Behavioral Chains – Community-Based Social Marketing

ChuckLohreCommunity-Based Social Marketing

Hi Green Cincinnati Education Advocacy,

The last three Minutes have addressed determining which health, safety, or environmental behaviors are most important to target. I introduced the importance of creating a list of end-state, non-divisible behaviors and using impact, probability, and penetration as behavioral characteristics to determine which actions are most important to encourage. So, imagine that you have narrowed down your list using this process and have identified some promising behaviors. Then what?

Behavioral Chains

Several years ago, I began to recommend that we ask ourselves a simple question of each promising behavior, “Is this a singular behavior, or do I have a set of behaviors that I am asking people to engage in?” Some actions are straightforward, such as turning the water off while brushing teeth or wearing a seatbelt. But, many of the outcomes that we would like to achieve can only be accomplished if our audience engages in a sequence of behaviors, or what I call a behavioral chain. Once you understand this concept, you will see behavioral chains everywhere.

In my workshops, I introduce the concept of behavioral chains by asking attendees to consider what we are really asking for when we request that families engage in composting. Here is what we are asking them to do: 1 ) travel to a nursery or hardware store to purchase a composter; 2) purchase the composter; 3) transport the composter back home; 4) put the composter together; 5) site the composter somewhere in their yard; 6) find a container to use to collect kitchen scraps; 7) communicate with family members about using the container; 8) place kitchen scraps in the container; 9) take the container out to the composter (repeatedly); 10) mix the kitchen scraps with yard waste (occasionally); 11) stir the compost (frequently); 12) harvest the compost; 13) spread the compost on lawns and gardens; and 14) repeat behaviors 8 through 13 for a very long time. Frequently, we simply don’t consider the complexity of what we ask of members of our community. To further understand the importance of behavioral chains, take a moment to jot down the behavioral chains for wearing masks or installing an energy-efficient showerhead.

So why is this such a helpful idea? First, creating the behavioral chain allows us to consider whether there are actions that we could get rid of to make the task easier to accomplish. For both wearing masks and installing showerheads, we can significantly reduce the complexity of the behavioral chains by eliminating the sourcing of the mask or showerhead. Several cities have set up “Mask Trees,” where community members can easily obtain reusable masks. Similarly, some communities have experimented with having employees bring their water inefficient showerheads to their workplace to exchange them for efficient replacements.

Second, the barriers to behavioral change exist at the level of the individual actions that make up a chain. For example, the barriers to traveling to purchase a composter are entirely different from the barriers to remembering to place kitchen scraps in a container. Disaggregating complex behaviors, such as composting, can clarify what you need to explore regarding barriers and will begin to suggest to you what might be promising strategies.

Third, we can often apply percentages to the actions that make up a behavioral chain and, in so doing, identify the size of different audience segments as well as how they differ regarding barriers. Imagine that you wished to create a program that encouraged cycling to work. Consider how different the audience segments are for those that don’t have a bike (68% of United States adults) versus those that do.

Final Thoughts

Most of the behaviors that we would like to encourage consist of behavioral chains. Taking the time to identify these chains allows us to:

1. Effectively identify the barriers to the behavior we wish to promote;

2. Consider whether we can simplify what we are asking our audience to do by removing portions of the behavioral chain;

3. Clarify the size of different audience segments; and

4. Consider how barriers differ for different audience segments.

Next week I’ll begin to discuss identifying the barriers and motivations for the behaviors that you wish to promote.

If you find the Minute helpful, please consider sharing it with your colleagues. I’m delivering virtual North American Fostering Behavior Change workshops in June (registrations close, Friday, May 28th — full details here) as well as sessions for Australia and New Zealand in October (more here). If you are interested in potentially hosting a workshop, click here. If you would like to learn more about community-based social marketing, sign up for my in-depth monthly Fostering Behavior Change Reports here.

Thanks for reading this week. Take care and stay safe.

Best, Doug

Doug McKenzie-Mohr, Ph.D.
​Founder, Community-Based Social Marketing
Author, Fostering Sustainable Behavior

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