Ethics Psychology

Four Ways We can Use Psychology For Ethical Behaviour Change

People don’t always choose behaviours which are the ‘best’, not even when it comes to their own health. So what can we do? Without developing mind-bending powers, how can we try to change how people behave so that they can make ethical choices? Here, I’ll be presenting four ways to use psychology for ethical behaviour change. 

In this post we’ll be delving into the psychology of behaviour change and how this can be applied to encourage ethical decision making. My PhD was in social/health psychology and I’ll be applying knowledge from psychology to explain the sorts of things that do and do not work to help aid behaviour change.


Ethical choices are often psychologically distant.

This can be time-wise (greatest effects are likely in the future) and distance-wise (impacting people who aren’t you or anyone you know), so why would anyone care and what can you do?

Can you guilt people into changing their behaviour?

Bash them over the head?

Or maybe socially influence them by sharing on social media?  

Mobile phone with social network icons

Changing behaviour

1. Message framing

The way you frame messages is often as important as the message itself.

When focusing on ‘preventative’ behaviours (ie. those that reduce your chances of developing diseases by performing them, like exercise). It’s suggested that the message framing should focus on the benefits of the behaviour, so is ‘gain’ focused.

In ‘detection’ behaviours, (ie. screening for a disease), messages should instead focus on the potential costs of not performing the behaviour (e.g. if not caught early, disease can spread and impact on your life).

So, if we want people to reduce fossil fuel use we might want to focus on the benefits of reducing car usage, rather than the cost to the environment. 

2. Bashing people over the head with your message. AKA Emotion based and fear appeals.

Fear appeals often used in public health as a kind of social influence, invoking fear to change behaviour.

Black and white skull on a black background

Often these don’t work. And one reason for this is that they can produce reactance effects.

This is when someone feels like their free will is being threatened, so they’ll basically do the opposite of whatever they think you’re trying to make them do.

Tulips tied with rope
When people feel their free will is threatened, they act defensively.

Fear appeals also make people process information differently, where they’re likely to draw in on themselves and so aren’t very open to change.  

Threat appeals are similar to this and often these are what’s used in environmental messaging. These generally include how bad the threat is likely to be and how likely it is to affect you, then provides a call to action so that you can respond to it.

But, these days we’re afraid of everything. We get threats of climate change, terrorism and violence shoved in our faces pretty constantly by the media. We’re also being bombarded with persuasion attempts from all the different companies trying to get us to buy whatever they’re selling.

This means that it’s hard to get your point across this way without having to come up with a traumatising ad campaign in order to shout the loudest.

3. Social influence

People tend to be persuaded by groups they identify with.

Social proof is essentially the idea that the more similar the person is to you, the more you are likely to take notice of their message. This is why social media is such a persuasive place to be.

But, each of the different social media sites is different in how effective they are at persuading people.

Partly this is due to the different audiences for each site. For example, Pinterest users are predominantly female and young (50% of their users are 18-30), but also users’ attitudes are different to those on other sites.

Pinterest users use the site to absorb creative ideas from other people. This means that because of this they are suggested to be more open to advertising and are more likely to click on sponsored pins.

Blackboard with lightbulb

It’s worth trying to work out whose behaviour you’re trying to change, as there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all answer.

Also, it’s worth bearing in mind is that it’s not enough to post on social media without engaging with people via following, liking and commenting. Recently we’re seeing trends where brands social media accounts where there is clearly a human behind them are doing better with getting followers and engagement from consumers.

4. Barrier reduction

Unless you’ve got magical mind powers, you’re unlikely to change people’s behaviour unless they want to.

Keep in mind a couple of questions: Who are you targeting? & How are you tailoring your messages to them?

How can you reduce barriers are standing in the way and make it so that the ethical choice is the easiest choice to make, or isn’t too much different from others?

Chain link barrier fence

People rely on stickers like FairTrade or Rainforest Alliance to help sway them into making an ethical choice. This is because this is really simple signalling to say that this product is better than another.

People rely on mental shortcuts to get themselves through the day without being overloaded. Can you come up with a clear visual cue which might give you an edge?

What next?

So, how can you help to persuade people into behaving more ethically? And how can we use psychology for ethical behaviour change? It’s complicated and there are a ton of factors.

I’ve only really briefly touched on a few things that may or may not work (plus those that are really bad ideas).

If you’re trying to encourage other people to behave in a certain way, you might want to try out a few of these and see what works.

Interested in reading more?

If you’re interested in reading about psychology, social influence and social media, you might want to take a look at my other posts on how reading reviews might change your opinions before you know what they are, or about similarities in social influence by brands and cults. You can also read my recent Medium post on whether we need to disguise our identity online to be listened to. 

You can also follow me on Instagram and Twitter. 

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