Hey, Hollywood: Two Experts Reveal Secrets to Changing People's Behavior

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Heidi Klum doused Tim Gunn as part of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge during Project Runway’s season-13 finale in 2014.

Social-change pros reveal how the impetuous "tiny Trump" in your brain can be a force for good in THR's annual Philanthropy Issue.

For several decades, Hollywood has rocked the vote, filmed PSAs, organized concerts and posted on social media to get young people out of bed and into the voting booth. Yet even though it's in their own interest to vote, 18-to-24-year-olds are the least likely to turn out. In fact, their voting rates have dropped from 51 percent in the 1964 presidential election to 38 percent in 2012.

To use the full potential of Hollywood to make meaningful progress on the social causes we care about, it’s time to recognize that traditional "awareness raising" is insufficient and obsolete. Hollywood must put its heft not behind PSAs but rather interventions based on the science of behavior.

Behavioral science research shows, for example, that when you ask people how they'll vote ("What time will you go?" "How will you get there?" “What will you being doing beforehand?”) instead of if they'll vote, turnout dramatically increases. Researchers call this “implementation intention,” but it is simply a method of nudging people to literally spell out how they will accomplish a specific goal. Instead of a "get out the vote" concert with stickers handed out urging people to vote, what if the price of admission was to fill out a form detailing your voting plan?

This is not to say awareness campaigns are futile. But too often they are based on faulty assumptions — that humans are rational, Spock-like beings for whom information is all that's needed to change behavior.

But we are not Spock. Sure, we can be rational and strategic (behavioral scientists call that our System 2, and it's what we use to do things like take the SAT), but we also can be emotional and impetuous (think of a tiny Trump in your brain — he's your System 1), so information alone often is not enough to change our ways. For example, a decision to smoke (or not) should be based on the known health risks, but in reality just watching actors smoke in a movie activates our sense of social norms and makes us more likely to light up.

Applying insights from behavioral science can help us understand and predict the way humans will act illogically so that we can design social-change campaigns that take into account — and even leverage — our irrational ways. Take the much-debated ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: It looks like a standard awareness and fundraising campaign that magically "went viral," but look closer and you can see that its success was rooted in its use of multiple psychological levers that  spoke directly to our Trump-ian System 1 (even Trump participated).

The campaign uniquely combined several behavioral insights to make the most of stars' participation: 1) It used the power of social norms (it was easy to see how many people were doing it and how much fun they were having); 2) It made use of "implementation intentions" (helping people think through exactly how they were going to participate and when) by giving people a deadline of 24 hours and; and 3) It leveraged reciprocity (when someone does something for us, we feel obliged to do something for them) by having participants nominate three others to complete the challenge. Social media added reach and accountability.

Imagine similar techniques applied to, say, combating climate change. Research shows that when people receive bills that visually display that they use more energy than their neighbors, they tend to bring their use down. So what if conscientious stars, often assumed to be the biggest energy consumers, made their bills public? Or helped fight drought by posting their water usage? Now that's a public-service announcement, one that might disrupt Hollywood's reliance on awareness and refocus the power of fame.

Propper, co-president of social impact firm Propper Daley, and Hernandez, founder and principal at behavioral consultancy Design for Humans, are partnering to launch a behavior-change laboratory in Hollywood that combines knowledge of behavioral science with the power of high-profile clients to share information and pierce the public consciousness. 

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.