Targeting Individuals to Make Behavioral Changes

Activists may target individuals to make behavioral changes for a variety of reasons. Those working on public health issues may want to encourage individuals to adopt healthier behaviors, such as applying sunscreen to their children or quitting smoking. Activists may also want to persuade individuals to make lifestyle and consumer choices that are less harmful, such as composting their food scraps or cutting back on or cutting out animal products from diets.


Although all activist tactics benefit from prior research and planning, behavior change campaigns often require extensive prep work in order to be effective.[1] Two excellent articles have been written that give detailed overviews of how to design effective behavior change campaigns that rely on scientifically-proven best practices. We summarize these articles in this section, but we recommend reading these articles in their entirety if you are planning on implementing a behavior change campaign.


Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox’s 2018 article, “Social Mobilization,” has been uploaded for free to Harvard’s website and is available at the following link:


McKenzie-Mohr and Schultz’s 2014 article, “Choosing Effective Behavior Change Tools,” has been uploaded for free to Community-Based Social Marketing’s website and is available at the following link:


The most effective strategies for targeting individuals to make behavioral changes include:

  • Understand the impact of behavior change campaigns
  • Balance individual and community-wide changes
  • Make behavior change easy
  • Focus on positive norms


Understand the impact of behavior change campaigns


Behavior change campaigns have been effective at impacting individual behaviors and attitudes,[2] especially when they are well-funded and well-coordinated. A review of 48 U.S. health campaigns found that mass media behavior change campaigns led to 9% more people performing the intended behavior.[3]


Many in the U.S. remember the national “truth” anti-smoking campaign, which used advertisements to discourage youth from smoking. A study of 50,000 students in the U.S. found that the “truth” campaign accounted for 22% of the decline in smoking among youth between 1999 and 2002[4] and lead to an increase in anti-tobacco attitudes and beliefs.[5]


Several small studies have tentatively found that leafleting and advocacy videos on veganism, vegetarianism, and reducetarianism (a diet that cuts back on animal products without completely eliminating them) can reduce reported animal product consumption.[6] The studies found that around 1-2% of individuals who receive a booklet on veganism will become vegetarian or vegan and anywhere between 7-40% of individuals will become reducetarians who cut back on their consumption of animal products.[7] Using the most conservative figures, one typical Vegan Outreach leafleting event, which hands out 1,000 booklets, can lead to around a 10,000 pound reduction in dairy and meat consumption over the course of one year—and that is accounting for the 84% of newly converted vegetarians and vegans who do not sustain the diet long term.[8] At a cost of 7 cents per booklet, this makes leafleting a very cost-effective approach. While more research is needed—animal rights advocates are trying their best to conduct their own studies but lack funding and support to carry out more robust experiments—the current research shows that volunteering with leafleting efforts can reduce the demand for factory-farmed animal products.


In addition, individual behavior changes have a broader impact than many activists may realize. Behavior changes can serve a dual role of directly addressing an issue and recruiting activists and volunteers. People are much more likely to participate in activism when they are knowledgeable about the issues,[9] possess a collective identity (such as identifying as an activist, environmentalist, or vegan/vegetarian),[10] have prior experience as a volunteer or activist,[11] have friends and family who are involved in political action,[12] have a supportive activist community,[13] and are surrounded by political discussions.[14]


Individual behavior change campaigns can help generate large groups of people who are more knowledgeable about activist issues, who identify with activist movements and causes, and who have begun to build up their experience and comfort level with taking action for social change. Behavior change campaigns also help create more supportive contexts for more dedicated activists to emerge.


Behavior change campaigns are often insufficient to completely eradicate social issues,[15] but eradicating social issues is often difficult without large numbers of people making behavior changes. This tactic should be understood and used in the context of the larger constellation of social movement activities.


Balance individual and community-wide changes


The most successful behavior change campaigns conduct research to understand the balance between individual purity and widespread implementation. In other words, activists should consider whether they want a small number of people to make a big change or a large number of people to make a small change. For many behaviors, there is a tradeoff—the more strict or difficult the behavior is, the lower the number of people who will implement the behavior. Although it is alluring to imagine a society in which everyone always buys local and organic goods, walks or bikes everywhere, or eats a vegan diet, these visions are often not realistic goals for large numbers of people. Carefully examine the goals of your campaign before you attempt to persuade people to make extreme, strict, or difficult changes.


Let’s look at veganism as an example. Within the last decade, new research has helped the animal rights movement understand that an overly strict focus on diet purity is not effective or helpful. Although an individual vegan can reduce their personal consumption of animal products a great deal, as a group, former vegetarians and vegans actually reduce almost 10 times more pounds of animal products every year than vegans.[16] How could this be the case? Former vegetarians and vegans eat around half as much animal products every year as the U.S. average, so although they were unable to stick to the more pure form of the diet, they still reduce their consumption. Overall, large numbers of people making smaller personal changes can lead to a larger collective impact than small numbers of people making more extreme personal changes.


Veganism and vegetarianism can be hard for individuals to stick to, with 84% of vegans and vegetarians eventually abandoning the strict form of the diet (one-third of whom will abandon the diet within the first three months).[17] One study of 3,200 individuals found that nearly one-fourth of the U.S. population is willing to cut their meat consumption by half, while only 7% is willing to eliminate it entirely.[18] If every individual followed through on those intentions, the collective impact of the new reducetarians would be around 60% greater than the impact of the new vegetarians (10 billion pounds of meat reduced by reducetarians compared to 6 billion pounds reduced by vegetarians). Paradoxically, the potential for the most overall change can sometimes lie in making smaller personal changes.


While strict vegetarians and vegans are crucial for serving as animal activist role models, engaging in activism, and pushing for norms changes, advocates need to help individuals contribute in ways that are sustainable for them. Messaging that encourages people to cut out or cut back on animal products and developing better support for guiding new vegans, vegetarians, and reducetarians through their diet change are key areas for animal rights activists to focus on. These findings can be applied to many other realms of behavior change, as well.


Make behavior change easy


The most important component of effective behavior change campaigns is making the change easy for individuals to implement.


Campaigns should be specific and focus on single behaviors, not vague constellations of behaviors such as being “environmentally friendly.”[19] Additionally, spreading your behavior change campaign with a large network of individuals is key to widespread implementation.[20]


Activists must research the barriers to and benefits of changing behavior[21] so they can offer useful strategies for individuals to overcome barriers and implement the change.[22] For example, research has shown that the top three reasons for giving up strict vegetarianism or veganism include being unsatisfied with food options, being concerned about health, and not having enough social support.[23] Activists wishing to increase diet change retention should thus focus on helping people plan their grocery trips to increase food diversity, educating about the positive health impacts of vegetarianism, and planning supportive events and activities for new vegetarians and vegans. You should do your own research on your issue area to learn what the barriers to implementation are, so that you can better ease the transition to change.


Many studies, including meta-analyses covering dozens of studies each, have shown that having individuals make commitments and set intentions to change helps them stick with behavior changes.[24] Furthermore, written commitments have been shown to be more effective than verbal commitments.[25] Don’t simply distribute information; have people sign their name to express their commitment to change.


Making people aware of inconsistencies between their behaviors and values can also be particularly effective.[26] You do not need to convince or persuade people that the behavior is important; their own deep-rooted values system will help keep the behavior salient for them. You can implement this strategy by asking individuals to talk or write about positive values they hold related to the issue area before asking them to make behavior changes.


Additionally, helping people see the impact of their behavior is a successful strategy.[27] OPOWER Home Energy Reports provide households with information about their energy consumption as compared to their neighbors’ consumption. These reports lead households to reduce energy consumption by 2% on average,[28] with effects lasting for years.[29] Another study found that providing households with information on the pounds of pollutants and risk levels of childhood asthma and cancer associated with their energy use led to an average of 8% energy savings.[30]


When you’re evaluating how to make your behavior change easy, try to come up with several tactics, and try them out during a pilot run to test how effective they are. You may get lucky and discover a creative tactic that can save you money and boost your effectiveness. One study tested the impact of various methods to increase composting and found that painting compost bins bright yellow with sunflowers on them was as effective at boosting composting rates as hiring workers to stand by compost bins encouraging people to compost.[31] Brainstorming innovative ideas can pay off.


Focus on positive norms


Social norms—what we believe about how other people normally act—have an enormous influence on our behavior. People who believe that others engage in a certain action become more likely to engage in that action themselves, regardless of whether that behavior is helpful or harmful.[32]


Behavior change campaigns that unintentionally highlight negative norms can actually worsen unwanted behaviors. One study tested the effects of a variety of signs to help reduce the number of people who steal petrified wood from Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. They set up different signs, placed pieces of wood along the trail, and counted how many pieces were stolen afterward. They found that highlighting negative norms with a sign saying, “Many past visitors have removed the petrified wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest,” actually increased the number of people who stole wood to 8%.[33]


Another study showed that voter mobilization messages that lamented low turnout rates actually reduced turnout by 1.2 percentage points.[34] Overall, you should avoid talking about negative norms in behavior change campaigns. This doesn’t mean you cannot ask people to avoid or stop a behavior—it only means that you shouldn’t highlight the fact that many other people are performing the unwanted behavior.


Talking about positive norms can be much more successful. One study tested the effects of different signs to encourage hotel guests to participate in an environmental conservation program and found that signs that highlighted positive social norms by saying, “join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment,” led to more participation than generic signs that simply said, “help save the environment.”[35]


If you are able to, testing out the effects of a number of different messaging strategies during a pilot run of your campaign can help you identify which messages are most effective for your issue area.


NEXT SECTION: Lobbying and Influencing Elected Officials


[1] Abroms and Maibach 2008

[2] Boulay, Storey, and Sood 2010; Farrelly, Davis, Haviland, Messeri, and Healton 2005; Farrelly, Healton, Davis, Messeri, Hersey, and Haviland 2002; Snyder and Hamilton 2002

[3] Snyder and Hamilton 2002

[4] Farrelly, Davis, Haviland, Messeri, and Healton 2005

[5] Farrelly, Healton, Davis, Messeri, Hersey, and Haviland 2002

[6] Anderson 2017; Cooney 2013; Norris 2014; Norris and Roberts 2016; Vegan Outreach n.d.

[7] Cooney 2013; Norris 2014; Vegan Outreach n.d.

[8] Calculations by Effective Activist using Vegan Outreach and Faunalytics data

[9] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Duhigg, Rostosky, Gray, and Wimsatt 2010; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, and Zhao 2014

[10] Berman and Wittig 2004; Bryan, Walton, Rogers, and Dweck 2011; Case and Zeglen 2018; Downton and Wehr 1998; Granzin and Olsen 1991; Klandermans 2003; McAdam and Paulson 1993; Morgan and Chan 2016; Nepstad 2004; Pfaff 1996; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018; Szymanski and Lewis 2015; Scott and Chan 2016; Simon, Loewy, Stürmer, Weber, Fretag, Habig, Kampmeier, and Spahlinger 1998;

[11] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Ayala 2000; Bloemraad and Terriquez 2016; Brym, Godbout, Hoffbauer, Menard, and Zhang 2014; Ginwright 2007; Janoski, Musick, and Wilson 1998; Klandermans 2003; Lee and Soonhee 2014; McAdam 1986; McFarland and Thomas 2006; Scott 1977; Terriquez 2015; Terriquez 2017; Terriquez and Kwon 2014; Viterna 2006; Wiltfang and McAdam 1991; Zeldin, Gaulet, Krauss, Kornbluh, and Collura 2017

[12] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Bond, Fariss, Jones, Kramer, Marlow, Settle, and Fowler 2012; Boulay, Storey, and Sood 2010; Granzin and Olsen 1991; McAdam 1986; Oegema and Klandermans 1994; Paluck 2011; Paluck, Shepherd, and Aronow 2016; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018; Wellman, Czopp, and Geers 2009;

[13] Case and Zeglen 2018; Downton and Wehr 1998

[14] Andolina, Jenkins, Zukin, and Keeter 2003; Boulay, Storey, and Sood 2010; Klofstad 2011; McClurg 2006; McLeod, Scheufele, and Moy 1999; Roser-Renouf, Maibach, Leiserowitz, and Zhao 2014; Zhang, Johnson, Seltzer, and Bichard 2009

[15] Abroms and Maibach 2008

[16] Calculations by Effective Activist using Faunalytics data

[17] Asher, Green, Gutbrod, Jewell, Hale, and Bastian 2014

[18] Humane Research Council 2007

[19] Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014

[20] Abroms and Maibach 2008; Snyder and Hamilton 2002

[21] Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014

[22] Allcott 2011; Allcott and Rogers 2014

[23] Asher, Green, deLespinasse, Gutbrod, Bastian, Jewell, and Hale 2015

[24] Baca-Motes, Brown, Gneezy, Keenan, and Nelson 2013; Gollwitzer 1999; Lokhorst, Werner, Staats, and van Dijk 2013; Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014; Díaz Meneses and Palacio 2007; Pardini and Katzev 1983; Webb and Sheeran 2006; Werner, Turner, Shipman, Twitchell, Dickson, Bruschke, and von Bismarck 1995

[25] Pardini and Katzev 1983; Werner, Turner, Shipman, Twitchell, Dickson, Bruschke, and von Bismarck 1995

[26] Altemeyer 1994; Dickerson, Thibodeau, Aronson, and Miller 1992; Kantola, Syme, and Campbell 1984

[27] Allcott 2011; Allcott and Rogers 2014; Asensio and Delmas 2015; Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014; Schultz, Nolan, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius 2007

[28] Allcott 2011

[29] Allcott and Rogers 2014

[30] Asensio and Delmas 2015

[31] Lin, Wang, Li, Gordon, and Harder 2016

[32] Ball, Jeffery, Abbott, McNaughton, and Crawford 2010; Cialdini, Demaine, Sagarin, Barrett, Rhoads, and Winter 2006; Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius 2008; Martin 2012; Mckenzie-Mohr and Schultz 2014; Nolan, Schultz, Cialdini, Goldstein, and Griskevicius 2008; Rogers, Goldstein, and Fox 2018

[33] Cialdini, Demaine, Sagarin, Barrett, Rhoads, and Winter 2006, p. 8

[34] Keane and Nickerson 2015

[35] Goldstein, Cialdini, and Griskevicius 2008, pp. 473-474


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