Using public communications to get people to change their behaviors and routines can be hard. If it were not hard, there would be no smokers, drunk drivers, overweight people, new HIV/AIDS infections, etc. But thanks to information and communications technologies (ICTs), some of the barriers classic communications theories pointed to as repressing behavior change are today smaller or, in some cases, eliminated.
Here are three ways ICTs make affecting change a little easier:
- Precise notifications and reminders. According to the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA), every single instance of behavior involves four specific elements: (1) a specific action (2) performed with respect to a given target (3) in a given context (4) at a given point in time. An example would be a mother in a developing country taking her child to a health clinic when vaccination stocks are available and the child needs a vaccination. Without ICTs, it would be impossible to notify the mother about her child’s opportunity to get a needed vaccination at the ideal time, and a mother’s promise to a healthcare provider to get her child vaccinated would be easily forgotten if made weeks or months before the vaccination was necessary. With SMS text messages and/or email, notifications and reminders can more easily be delivered with ideal real time precision in terms of action, target, context, and time.
- Community support. Both TRA and Diffusions of Innovations Theory stress people are likely to act if they perceive community support/social pressure to do something. Online communities—whether ad hoc like Occupy Wall Street or organized like professional communities of practice—can boost the perception “I am not in this alone,” “people I respect want me to do it,” and people like me are doing it” necessary to invoke action. Further, online communities can point people to ways to (1) overcome perceived barriers to action and (2) enhance their sense of self-efficacy—two crucial elements for invoking action according to the Health Belief Model and Social Cognitive Theory.
- Bridging opportunity and motivation. ICTs not only can empower people with precision in terms of action, target, context, and time (see bullet one above), designed correctly, they also can reward people’s intrinsic motivations—both personal (e.g., autonomy and competence) and social (e.g., membership and generosity). Without ICTs, it is harder to bridge opportunity and motivation, decreasing the odds of eliciting the behavior you want (it probably goes without saying that all kinds of theories, not just ones related to communications, recognize the importance of rewards in invoking desired behavior). As Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus:
“Users will only take advantage of opportunities they understand and that seem interesting or valuable… It doesn’t matter how much you want users to behave a certain way. What matters is how they react to the opportunities you give them. If you want different behavior, you have to provide different opportunities.”
Bottom line? Realizing the full potential of ICTs means understanding the value-added they bring—built on the basics of timeless communications principles.