Back to Leadership & Organization Blog

Changing mindsets and behavior, one “nudge” at a time

By using techniques such as “nudging,” it’s possible to change people’s behavior without limiting what they can do.
How to change mindset and behavior
Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems.

Jullia Sperling

Serves academic health and science systems, research institutions, and integrated healthcare systems with deep expertise in the area of health system transformation in the Middle East

Our understanding of the unconscious mind has come a long way since Sigmund Freud, grounded in decades of research into what drives ordinary, everyday human behavior. Today’s behavioral scientists like to say that we are predictably irrational. And what can be predicted can be managed, at least to some degree.

Organizations can use this concept to grasp this relationship between mindset and behavioral change. They also can employ it to address unconscious bias and instincts. By using techniques such as “nudging,” it’s possible to change people’s behavior without limiting what people can do.

This primer should help to grasp this notion – but follow along closely, because it defines terms like “Do” dissonance, “Not Do” dissonance and “dissonance swing.”

  • The “Do” dissonance emerges when adopting a behavior is inconsistent with your current mindset:
    You believe that while fruit is healthy, it doesn’t make you feel as good as chocolate does. That’s your mindset.

    However, given that someone placed fruit on your living room table, you start eating more and more fruit while watching a movie or reading a book. That’s the start of adopting a new behavior.

    Over time, you start enjoying the freshness of the fruit you eat and start believing that eating fruit can be a source of comfort that actually makes you feel healthier and, simply, better.
  • This is what we call the “Not Do” dissonance:
    Now you are in a very different situation from before: No longer exhibiting the newly acquired behavior, i.e., no longer eating fruit, would be at dissonance with your new mindset towards eating healthy.
  • The “dissonance swing” is simply the transition from the “Do” (the conflict as a change begins) to the “Not Do” (the behavior at odds with a newly acquired mindset); it is the transition between the two.

The tricky part comes right at the start, i.e., shifting a behavior when your existing mindset doesn’t necessarily favor the change. Here’s where nudging can help since, by definition, it does not restrain freedom of choice. Nudging can overcome the “Do” dissonance in several ways.

For instance, you can employ “priming,” a strong nudge concerned specifically with bringing decision-makers into the right mindset for making a particular decision. For example, briefly holding a warm mug makes you judge a person you meet as warmer and friendlier. Research indicates this could influence recruiting decisions.

Similarly, priming people for friendliness vs. rudeness makes them more sensitive to unethical behaviors. In our example of eating fruit, the nudge was simply to place the better food choice directly in front of you, making it visible and easier to obtain than the chocolate hidden in the drawer.

By engaging in the same behavior over and over, a habit may form. And habit formation is a relevant topic for companies seeking to ensure consistent high performance, participation or healthy living. Respected research shows that when a habit is forming, it is hard to sustain a contradicting mindset.

Once habit and mindset align, the “Not Do” tension of that dissonance swing kicks in. Now we are in discord with our new habit if we do not show the new behavior anymore. Nudging helps here, too. Its core tools can enhance and expand existing behavior in line with the newly acquired mindset.

There is another advantage of changing one behavior with the aim of also effecting the underlying mindset: By installing one desired behavior – such as sharing best practices with colleagues – employees will likely feel inclined to engage in similar behaviors, such as asking for feedback or speaking up in meetings that relate to the mindset of participation.

To learn more about our work in behavioral science, including how companies can use it to address unconscious bias and instincts and manage the irrational mind, listen to our conversation on the McKinsey Podcast.

Connect with our Organization Practice