Guest Blog: Dr. David Comerford – Sometimes the simple prompts are the best

Post-it note

Changing behaviour can be a challenge, but sometimes the simple option can achieve the best results.  Our guest blog from David Comerford, Senior Lecturer at Stirling University, explores behaviour change, breaking bad habits and how a post–it might be what you need to stay on track in the heat of the moment.

Your attention is valuable – right now a large number of firms, government agencies and charities are competing for it. Even if you avoid using the internet, the data trail that others leave on the web has shaped the environment you live in – the songs you hear on the radio; the ads you see on the side of busses; the politicians you select amongst in the polling booth.  

Given all this noise and distraction, it is easier than ever to lose focus – to neglect the projects that we value or to forget to form goals in the first place. The pandemic and its lockdowns exacerbated this problem. Many of us look back and wonder “where did those last two years disappear to?” or “how can I break these bad habits?”  

This blog is about a tool that has been shown to help us achieve our goals. It’s a tool that is easy to apply, flexible, personalizable and is free. It is a prompt. A prompt is a device that delivers relevant information in a timely way. Some prompts are pretty basic – a post-it on the fridge door that reads “remember to get mayonnaise” is not really what comes to mind when we speak of “a device”, yet it fulfils the crucial function of a prompt: it makes it more likely that we will enact a behaviour that we consider beneficial. 

I have spent much of my career researching the effects of prompts. I am consistently impressed by how they achieve real and substantial benefits where more costly and sophisticated approaches fail.  

One example concerns the energy labels that appear on domestic appliances and on property listings – those colour-coded triangles that indicate energy efficiency. My colleagues Mirko Moro, Ian Lange and I investigated the effects of these labels since they were introduced to England in 2008. We found that property owners responded to the introduction of these labels by making strategic investments: if they learnt that their house was just below a colour-letter category then they would boost their property into the that next category by retrofitting e.g. replacing incandescent light bulbs with more efficient LED lightbulbs. A couple of things are remarkable about this result. First is that it is good for the environment – when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, changing our behaviour is less impactful than is moving to cleaner, greener technologies. Second is that it has proven difficult to get people to adopt clean technologies in their homes. Vouchers, subsidies, free-of-charge replacements – all have failed. The third finding relates back to the power of prompts. It is that the homeowners who responded to the labels were those who had placed their property on the market. This speaks to the importance of timeliness. When people are putting a house on the market they (a) want it to look its best for would-be buyers and (b) are already making changes around the house e.g. emptying lofts, painting window frames etc. Prompting people to invest in energy efficiency when the benefits of looking good on the energy label is higher than usual and when the hassle of retrofitting is lower than usual seems especially motivating. 

Here’s another quick example. A majority of new mothers report that they quit breastfeeding sooner than they had intended. Tracy McGillivray and I tested the effect of giving pregnant women a planning card. It pointed out some problems that were common amongst breastfeeding mothers (e.g. breastfeeding is painful) and some tips that could help mothers (e.g. breastfeeding becomes less painful over time). We also asked women to complete the following text on the card “I intend to breastfeed for…” (the women wrote in how many days, weeks etc.) Our card reduced drop off over the first two weeks of breastfeeding from 16% down to 2%. By prompting women to recognize that, although it has a reputation for being the most natural thing in the world, breastfeeding can be difficult we helped them prepare for breastfeeding even before they had given birth. 

Although smartphones mean that we are confronted with greater and more intense distractions than ever before, they also present an opportunity. Just like that post-it on the fridge door, we can write our own prompts to remind ourselves of what matters and how to keep on track in the heat of the moment.