people toward donating, with some success. But we also know that people can resent these on the nose attempts to coerce and it may have an impact on the brand. So we had to find a pull factor.

Figure 14

From a social perspective, New Zealander’s belief in social equivalence has some general gravitational pull. The charitable cause enhances social equivalence by giving support to those who are, through no fault of their own, having a hard time and without help their progress in life will be curtailed.

But the social influence of the Kiwi code is not enough alone, it needed a cultural pull too. Why wasn’t social influence adequate alone? Because the action required didn’t feel like it was enough money, which of course is completely counter to the fact that they were not currently giving anything. The very small amount a month they were being asked to give felt too little, too mean for such a worthy cause, but they could neither afford more nor did they want to contribute more in the context of their other charitable or social contributions. 

And, remember our old code of ‘Jack’s as good as his master’ which means in a classless society we don’t like handouts, so there is a gap between the old code and the desire for social equivalence that behavioural nudges alone couldn’t bridge.

So to make them change their behaviour we needed to use cultural pulls. One of the growing global cultural currents is collective action, sometimes expressed as the power of many. We see it in global movements - #metoo, software open source development, peer to peer lending, march for climate change and, in New Zealand, the GenLess movement by EECA.

The idea that a lot of people giving small donations amounts to something significant is a strong pull. It is culturally on code and also speaks to our social herding instincts – knowing that others are doing it, a sense of belonging, meaning beyond our day to day lives.

Not whether to push or to pull but how to bridge the gap

This is not a polemic for or against any particular behaviour change programme, instead it’s an argument for applying a more systems approach to the problem. Applying principles that leverage our lazy brain will work some of the time, with some of the people, but can be drowned out by social and cultural influence. Equally, applying social and cultural influences will work as long as we don’t require our brain to use too much energy so we need the pushes too.

Let’s go back to the wine list.

Figure 15

All things being equal we’d choose the middle option. However I might be dining with someone I want to impress and I might choose a higher priced wine as a declaration of my wine connoisseurship. For this decision, brand is going to play a big part and my emotional associations with that brand are going to be influential. 

Another diner might be aligned with the idea that ‘cheap plonk’ has cache, expensive wine is a con and cheap Italian wine enhances the authentic flavour of pasta – so now we are looking at the bottom price range because cultural signals have won the influence war.

Figure 16


Changing people’s behaviour and influencing their decisions is a complex issue. There isn’t just one solution. A good start point is diagnosing what is currently happening and more importantly what are the sources of influence driving the behaviour. That’s a very different diagnostic approach from asking people ‘why’ they are behaving the way they are. 

Though there is no holy grail, no cure all ills solution, this is a framework to guide us diagnostically and also to help us find the magic in the intersection of pushes and pulls to bridge the gap between how we behave and what we believe.

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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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