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Being irrational is SO valuable to innovation

February 15, 2022 // Javier Esteves ([email protected])


I bet this has happened to you before: you really believe that everybody should be vegan by tomorrow, or that hitting a fellow animal only for pleasure is criminal, or that buying a 1$ t-shirt in a bombastic retail store should, at least, raise some unethical trade suspicions in the buyer. Right?


Nevertheless, people don’t seem to agree with you. Not all of them. Sometimes, even the ones who know you the best don’t. And this can drive you completely crazy: ”How can people be so stupid? Can’t they see? It couldn’t be more obvious! We are doomed, we deserve to be extinct”.


I know. It happens to me too (sometimes). And it definitely hurts the most when the issue raising disagreement is very personal to you. But, to be honest... this is great. And it is thanks to Behavioral Science that I can appreciate it now. Also, the reason why, at Acter, we don’t bang our heads against the wall every time we encounter something that we would tag as ”irrational”.


Behavioural Science (according to a beginner)


I promise you something: I will be very brief on the wikipedia-side of Behavioral Science (BS), and share something useful with you right away. You ready?


Behavioral Science can be understood from different angles. But, right now, what’s most important is that BS is the discipline in charge of taking all the confusion and hate I illustrated before, and turning it into a deeper understanding and actionable insights. How?


Well, there are tons of principles and methods. We could talk about biases (those auto-pilot thoughts, actions and reactions we barely see in ourselves, but we so clearly see in others), mental models, and the COM-B method. And, actually, it is the COM-B method I’d like to share with you today.


Picture credit: 42courses


This method assumes that most behavior operates based, roughly, on three layers: Capability, Opportunity and Motivation. And if you were to affect people’s behavior, taking all three into account would work as a compass. This proved to be true, for example, when it comes to trash sorting in London, as the British Government experienced some years ago. Check the following example:


A pioneering advertisement company (Ogilvy), turned into a BS think-tank, was commissioned to convince London residents to recycle much more. When they were briefed by the government about the issue, one key word stood out: they wanted Ogilvy to motivate people to do it. So, one could assume that the government’s impression was that people didn’t care much. But they were wrong.


After running separate research projects following each of the COM-B elements, a funny result emerged: despite people being rather in favor of or, at least, aware of the importance of recycling, they always got stuck at one step of the process: they only had one bin for their rubbish. How could they recycle properly then?


So, instead of following the assumption that people were primarily ”unmotivated” to recycle, they gradually offered different neighborhoods an easy way to get a second bin, while running a communication campaign called ”One bin is rubbish. Sort it out”*. The recycling rates of the whole of London went up from from 43% to 68%. The moral: most people were perfectly capable and motivated to recycle more, but they were lacking a viable opportunity to do so.


How could this affect your cause? Could new ideas be waiting around a COM-B corner?


If anything pops on your mind, hit me up at [email protected]

As BS keeps improving my life, I will share more posts with you.



*Maybe you don’t know this: ”rubbish” (a.k.a ”trash”) is also a British way of saying ”bullshit”. In this case, apart from highlighting that the one bin most people had could only be for trash, they also used a play word suggesting that having only one being can only lead to bullshit.


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