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The science of influence

by AprilSix Proof

The way we form our perceptions and opinions is changing. The role of social media continues to rise and, as such, alternative realities are emerging.

There’s a good chance you’ll be familiar with the idea that we’re seeing a decline in the trust and acceptance of ‘experts’ and the evidence they present, but what does this mean for strategic communications programmes?

Earlier this week, I went to a fascinating event sharing the latest research into driving behaviour change in the context of the modern world. I came away with a refreshed perspective of what a call to action should really look like, in that it arguably shouldn’t be a ‘call’ at all.

For a long time, most PR campaigns aiming to encourage target audiences to think or behave in a certain way have generally been built around fairly traditional tactics; present a respectable spokesperson delivering a credible message – ideally backed by evidence – and assume that, so long as enough people hear it, they will listen and act accordingly. Emerging schools of thought are calling this into question. It is becoming increasingly clear that just being better informed isn’t necessarily enough to cause someone to change the way they behave.

So, if just broadcasting information doesn’t work, what will?

One suggestion from speaker Simon Garret, Head of Conservation Learning at Bristol Zoo Gardens, was that positive decision making could be the same as in crime psychology; people need the motive, the means and the opportunity,

Dr Kris De Meyer of Kings College London explained that all of our beliefs and decisions have a “reasoned” component and an “intuitive” component. The intuitive is automated and experiential, whereas reasoning is controlled and analytical – we need to be paying attention to it. Most people base their thinking on both, to a varying degree, but it’s mostly the intuitive part of our brain that dominates our behaviour, despite us often believing it’s the rational side. This is why just being told that something is better doesn’t necessarily lead us to choose to do or buy it.

Dr Meyer also put forward the idea that, rather than your opinion being changed and that resulting in you behaving differently, it’s actually often our own behaviour that changes our opinions. For example, if we make a choice on an issue when we’re not actually passionate one way or the other, then you will naturally start to rationalise and justify that decision, which reinforces your belief that you did the right thing, and moves you further away from your original neutral position. The question here is, how do we nudge target audiences to make the decision we want them to take in the first place?

In applying this knowledge to strategic communications, one of the stand-out models of the event presented three modes of behaviour change:

1) Shaping the path

By changing the situation that an individual is in, you can encourage them to take the desired path without overtly telling them to. A very basic example of this would be the buying decisions you make in a supermarket queue; impulse purchases that would otherwise never have been made had you not been met face-to-face with that shiny packaging.

2) Instructing the intuitive side of the brain

This is based on the idea of giving people the tools to help stop themselves from making a bad choice. For example, if you were trying to change the behaviour of an alcoholic, you might give them the knowledge and means to socialise in places where alcohol isn’t ingrained in the culture like it is in pubs and bars.

3) Leveraging internalisation

If you’re told to do something you might comply, but internalisation to become part of your own value system will likely not happen. However, if you make that choice yourself, you will reinforce this decision and after time it will become entrenched in your belief system. This places great importance on repeat engagements; the more you can encourage your audience to make that choice, the more loyal to that pattern of behaviour they will be. And in the post-expert era, the influence of loyal ‘ambassadors’ within peer networks is stronger than ever.

Applying the science of behaviour change to the communication of science and innovation may seem like a novel idea, but ultimately we’re seeing a need more than ever for new ways of thinking when it comes to strategic communications, going far beyond simply broadcasting information and expecting audiences to act on it. Rather than ‘calls to action’, my view has shifted towards the concept of making ‘interventions’ to equip target audiences with the means, motivation and knowledge to make a desired decision.


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