I'm here in sunny Denmark attending the 2009 J Boye conference where the presenters dig into many subjects, but one of my personal standouts is psychologist BJ Fogg of Stanford University's Persuasive Technology lab. Fogg is jazzed-up about how technology is used to influence our behavior. This has been his particular obsession since 1993 and by the looks of it -- in our age of social media platforms -- he's hit his stride.

Forget trying to modify attitudes, he says, this is too difficult to measure and may not lead to behavior change. Focus on modifying behavior -- it's measurable and closer to your real goals. This is how Fogg kicked-off the morning. Here's how he says you can do it.

The Psychology of Persuasion

The psychological pattern of a behavior change is like a dance move, says Fogg. It's something you can learn, understand and apply to different situations. He asserts that there are 3 things required for a behavior to happen:

  1. Motivation -- pleasure or pain, hope or fear, acceptance or rejection, etc.
  2. Ability -- the actor in the scenario must be able to perform the action
  3. Triggers -- the behavior requires a trigger (e.g., a banner ad is a trigger for a click)

For those of you who appreciate unscientific formulas, behavior = motivation + ability + trigger.

Simplicity Underlies Ability

We believe in the beauty of simplicity and so does Fogg. In his model, simplicity is a composite made up of 6 sub-factors. He further explains simplicity as "a function of your scarcest resource at that moment."

The resources in question are:

  1. Time
  2. Money
  3. Physical effort
  4. Brain cycles
  5. Social deviance (less is better for most of us!)
  6. Non-routine (more routine = simpler)

Simplicity plays a key role in Fogg's model of behavior in that if simplicity is low, then the ability to perform the action is low and the probability of the action being performed is reduced. Simple, right?

In the below video BJ Fogg discusses the 6 factors in his model of simplicity.

Focus on the Triggers

Fogg is both Director of the Stanford lab and a private sector consultant. During his talk he drew upon research and a body of field work. Based on these experiences he stated that "often motivation exists, therefore it's more important to focus on facilitation (ability) and triggering."

Another reason Fogg dislikes focusing on motivation is that it feels icky. I'm inclined to agree with the latter statement and I'd like to believe in the first one as well. Thinking a bit more about this, Gerry McGovern quickly comes to mind (see some of his writings here).

Gerry's mantra is that the web is about completing tasks. If you believe this or have evidence to support this, then what logically follows is that when you have access to an web audience then you are typically dealing with an audience that has a some kind of motivation -- there is a task or two they are interested in completing.

If you can identify and segment the people who have a motivation related to your behavior goals, then you can focus less on the motivation component of behavior and more on the ability and trigger components.

Simplicity Key to Defining Goals

Quitting smoking is a fine goal to have. But as many a career tobacconist knows, it's not so easy. Fogg labors over the point that you must simplify behavior goals to the smallest reasonable and measurable unit, and then build up. For the smoker, perhaps the simplest goal is skipping one cigarette per day or spending one coffee break per week without a smoke.

Find that magic starting starting point, ensure that related behaviors are measurable and then begin.

Sequential Goal Development

In one example today, we looked at the goal of calling your political representative to discover their position on Obama's health reform project. The end goal was supported by many smaller goals in a  pattern called sequencing.

First you open an email, then you click a link, then you enter a postal code, then you are presented with a list of contacts (plus a phone call script), then you make the phone call, then you register the completion of the phone call.

This is a complex process supported by sequentially triggering, enabling and motivating the performance of simpler actions.

Shaping: First Walk then Run

Shaping is a behaviorist concept that takes the easiest form of a behavior and builds towards the final behavior goal. Fogg says that for example, if your goal is flossing your teeth daily, then start with one tooth.

Not every behavior can be shaped -- some must be sequentially developed.

BJ Fogg Presenting at the J Boye 2009 Conference in Aarhus, Denmark

Persuade Them, But be Good

Fogg's model is accessible and over time -- I first saw him speak in 2007 -- seems to grow increasingly clear and concisely described. As we wound up the workshop today he walked us through a planning exercise called Designing for Behavioral Change. Four steps led us to the point of execution:

  1. Choosing a simple behavior to target
  2. Choosing a receptive audience
  3. Discovering what is preventing the target behavior
  4. Choosing a  technology channel

The building blocks of motivation, ability and triggers provide us with a vocabulary and thus a clear way of thinking of about each step. Simplicity is a mantra throughout. And measurement, analysis and refinement are what lead to the truth.

It works he says, but please, when you use it, use it for good.

BJ Fogg is a researcher and innovator at Stanford University. He recently started the Peace Dot movement -- applying his persuasive model of behavior change towards making the world a happier place. Facebook's peace.facebook.com website is an early example.