Increasing Participation Means Changing Behavior

What can be learned from behavioral science?

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 12, No 1 (Winter 2001)

Thomas E. Backer

The following paper was written in conjunction with two meetings sponsored by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and co-sponsored by the Heinz Endowments and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

It may seem obvious, but if you aim to increase participation in the arts then behavior has to change. If the focus is increasing attendance at arts events, then the people whose behavior has to change include arts organization staff, artists, and people in the community. If you want success over time, these people have to change their behavior in relatively enduring ways. In my remarks, I'm going to concentrate on people in the community — in this case, the audience or potential audience or former audience for organized arts activities.

As a behavioral scientist, I know that if you want to change people's behavior in a strategic way and have maximum impact, you need to know four things:
• whose behavior you want to change,
• what behavior you want to change,
• how you can change the behavior, and
• how you'll know you've succeeded in changing the behavior.

Modern commercial marketing methods answer these four questions in rather precise ways, and integrate them into coherent strategies through such approaches as “relationship marketing,” which extends marketing strategy over time, and “whole-person marketing,” which extends the marketing relationship over a variety of products and services people can buy. However, all too often in nonprofit arts marketing, the answers aren't as precise or well-integrated as these commercial examples.

You want people to buy more tickets. But what kinds of behavior by what types of people really have to change if more tickets are to be sold? A simple example comes from the recent study of California arts consumers by AMS Research, showing that 54 percent of respondents were more likely to accept someone else's invitation than they were to initiate an arts outing on their own. To increase ticket sales, you have to know this, and you have to know just who are the “influential minority” doing the inviting, and what circumstances motivate them to invite.

Once you know whose behavior you want to change in what ways, the next step is to devise a strategy for doing so. Often arts organizations apply a methodology they've heard has worked elsewhere — an earlier curtain time, a cocktail hour for young professionals — without really understanding either what behavior is being changed or how it is happening.

Finally, you also need to know if the behavior-changing strategy has succeeded. While tracking ticket sales and attendance figures is one valid way to find out, if you are trying to change behavior in enduring ways you need to know more. Are people thinking differently and are they behaving differently in ways that will last?

So, what can you learn from behavioral science? Over the years, behavioral psychologists have labored over just such questions.

Imagine a cabal of psychologists, gathered for days in a darkened room. They debate endlessly about what principles have been learned from scientific research and theory about how to change behavior. After much yelling and screaming and the tossing about of many theoretical principles, academic credentials, and well-worn psychology textbooks, the cabal comes up with eight principles that represent the “state of the science.” Like medieval alchemy, more than one hundred years of behavioral science research has been magically distilled down into eight principles about how to change behavior.

While I'm exaggerating about the cabal, the darkened room, and maybe a little about the endless debate and yelling and screaming, what I'm describing actually happened in 1992. Some of the most famous psychologists in the world, people whose works I've been reading since I was a freshman psychology student in 1966, gathered under the auspices of the National Institute of Mental Health for the “Theorist's Workshop,” as it was called, and they did indeed come up with eight principles for behavior change that come from thousands of behavioral science studies.

These principles have since been used in a great variety of circumstances to help design strategies for changing behavior. They have been used especially in health fields for work on problems like preventing HIV infection. In the mid-1990s I worked with one of these behavioral scientists, Dr. Martin Fishbein of the University of Pennsylvania, to apply the principles to the field of drug abuse. With some other scientists, we wrote a book on the subject that was published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Now I'd like to share the principles with you and give you a few thoughts about how they might be applied to participation strategies in the arts. My hope is that hearing them will inspire more focused strategies to promote change in audience behavior. Applying the principles in the context of the four critical questions I just asked will also increase the chances that your participation strategies will work, and keep on working over time.

For those of you with a background in psychology, the principles were derived from four theories about behavior change — Bandura's Social Cognitive Theory, Fishbein's Theory of Reasoned Action, Kanfer's Theory of Self-Regulation and Self-Control, and Triandis's Theory of Subjective Culture and Interpersonal Relations.

I list the eight principles here, in the language of the psychologists who hammered them out. The principles suggest that behavior is more likely to change if:
1. the person forms a strong positive intention, or makes a commitment, to perform the behavior,
2. there are no environmental constraints that make it impossible for the behavior to occur,
3. the person possesses the skills necessary to perform the behavior,
4. the person perceives that the advantages of performing the behavior outweigh the disadvantages,
5. the person perceives more normative pressure to perform the behavior than not to perform it,
6. the person believes that performance of the behavior is more consistent than inconsistent with his or her self-image or that it does not violate personal standards,
7. the person's emotional reaction to performing the behavior is more positive than negative, and
8. the person perceives that he or she has the ability to perform the behavior under a number of different circumstances.

Since the purpose of sharing these principles with you is to promote brainstorming and discussion, I'll only give a few examples and clarifications at this point.

The first principle, the principle of intention, is used by telemarketers and other salespeople all the time — if you can get people to verbalize being interested, they then feel pressure to actually go ahead and buy. An interesting twist on this has to do with social embarrassment. It turns out that in dealing with behavior changes like stopping smoking or losing weight, one of the most powerful effects comes from expressing your intention to someone you respect or who you regard as an authority figure. It's even stronger if you make out a check to the cause you hate the most and give it to a friend who'll send the check if you don't keep your commitment! I leave it to you to figure out how this might apply to cultural participation.

Environmental constraints (principle two) have been the subject of many arts marketing studies. As one example, in Charlotte, North Carolina the arts rebounded when people began to see downtown as safe at night again. And for a second example, if literally understanding the storyline is central to one's engagement with an arts experience, supertitles may have done more to change people's behavior about opera-going than any other development in recent years. No doubt, you can think of many other ways to apply this principle.

Any arts experience has disadvantages, possibly the costs of time and money. The disadvantages are often overcome by “normative pressures” (principle five). By this we mean pressures from whatever community sets a person's standards of behavior. Most people participate in the arts partly because of normative pressures from groups or communities they're part of. If you're a member of Old Guard society, for example, going to the symphony and opera is part of your expected social life. No surprises here, either.

Personal standards and self-image (number six) are particularly important elements driving cultural participation when the artistic material is controversial — when it involves nudity or sexual content, for instance. As Jerry Zaltman's studies of metaphor in the arts makes clear, it's also important to remember that meaning and deep feeling are central to arts experiences, often beyond what we can easily put in words.

Finally, behavior that persists is not seen as just a fluke in the eyes of the person engaged in it. The easiest evidence for this principle (number eight) is the ability to behave in a particular way under different circumstances, such as going to a downtown music center for several different types of performances.

Our cabal of psychologists had one more thing to say about these eight principles: they work best when combined together as a kind of “checklist for action” in the complicated process of changing behavior. The relative importance of each principle varies depending upon the population or type of behavior in question. The principles come from theory and research, but using them together starts to move them towards pragmatic application in the real world.

Kurt Lewin, the great social psychologist, once said, “there's nothing so practical as a good theory.” These eight principles for behavior change can be combined in strategic ways to fit any specific objective for cultural participation that you might undertake in specific arts organizations or communities.

In truth, there's nothing either new or terribly complicated about them, despite their having come from very sophisticated behavioral science research. The point of presenting the principles here is to stimulate thinking about them more strategically — that is, to encourage looking at all eight rather than just one or two at a time, and thinking about them more precisely, with the four questions I mentioned earlier in mind.

What isn't new is sometimes still quite valuable when looked at in a new way, or to quote the great actress Helen Hayes, “It's what you learn after you know it all that really counts.”

Thomas E. Backer, PhD, is president, Human Interaction Research Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit center for research and technical assistance on innovation and change founded in 1961. As a psychologist, Dr. Backer has worked with artists for thirty years. Recently his Institute added to its traditional public health work a new program focused on arts organizations and their funders.

Backer, T.E., David, S.L. & Soucy, G. (Eds.). Reviewing the behavioral science knowledge base on technology transfer. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Fishbein, M. (1995). Developing effective behavior change interventions: Some lessons learned from behavioral research. In T.E. Backer, S.L. David & G. Soucy (Eds.), Reviewing the behavioral science knowledge base on technology transfer. Rockville, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Fishbein, M. et al (1992). Factors influencing behavior and behavior change: Final report — Theorists' workshop. Rockville, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.

Fishbein, M. (1980). A theory of reasoned action: Some applications and implications. In H.E. Howe & M.M. Page (Eds.). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1979. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska press.

Heinz Endowments (2000). Bringing the arts to life. Pittsburgh: Author. (overviews one application of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique).

Kanfer, R. & Kanfer, F.H. (1991). Goals and self-regulation: Applications of theory to work settings. In M.L. Maehr & P.R. Pintrich (Eds.), Advances in motivation and achievement. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Triandis, H.C. (1980). Values, attitudes and interpersonal behavior. In H.E. Howe & M.M. Page (Eds.). Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 1979. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska press.