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Reverse engineering habit structures in applied innovation testing

by Sam Carter , 09.09.2015

Habits are a fundamental part of human behaviors and have a huge, often understated control over the decisions we make every day. Anyone who has tried to break a habit will understand just how difficult that can be and understand that willpower is often secondary to the external factors in play.

Any advice on breaking habits will include the following five factors:

  • Accountability: Telling others of your intentions to create a social pressure.
  • Replacement: Having a clear idea of what you will replace your habit with e.g. a stress ball on your desk to save your finger nails.
  • Cues: A clear understanding of when your habit occurs and what triggers it e.g. post work drinks with your colleagues that all smoke.
  • Infrastructure: Recognizing the channels or occasions that facilitate the habit e.g. the biscuit tin next to the kettle leading to a biscuit while you wait.
  • Keystone: Identifying the one small achievable action that you will focus on in order to break the larger habit e.g. setting your out-of-office to start from 4pm to stop you missing dinner with your family.

The levers to break a habit can be reversed to make a habit, or in other words create a behavior change.

  • You need accountability to generate a social pressure that will encourage you not to slack off; imagine how quickly you could give up biscuits if you had to text a friend every time you ate one.
  • Replacement is about knowing what you will be giving up in order to achieve your goal, training for a 10k is going to require you to sacrifice some TV time or a weekend lie in. The more precise the replacement the more likely it will be to succeed because the replacement activity will become a cue.
  • You need to develop cues that trigger a desire to complete the new behavior, such as putting your gym kit on the kitchen table every night so you can’t miss it in the morning.
  • It is essential to understand how your new behavior is going to fit into your current life (i.e. infrastructure), when are you going to buy the fruit you are trying to replace unhealthy snacks with?
  • Identifying the keystone action that you will focus on breaks down the larger task into a less insurmountable one. This turns the ethereal ‘I want to be more focused at work’ into a focus on ‘not looking at emails as soon as they come in, but at the end of each task’.

Consider that buying a new product is a behavior change for a consumer; for some it will be a trial purchase or even just a consideration, but others will develop into a regular habit (loyal customer). Purchase intention is like willpower, in that it is only a small part of the picture. To fully understand the likelihood of converting intention into behavior we need to assess the strength of these behavior change factors, as ultimately the combined context from these will have a much bigger influence than purchase intention.

  • Accountability: Will there be any social pressure on the consumer to purchase? Is it coming from a brand that they identify with and aspire towards? Can they defend this product to mates in the pub?
  • Replacement: Is the consumer currently active in the category? What is this purchase going to replace?
  • Cues: What will be the cues to the consumer to purchase? Are they already built into their life or will they need to be established?
  • Infrastructure: Do they have a clear idea of where they would purchase or when? Are these channels they currently use?
  • Keystone: Is there an achievable keystone action? How relevant is this product to their current lifestyle?

Creating behavior/purchasing will always be more difficult than switching from one purchase/behavior to another. This is because the cues and the infrastructure can be transferred. Compare the ease of swapping cereal for choco cereal, vs. swapping cereal for smoothies. The cereal exchange has the infrastructure and cues that can be transferred; the weekly supermarket shop and a trip to the cereal aisle. The smoothie requires new apparatus, a new shopping behavior i.e. more fruit, new understanding of recipes etc. The greater the level of behavior change the harder the keystone action is to achieve.

To truly understand purchase intention we have to understand the reality that surrounds the consumer, otherwise we are reliant on their willpower alone. And when was the last time you said no to a chocolate biscuit…

For more information, please contact Sam Carter at samuel.carter@gfk.com.