Ease Modulation as BE tool

Humans are lazy. More accurately, the human brain evolved, biologically, in an environment of energy scarcity: calories were precious and hard to gather or hunt. So we are wired to conserve energy as much as possible, which makes our brains think twice before expending energy to walk even 10 meters.

So we’re not really lazy: we’re just biological creatures adapted to an energy-scarce environment living in one of caloric abundance—for the privileged classes in developed countries, that is.

Ease modulation as a tool to adjust Incentives

This has a deep impact on decision-making, much more than what most people generally think. In short:

  • if you want to increase the probability of people doing a specific behavior, make it even a tiny bit easier to do.
  • conversely, if you want to decrease that probability, make it a tiny bit more difficult.

The best aspects of this mechanism is that adjusting the difficulty is in general not that expensive to do and the effects in terms of behavior actually done are dramatically outsized.

Not convinced? Consider these examples:

  • one of the most effective ways to get kids to eat more apples is to pre-slide them
  • when laws were passed to make helmets mandatory to ride a motorbike, the number of motorbike thefts plummeted by a third to half. Turns out the thieves couldn’t be bothered carrying around a helmet before stealing them.
  • same with suicide numbers in the UK done through paracetamol. In a clever intervention, number of pills per packet were reduced. You could still buy as many packets as you wanted, but that tiny added friction decreased suicides significantly.

Ease modulation is one of the most powerful levers available for behavior change. It’s actually the first principle at play in the Behavioral Insights Team EAST framework for behavior change, which stands for: Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. The BIT UK was the first Nudge unit established and is a recognized leader in the field.

Ease is multi-faceted

You can adjust the ease of a behavior in direct or indirect ways. Conceptually, Ease impacts the Costs in the ICAR Framework Incentives lens. All behaviors have a cost and making one Easier decreases the cost while making more difficult increases it. This can mean reducing cognitive efforts or the time required to complete the behavior.

Direct interventions are straightforward: reduce the number of clicks to do a an action, give all the necessary information, etc.

Indirect can be done through choice architecture. For example, reducing a choice from multiple alternatives to a binary do/not do choice makes it easier to decide. Choice overload is nothing more than increasing the difficulty of choosing between numerous options to an extreme level.

Consider this experiment. Physicians were faced with the following scenario. They had to decide between recommending patients with osteoarthritis to continue trying a different medication or to proceed with invasive surgery. They had to make that decision based on the patient profile:

  • patients having tried all existing medications except one: 72% of physicians recommenced to try the medication before the surgery.
  • patients having tried all existing medications except two: only 53% of physicians recommenced to try one of the medications before the surgery.

The simple added difficulty of having to decide which medication to try first made the surgery option look more appealing.

Making something easy is—most often—difficult

If Ease is a powerful lever, then why is it so often not used? In my experience, the most common reasons are:

  • stakeholders sincerely think the target behaviors are easy. They have a lot of knowledge about their own processes and tend to view them as insiders without being able to empathize with agents not privy to that close knowledge. Walking them through each touchpoint and explaining how an agent without any knowledge would react can be used to shake those assumptions.
  • stakeholders think the target behavior are easy enough that making it easier won’t result in any behavioral change. Explaining the findings of behavioral science around the impact of Ease can be extremely efficient in removing that hurdle.

Of course, making a behavior easier is easier said than done (I know, I know). It takes a proper multi-disciplinary approach to get it optimal but using the insights of BE can drastically simplify that process and enable you to adjust the Ease of a behavior with outsized results.