The Science of Creating Heroes for Nonprofits, with Dr. Beth Karlin
In this Episode:
Over the last few decades, there has been a sea change in the way we understand human behavior and guide or sway people to making decisions and taking action. This wave of research—observation and experimentation—has come to be known as Behavioral Science. Dr. Beth Karlin created the See Change Institute and devoted her career to help organizations use this power for good.
In this episode, Beth joins Boris to discuss why and how organizations should apply the principles of behavioral science to their communications and campaigns. From messaging that increases action-taking, to fostering a sense of identity around your cause, we break down dozens of ideas and strategies to activate more heroes for your cause.
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Read the Transcript
[00:00:18.610] – Intro Video Welcome to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, a weekly live video broadcast, and podcast. Where we’ll be helping nonprofit leaders and innovators create more heroes for their cause and a better word for all of us. Da-Ding!
[00:00:20.720] – Boris Welcome back, everybody, to another episode of The Nonprofit Hero Factory. Thank you so much for joining us again this week. We’ve got a fantastic guest. This is a wonderful person and friend of mine who happens to be a brilliant scientist, behavioral scientist. Her name is Dr. Beth Karlin. I’m going to read her bio. She is the founder and CEO of the See Change Institute, the Research and Practice Institute devoted to studying and shaping behavior change for the greater good. Her current projects, focus on health, equity, media representation and community energy programs.
[00:00:54.920] – Boris Beth earned her B.A. in Psychology, Master’s in Public Policy and a Ph.D. in Social Ecology with an emphasis in social psychology. She probably lives in Los Angeles without a car. Beth describes her superpower as applying behavioral science, insights and methods to understand, measure and influence behavior. And with that, let’s welcome Beth onto the show.
[00:01:16.310] – Boris Hi Beth.
[00:01:17.750] – Beth Karlin Good to see you, Boris.
[00:01:19.370] – Boris Great to see you this morning. Thanks so much for getting up so early in Los Angeles to do this with me today. So I read your impressive bio. Could you please share your story with us a little bit?
[00:01:31.100] – Beth Karlin Sure. I actually started my career right after college in nonprofits. I worked at a volunteer center and I spent the next decade in education and I love the work I was doing. I ended up, after about eight years as a high school activities director, and I started to realize that I could have as much influence on young people and my students outside of the classroom as in. So I started thinking a lot about the power of culture to influence people.
[00:01:56.570] – Beth Karlin And I just found myself making balloon arches during the day and then reading The New York Times about climate change on the weekend and just said, I want to go to there. I realized that, I mean, my undergraduate was in psychology and I always studied psychology, but I realized that culture matters and that understanding and influencing people to take action for huge issues like genocide and social justice and climate change could be done through behavioral science. So I went back to school and got a PhD.
[00:02:24.320] – Beth Karlin I did my dissertation work primarily on residential energy efficiency, which sounds super boring, but it’s really trying to understand how the information ecosystem within our homes could help us improve our behavior. And then on the side, I started studying media. I worked with organizations like Story of Stuff Project and Invisible Children. And then afterwards, after a brief stint in government and academia, I started teaching so that I could just keep doing this work with nonprofits and government organizations without having to worry about the overhead or that red tape of the government or a university to do so.
[00:02:59.930] – Boris That’s so awesome, Beth, I know you’ve worked with a lot of great organizations doing some really amazing and impactful work, I think, especially in the long run as it ripples throughout other areas. Let’s take a half-step back real quick. And for those that might not know, might not be geeks like me, for example, what is behavioral science? How would you define it?
[00:03:21.380] – Beth Karlin Yeah, so behavioral science, it’s kind of the cooler, newer nomenclature for what it used to be called social science when we were younger.
[00:03:30.050] – Beth Karlin But behavioral science is really the empirical study of human behavior. Human behavior and its influences as well as its causes. So behavioral science broadly encompasses the fields of psychology, sociology, political science, education, behavioral economics and informatics and human factors, and probably a few more that I missed. But really anything, any study that’s looking at how do we behave, what influences that and what can we do about it?
[00:04:00.170] – Boris That’s a great definition. And so as part of that, there are two sides to it, right? There’s the theory and the methods.
[00:04:07.130] – Beth Karlin Yeah, the way I think about, and my training, as you said, is kind of broadly interdisciplinary. It’s in something called social ecology. But if you think about any discipline, whether that’s biology, ecology, psychology, any discipline has kind of two things. One is the level of analysis that it studies. So kind of the theory that encompasses it about what matters. And the other are the methods that are used to solve it. So if you think, if you’re studying a pond, right, a hydrologist would study the water, a geologist, the rocks, a biologist, the fish and ecologist studies the pond.
[00:04:44.000] – Beth Karlin Similarly, any discipline and science always has kind of theories or ideas about what matters and how independent variables affect dependent variables and then methods that are used and every behavioral science discipline might use different methods from qualitative research into experimentation, conjoint analysis, things like that.
[00:05:03.290] – Boris So you’ve done a lot of work, I know, with nonprofits, and I was excited to actually work with you on one project. How can, do or should nonprofits be considering and incorporating behavioral science into their work and their communications? What aspects of it really apply?
[00:05:22.040] – Beth Karlin Yeah, kind of following what we were just talking about. If you think about these two sides, theory and methods, one, the first is applying behavioral insights into your work. There’s a lot of things that we’ve learned collectively over the past decades, centuries. If you go back into philosophy before they were actually calling it science, a lot of the ideas about what it means to be happy and why we care and virtue date back to Aristotle.
[00:05:49.220] – Beth Karlin But if we look more recently into published annals of literature, you can look at what’s worked. So if you’re trying to send out an annual donor letter and increase the number of people that participate, there’s research on that. There are insights on how people respond to gain and loss, how people respond to information, how people respond to color, to normative information about what others are doing. So applying behavioral insights into your work, there’s significant evidence.
[00:06:14.750] – Beth Karlin There’s some of the work I did I spent, as I said, a brief stint in government participating with the social and behavioral sciences team in the White House. And a lot of that work was applying behavioral insights into different governmental programs with the hope of increasing participation rates and improving outcomes.
[00:06:30.140] – Beth Karlin And then the second side of it are methods. So you can apply these insights, you can go, “oh, I heard this thing that if you do X, it will lead to Y,” but test. So there’s this idea of trust and verify, right? There’s this old adage, “only half of marketing works; we don’t know which half.” That’s lazy. You can test. Right?
[00:06:47.780] – Beth Karlin So you can apply behavioral insights and then make sure that you’re going in place and test it, testing. Also, the other goal is customizing. While there are kind of broad insights and broad ideas about how humans behave, every different area, region, behavioral context is different. And so understanding the unique attributes of the community that you’re reaching and the problem that you are trying to solve will help you apply those insights more effectively.
[00:07:17.080] – Boris So how can… can you give us an example of how a nonprofit might use behavioral science in some of their campaigns or some of their even grant applications? How does it factor in?
[00:07:30.640] – Beth Karlin Yeah, so, I mean, one of the things that I’ve done a lot of research studying is social norms. So, for example, we found when I was in graduate school, a couple of my colleagues, we put out, we had done a conference and we’re just trying to improve literally the number of people that filled out the conference survey after we all have that problem, right? Any of us who put on events. And we put in we added one letter, one sentence into the letter that said in the email that went out that had been going out for years, that said, “dear person, thank you for coming to the conference. Please fill out the survey.” And we said, “join 70 percent of people who fill out this,” “join people, the other people who are filling out the survey.” And we saw a statistically significant of five to eight percent bump in the percentage of people that were filling out this conference survey. That finding has been replicated so many times. Actually, one of the original behavioral insights team studies in England that they brought over to the US when we launched it here, was looking at adding that same kind of sentence into the letter that the IRS sends to people who pay their taxes. It works there.
[00:08:33.460] – Beth Karlin There was a company called OPOWER that was founded on the fact that sending that normative information, if you’ve ever received a bill from your energy utility that tells you how much you’re using compared to your neighbors, that was started by somebody who had read behavioral science research that was published right here in California showing that learning how much energy or water your neighbors used influence your behavior. That company, OPOWER, after about a decade was sold to Oracle for five hundred and sixty five million dollars.
[00:08:58.300] – Beth Karlin So the power of this to to save enough energy in homes that you can value a company at that amount. And there’s other things on the report. But that was really the core principle. So you can do things like that. Also looking at some of the research we did in those some of those same reports, those same energy reports, we started studying imagery. So we found—this finding has been replicated in other places—that if you replace a photo without people, most of those reports had photos of like… water heaters and light bulbs, and if you put people in the photos, it increased people’s likelihood to click on the information and to take action and increased their likelihood to engage.
[00:09:38.330] – Beth Karlin Also, if you are doing donors, this is research that Paul Slovic conducted going back and others going back a few decades called “Compassion Collapse.” That if you are trying to get people to donate to support a cause that affects people showing actually one person is more effective than showing a group of people.
[00:09:55.550] – Beth Karlin So those are just a few. But there’s a ton of behavioral insights that if you apply and when you taken together, if you’re getting a percent increase here and a percent here and two percent here, you can see how those add up to really huge increases in the response to any of your campaigns.
[00:10:10.220] – Boris And this is why I’m such a huge fan of the type of work that you do in behavioral economics and behavioral sciences as a broad subject because it directly affects user experience and story. It’s the story that we’re telling. It’s the way that we present certain stories and how we frame it so that people respond in a way that they might not if we didn’t use some of these tools and concepts. So it really gets into our core, the core of our psychology and social norms and triggers for us to then activate the good that we want people to to take.
[00:10:43.670] – Boris I remember a similar study to the one that you’re talking about where and this is being done to this day. They they put cards in bathrooms, in hotels. You remember that one about trying to get people to stop just throwing their towels on the floor every single day?
[00:10:58.880] – Beth Karlin Yeah, That was Noah Goldstein and Vladas Griskevicius ran the initial study on that.
[00:11:02.840] – Boris And similarly, it was this not quite peer pressure, what do you call it? The desire to be like other people who were staying in that same room before you. So just by saying, “the previous people who stayed in this room used the same towels for…” I think they said two or three days or something, that sentence, crucially, just changed everything in terms of how often people would have their laundry done.
[00:11:28.100] – Beth Karlin Yeah, and that was really interesting because actually saying people who stayed in this room was more effective than people who stay in this hotel. So it’s just this like this desire for consistency. We desire consistency with our past behavior and with others around us. And, yeah, that’s been found in so many different domains.
[00:11:43.880] – Beth Karlin And I think what you said, the story really matters. And and that’s why it’s important that we don’t just, that you understand the context of your audience and your nonprofit and your brand, because if you just apply these because your brand, your nonprofit has its own story and so you have to remain consistent.
[00:12:00.170] – Beth Karlin One of the studies, and I love when something I do fails as much as when it succeeds, because that’s when learning happens. We applied some huge body of work on personalization and the importance of personalization and kind of creating a relationship, and we worked with a major utility and we worked on a really more personal, casual, friendly, like trying to really build rapport letter as a welcome program. And we attenuated effectiveness with some of the changes we made.
[00:12:25.920] – Beth Karlin And what we realized, and we followed up and did some qualitative research and reached out to people would receive them—a small sample of people like 10 or 20, you don’t have to spend a lot of money doing this—and we found that… and I got some of the ideas for the language in there from work I had done with Invisible Children, who had huge, great response rates to their messaging and had this fun brand where they they had I remember them. I did my first survey.
[00:12:49.110] – Beth Karlin They rewrote the survey invites and I was like, I know how to read a survey and they just made it cute. They made it on brand for them. They were like, we love you, you love us. Tell us about it. Ten minutes, easy, breezy. Right? And I was like, kind of cheesy, but it worked, right? They got this huge response rate that email literally got… somebody screenshotted it and posted it on The Invisible Children Facebook was like “easy, breezy, Ben Keesey, anything for you.”
[00:13:13.020] – Beth Karlin So I tried to apply these insights thinking, like, this is there’s a huge body of work on this. It worked here. But what I found when we talked to people was it didn’t match the brand, that messaging didn’t match the story of that energy utility. People don’t want their energy utility to say “easy breezy” because that’s not the brand. That’s not the narrative. That’s not the relationship you have.
[00:13:32.790] – Beth Karlin So it’s really important that you can pull these insights, but really think about what is authentic for you. And that’s why that idea of thinking about story and thinking about relationship matters. And that’s where I caution against just like writ large applying behavioral economics insights, is that you really need to take caution and think about who you are and what relationship you have. And if you don’t like it, if you want to be more fun, then you’re going to need to spend a couple of years building that and kind of changing your brand, changing the story of who you are and how you relate to people until you get to the point where you can start saying easy breezy.
[00:14:07.860] – Boris Because there are definitely some companies I know in the great large industries that do exactly that. They they go counter the norms and attract people who are like, “Oh, this is so much more personal. It’s so much more interesting.” There’re insurance companies, health insurance companies that do that, that say, “Oh, we’re not like some big random organization out there somewhere. We’re just people and we want to have interactions with you and be sure that you are doing well.” And it is really effective. But I really like, what you’re talking about personalizing, because even if you have your brand voice, you don’t have to talk to everybody the same way, nor should you. And so can you talk a little bit more about not applying one overall strategy or approach to everybody that you’re trying to speak to?
[00:14:57.570] – Beth Karlin Yeah, so kind of persona or segmentation and just to that point. So those companies I’m a member of, one of those health insurance companies.
[00:15:05.262] – Boris Me too.
[00:15:05.010] – Beth Karlin I have Oscar. I love Oscar. I love that. Like they sent me Band-Aids and I forgot about it. I just put them in my in my medicine cabinet. And then I hurt myself and I took out the Band-Aid. I opened it and it was like super cute and said, “Charlie bit me.”
[00:15:19.860] – Beth Karlin And it literally made me laugh out loud. I loved it. Also, that attracts—so the thing in a competitive marketplace, Oscar is attracting people like us who love that brand. Right? So there’s so there’s kind of a fit there. Right? Like people are finding themselves with Rocket for their mortgages and Lemonade and Oscar and going to Zappos to buy shoes because they’re attracted to that. So there’s a little bit of a reciprocation there. Right, because they’re drawing in people who want that.
[00:15:44.340] – Beth Karlin So you will find that when you put your brand out there, you’re telling the world who you want to work with you. So Oscar knows straight out they’re not getting as many people that maybe want a little more staid, buttoned up type of health care company. There are people who think that that is not what a health care company should sound and look like. Right? So, when you really put your brand out front and center, you’re going to start getting the segments, the customer, the market segments that are attracted to you.
[00:16:09.450] – Beth Karlin That’s kind of the thousand true fans methodology. That said, once you have customers and or what would you call for nonprofits?
[00:16:18.760] – Boris Beneficiaries.
[00:16:19.860] – Beth Karlin Beneficiaries. Thank you so much, Boris. You might still want to segment them. Also, you may be serving really wide groups. So I work now with Medicaid providers and they do serve a large number of different audiences.
[00:16:32.850] – Beth Karlin And so you might, it’s really important to look and say what are the commonalities and differences? And can I further customize and personalize to different groups? And that’s often called audience segmentation. And there’s different ways to do it.
[00:16:44.370] – Beth Karlin You can—design thinking, says you kind of go in a room and like, think about who you think your different audiences are. I’m a scientist, so I’m going to say, again, trust, try that, and verify. I think the best way to do that is inductively, not deductively. So you collect data, run a survey and then look, how you can work with somebody to statistically analyze how people fall into groups on their own. What you’ll often find, is that people are not being grouped as much by demographics. You might not have, like, older women and younger men. You might have people who really crave certainty or people who are really focused on security or people who are working from home or people who travel on the weekends. And it depends on what your industry is. Right? I do a lot of work and energy. And so we find that people cluster based on their lifestyle and how much they… how much time they spend in or out of the house, whether they have children…
[00:17:37.590] – Beth Karlin And some of that will follow along demographic lines, but it doesn’t have to. And the power right now of the Internet and of all the information we have is that we don’t have to rely on those old segments. So if you think about media, for example, when we were thinking about, if somebody was marketing for a Jimmy Buffett concert 30 years ago, the main thing you would think the best predictor of being a Jimmy Buffett fan was whether you were a man maybe between 50 and 65 in a southern Atlantic state.
[00:18:06.120] – Beth Karlin But now we don’t have to think that. We can go… we can go, the best predictor of a Jimmy Buffett fan is someone who likes Jimmy Buffett on Facebook. And the second best predictor is someone who’s been tagged in a photo with somebody who like Jimmy Buffett on Facebook in the last six months. Because our Facebook friends don’t actually predict our behavior but the people we’re tagged in photos our real life friends, do. So you can start looking for newer ways.
[00:18:26.760] – Beth Karlin You don’t have to think about just grouping people, because not only is that less effective than it could be, but in this day and age, it’s a little it’s a little off tone. Right? We don’t want to be putting people into socio-demographic buckets and saying this is what old people and young people and white people and black people think. So if we can find even new ways with interests and values in order to group people, you’ll be even more effective.
[00:18:48.500] – Boris So let’s dig a little bit deeper, actually, now that you brought that up. When it comes to being a Jimmy Buffett fan, at some point, does that become part of one’s identity? How do we focus on people’s identities and getting them to self-identify, if you will, with our causes using the techniques that you study and implement?
[00:19:12.110] – Beth Karlin Yeah, identity is huge. Right. Identity is a really powerful thing. And the thing is, we all have multiple identities. So what you’re trying to do is often prime… prime an identity. Right? So that it feels self-salient to the person. So if you ask me, Beth, what’s your identity? At any given time, I might be focused really strongly. Right now, I feel really strongly. My identity is a behavioral scientist because you’re interviewing me as one, right?
[00:19:41.970] – Beth Karlin But I participate in a nonprofit organization called Reboot that’s for Jewish people. And so my identity, I’m very much Jewish in that environment. There’s other environments where I feel very much like a woman or a voter, or I might identify really strongly with my politics or a blood donor. And so one way is just to literally prime and push identity. So research has shown, for example, with voting appeals that if you ask people, “will you be a voter tomorrow?” As opposed to people—they had 11 percent increase in getting people out to the polls—over a message that said, “will you vote tomorrow?”
[00:20:17.900] – Beth Karlin And the latter, will you vote tomorrow? Actually, grammatically, it just sounds much cleaner to me and tighter. I’d much rather say, will you vote tomorrow, or maybe come out and join us and vote, or join—that’s why social norms also work. “Join the 80 percent of people in your precinct who voted last election.” Right? But just “be a voter” is another way so you can prime social norms by saying there’s a group of people that do this.
[00:20:39.770] – Beth Karlin And we see a lot… there were a lot of issues in the past couple of decades around messaging strategies that did the exact opposite. If you look at some of the youth drinking—and it’s really turned a corner—you used to get the message when you were a young person that everyone else was drinking and it was horrible and you shouldn’t. And if you notice, the messaging has changed. It’s “not every kid drinks.” So there’s this identity out there that is positive, that’s not drinking in college, right?
[00:21:06.200] – Beth Karlin It’s not just focused on… we often think that we think and we think that the best messaging strategy to somebody that is one that really focuses on outcomes. Right? Because we’d all like to think that we’re like Mr. Spock, which is like measuring, carefully calculating what’s best for us and what’s best for the community. But we’re much more like Captain Kirk. We’re just rash and brash and we care about what we look like. So really, anything that you can do to make the behavior observable, to make it salient, to make people think that others are doing it, to make people think that others approve and not make them think—
[00:21:39.440] – Beth Karlin This is important because I’m starting to sound manipulative. You have to use real data. Right. So for a behavior, for example, like—and this is research that Gregg Sparkman’s been doing at Stanford and now at Princeton—for a behavior that’s not yet normative, like, for example, being a vegetarian, you can’t say “join 80 percent of vegetarians.” So you can’t communicate a social norm that says this is a big identity. What you can do instead is communicate what’s called the dynamic norm to say more and more people are giving up meat, more people are eating or are going participating in Meatless Monday.
[00:22:11.270] – Beth Karlin So you can talk about how something’s trending or shifting. And then again, the most easily you can just say be a voter, be a blood donor, be one of us. And that means thinking about what is the identity that are affiliating your supporter with. Right? What is their identity? What is a hero for your nonprofit look like? Who are they? Is it be a proud progressive? Is it be a voter? Is it be somebody who cares about…? Is it be a champion for charter schools in Delaware? Right? Like figure out what that identity is. What is that hero? What is that persona? And then do what you can to kind of craft that and then you’ll find those people. They’ll come to you and then you reinforce it. You reinforce it to them individually. And you reinforce it to them collectively. “You’re a part of a group of people that do this.” And that will start to kind of become a positive, virtuous cycle.
[00:23:05.090] – Boris So I love all of this stuff, but I want to take it a half step back, because not everybody is going to instantly identify themselves as a voter, or decide that they want to be and now are a vegetarian or something along those lines. But there is the foot-in-door phenomenon where we could try to get them to self identify on a smaller scale and then slowly bring them up further. Am I think the right thing with Robert Cialdini’s work?
[00:23:32.570] – Beth Karlin Yeah, yeah. There’s kind of. Yeah. Laddering, or the foot-in-the-door effect. Yeah, you can. So if you ask people to do a small behavior and then you come back and ask them to do a larger behavior, they’re often more likely to do that. There’s also kind of a door-in-face where you can come in with a really big appeal. And when somebody says no, you can ask them to compromise. Ironically, both of those can be effective again under certain circumstances.
[00:23:57.020] – Beth Karlin Yeah. So, I mean, you can you can try and ladder or build. I think often there’s there’s a saying I learned back from way before I went back to school, which was like “participation precedes donation.” So one of the best things you can do in terms of an initial behavior is ask people for their thoughts, for their advice. People love giving advice. We love being smarter than each other. Right? So you can just engage people and say, you know, “what do you think matters in education? What do you care about?” And then from something they said, we really have this desire, as I talked about, for consistency. So if you get somebody to talk about caring about something, you might be more likely to get them to do something. I would also just say—just caution that, your cause, no matter what it is, isn’t for everyone. So you’re better off building a base.
[00:24:45.350] – Beth Karlin I really, when I was in graduate school, as I said, I was really focused on climate change. And I started getting really interested in climate deniers because it just “What?” “Why?” “Who?” “Grrrr! What can I do about it?” And then I was in social movements class and and I think it was my social movements professor said in class, like Martin Luther King, to our knowledge, historically never addressed publicly the KKK. He never spoke at KKK meetings. He didn’t go after that group. He built a base. And so I think you need to focus on, like, you know, think about concentric circles.
[00:25:26.280] – Beth Karlin Right. So there are some people that, like are not worth your time going after even for that starting behavior. So really figure out like, who those concentric circles are, who—I hate “low hanging fruit,” but there’s this idea of like don’t preach to the choir. But the choir is not meant to be preached to. I’ve never understood that. The choir is like on the stage singing to your congregation. Like train the choir. Right?
[00:25:52.360] – Beth Karlin So you can get so you can again start getting people to communicate with each other and then, yes, train them with behaviors. There’s just again, behavioral science is really messy. There is a risk with that laddering or foot in the door called moral licensing. That there’s a phenomena that we can do one good thing—that when we do one positive action, we kind of pat ourselves on the back. We are morally licensed and we’re less likely to do another.
[00:26:20.140] – Beth Karlin So this is where it’s kind of hard because there is significant evidence that foot in the door, that laddering works and there’s an equal body of work that says you might get somebody to go, “Oh, cool, I already helped your nonprofit, buh-bye! I’m going to go eat ice cream now.”
[00:26:37.780] – Beth Karlin And so you want to be careful at how you do that and you want to reinforce and build reinforcement. And the way to do it is not just incentivize but to build identity. So with everything they do, connect them to you, build something that connects them to you.
[00:26:51.090] – Boris Beth, this has turned into a fantastic master class. Thank you so much. The…what you were saying before about you can’t please everyone. You can’t go after everyone. You don’t need to go after the climate deniers. In my mind, basically to to reduce it really simply, “haters gonna hate.” And you don’t need to try to convince the haters to start loving. You can actually even use the fact that there are so many haters out there to recruit more people to your cause because you need masses to counterbalance the masses out there.
[00:27:24.510] – Boris I don’t want to monopolize too much of your time this morning. I really appreciate it. But we’re talking around behavior. And I really want to get to B.J. Fogg’s behavioral model, the B=MAP. How do we get people to take actions? Because ultimately, whether or not a nonprofit succeeds, depends on people stepping up, becoming heroes, as we like to call them, and taking actions that further the mission of the organization. Hopefully further the mission that they feel an affinity for towards themselves. But how do we apply this B=MAP towards getting people to do more good?
[00:28:03.760] – Beth Karlin Yeah, so B.J.’s a psychologist at Stanford, and he’s put out a number of different, really great theories. And one of them is this framework that says behavior equals motivation, times ability, times a prompt. And it’s a simple model. I don’t think it includes everything that you could possibly manipulate or use. But what he’s talking about is, is that to get somebody to act, they have to be motivated in some way, which is largely true, although it is really possible to get people to take actions without being strongly motivated if there are corollary motivations or if you just make it easy for them. “Easy, popular and fun.” As another behavioral scientist, Ed Maibach at George Mason says, just make it easy, popular and fun. And those are that’s kind of his model, which also has a lot of empirical evidence. And they’ve done a lot of great work.
[00:29:00.010] – Beth Karlin But B.J. talks about: Motivation, make sure that they’re motivated in some way to engage in the behavior. Ability, that relates to, kind of, self efficacy that they have, that they feel that they are able to engage in that behavior. And I think self efficacy is really interesting. People think of it as kind of a univariate construct, but you can think of ability or self efficacy in terms of two things. One is behavioral efficacy and the other is response. And I think that really, really, really, really, really matters for nonprofits. So behavioral efficacy is, “can I do it?” And response efficacy is, “will it matter?” And what we see in terms of like addressing pressing social issues is if we just think ability means something that you can do, people can vote.
[00:29:41.050] – Beth Karlin A lot of young people weren’t voting for decades, not because they didn’t know how, because they didn’t think voting mattered. So when you think about ability, it’s not just identifying a behavior they can do and making it easy for them. But it’s making sure that they believe that that action will make a difference either individually or collectively.
[00:29:54.700] – Beth Karlin And then, prompt just means getting in on their radar. So BJ’s model, the BMAP model, really is focused on building daily tiny habits, on getting people to, like, run, floss, eat better. And you might have a nonprofit that’s focused on that if you’re looking at people kind of getting engaged politically. I think it is also it’s also important to look at like easy, fun and popular. That those things really matter as well and like building that kind of social framework around your cause.
[00:30:26.380] – Beth Karlin But when it comes to just getting somebody or yourself just to meditate in the morning, having that prompt or brush your teeth or whatever, floss your teeth, let’s say we already brush, floss your teeth, whatever those habits are, building habits is making sure that there’s a motivation there and that it’s intrinsic as intrinsic as possible, the ability that you know what you need to do and what the outcome will be if you continue doing it. And then that prompt or trigger, whether that prompt is like, something that’s external, like an alarm that comes into you, or it’s going to floss after I brush my teeth. The other thing he says is try and find like you were talking about, one tiny thing that you can do. So instead of saying I’m going to floss twice a day, you can say I’m going to floss one tooth. And then the thing is, once you pull the floss out and stick it in your mouth and you floss a tooth, kind of feels wasteful just to throw the floss away. Right?
[00:31:17.590] – Beth Karlin So instead of running, it’s “I’m going to put my shoes on and leave the house.” So finding that way to find your own foot in the door so that you’ll start doing more and more.
[00:31:26.930] – Boris And I think that model can actually be applied even broader beyond just like physical actions in the physical world, even on a donation page, using that kind of system where you inspire people, you help them feel motivated, you help them see that they have the ability to affect change. You make it very simple for them you remove all kinds of friction, also within the realm of ability. And then you give them a clear prompt, which is that call to action, which uses some of the verbiage that you were talking about earlier, the kind of language of inclusivity and we could all do this together. And you can, specifically, “you can make a difference.” I think just that framework tells a great story that works for taking small actions or large actions towards a common good.
[00:32:09.820] – Beth Karlin Yeah, definitely.
[00:32:11.200] – Boris So I don’t want to run too much over here, but I would love to just ask you, we talked about B.J. Fogg’s book. We mentioned Robert Cialdini. Where should nonprofits start if they haven’t started thinking about applying behavioral science to their own organizations?
[00:32:31.590] – Beth Karlin My gosh, we’re we’re in a huge kind of push behavioral science renaissance right now, there are so many resources, Katy Milkman’s book just came out this year, some of my favorites are Nudge, which was written—so there are three times in the history of economic psychologists have won the Nobel. The first was Herbert Simon, which was several decades ago about work. The second was Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Kahneman has a book, it is thick, called Thinking Fast and Slow, but it is like the best primer to just how our brain works.
[00:33:08.980] – Beth Karlin It’s not going to give you tips and tricks and tactics as much. It does a little bit, but it really gives you the foundation. And then the third group, the third pair were Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, for their body of work. But kind of the book that encapsulates that is called Nudge. Those are great places to start. Robert Cialdini, his most popular book, came out in the nineteen eighties called Influence that, unlike Thinking Fast, and Slow, is skinny and red and cute and easy read.
[00:33:38.620] – Beth Karlin But there are tons of great podcasts. This is one of them. These days, Freakonomics, which is another book that talks about some of these ideas. They have a great podcast. There’s tons of resources.
[00:33:50.470] – Boris Katy’s Podcast, Choiceology.
[00:33:52.090] – Beth Karlin Yeah. Yeah. So there’s I mean, there really are a lot of resources and there are a lot of behavioral scientists that’re out there. So I would say try and reach out if you can. The best thing is, because like I said, applying these things requires an understanding of what’s called mediation and moderation. Which is, how does it work and for whom does it work? So if you can find a professor or a grad student, doctoral students are always looking for real-world, would love doing applied research.
[00:34:18.430] – Beth Karlin I find that more and more and more my phone is ringing constantly. When I was in grad school and I said I wanted to do applied work, people thought I was crazy. Now there are more and more students interested in it and wanting to really get applied research experience because when they go out, there are more and more jobs. I just—one of my one of my graduate, the graduate student at See Change—just left us for the summer to spend the summer at Weight Watchers as an intern.
[00:34:42.610] – Beth Karlin Almost every major corporation has behavioral science units. Now, Google has it. Facebook has it, Intuit has it. Right. And so so they’re looking for experience. So if you can, there are great books. There are great resources, but really meet a behavioral scientist. We’re really nice people and we want to do good. You will not only let them help you, but you’ll also be helping advance science. Because every time we can work with a nonprofit to apply real-world data as opposed to studying college students, it actually improves science. You’ll be helping other nonprofits after you, as well. So that’s my suggestion and plug.
[00:35:14.970] – Boris Awesome. I really appreciate that. On the practical side, also, there are several things that you recommended throughout this interview today, including segmentation, including trying to figure out—testing—certain things and variables in your messaging and in your work in general that I think nonprofits should be looking at as well. We’re going to link to all of the books and other resources that you mentioned. If you know any others, drop them and we will add them to our show notes as well.
[00:35:43.120] – Boris If viewers want to follow up with you specifically and with See Change, how can they do that?
[00:35:48.760] – Beth Karlin Yeah, just visit our website, seechangeinstitute.com. You can drop me a line from there or you can email me directly, I’m email@example.com. Yeah. And I would love—I will take a consult that somebody sends me a message I am sent on LinkedIn, and say you have a question or you want to meet. I will send you a link to a thirty-minute consult and I’m happy to talk with people. I believe so deeply…
[00:36:14.860] – Beth Karlin Like I said, I started my career in nonprofit. And I got my PhD because I thought that behavioral science could help nonprofits do the work that we do in the world, and that you do in the world better. So feel free to reach out, no strings attached. I would love to spend a half an hour with you.
[00:36:28.720] – Boris I love that. And as someone who has picked Beth’s brain many, many times over the course of the years that we’ve been friends, I can tell you in thirty minutes, much like this interview, you’re going to get a whole lot of value from someone like her. So thank you so much Beth, for joining us today. And thank you everybody who tuned in to watch, to listen. If you liked it, please do leave us a review, give us a rating, subscribe, spread the word.
[00:36:51.100] – Boris We want to help as many nonprofits as possible. That’s why Beth and I got into doing this type of work. Thank you, everybody. Have a great day.
[00:37:19.660] – Outro Video Thank you all for watching and listening to the Nonprofit Hero Factory, we hope this episode has given you some ideas and strategies for creating more heroes for your cause and a better world for all of us. Please be sure to subscribe to this show on YouTube, Facebook, iTunes, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform and let us know what you think, by leaving a review.
Concepts and Takeaways:
Behavioral Science is the empirical study of human behavior. It is any study that looks at how we behave, what influences that and what we can do about it. There are two parts to any science: Theory and Methods. (3:30)
For nonprofits, application starts with incorporating behavioral insights into your work. Understanding what we’ve learned about human behavior, user experience and storytelling, and building that into your communications will take you a long way. (5:25)
When it comes to people, there is no universal messaging that will resonate with everyone. That’s why the second step is to use behavioral science methodology, which is all about experimentation and refinement. (6:30)
There are a lot of behavioral insights that can lead to improvements. When taken together, even the smallest improvements can add up to huge increases in response to your campaigns. (9:55)
Story really matters, as does the way we tell it. That is why it’s important that we understand and speak to the audience’s context, along with our nonprofit and brand voice. Consistency and authenticity are key. (11:43)
Your brand’s voice / the way you communicate your story speaks to the people you are looking to attract. It may attract some while repelling others, and that’s ok. (13:13)
Knowing the commonalities and differences of your audience and customizing and personalizing to the different groups within your base (i.e., audience segmentation) increases the resonance and efficacy of your messaging. (16:40)
Identity is a very powerful thing. In fact, we all have multiple identities that we switch between depending on context. Having people see their affiliation with your work as part of their identity is the difference between liking what you do and feeling like a hero for your cause. We can prime and push identity by phrasing our calls to action in terms of identity rather than just asking for action. (19:12)
One of the best things you can do is ask people for their thoughts and advice. People love giving advice and they love to feel part of the process, not just someone being asked for time or money. “Participation Precedes Donation.” (23:33)
Build behavioral reinforcements into your messaging. (26:37)
The Fogg Behavioral Model (Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Prompt) is a framework for increasing the behaviors you want your heroes to perform and habits you want to instill. (27:24)
Action Steps: What Now?
In this episode, the following resources were mentioned:
If you cannot find a professor or a graduate student, doctoral students are looking for real, and would love to do applied research. Not only can they help you, but their work with your organization can also help in advancing and improving science.
Dr. Beth Karlin is the Founder and CEO of the See Change Institute, a research (and practice) institute devoted to studying and shaping behavior change for the greater good. Her current projects focus on health equity, media representation, and community energy programs. Beth earned her BA in Psychology, Masters in Public Policy, and Ph.D. in Social Ecology with an emphasis in Social Psychology. She proudly lives in Los Angeles without a car.