Applying the Science of Human Behaviour to the Art of Communications – H+K Smarter csuitepodcast interview

Interview starts at 20:34

In the final interview of the csuitepodcast that I recorded at The Holmes Report’s In2 Innovation Summit, I spoke with Matt Battersby, Managing Director for H+K Smarter at H+K Strategies about Behavioural Science and its relevance to communications.

with Matt Battersby (left)

with Matt Battersby (left)

Matt describes H+K Smarter as a specialist team of behavioural scientists and researchers who use behavioural science to solve problems and to create communications that are smarter and more effective.  He went on to explain that behavioural science is the intersection of economics, phycology, neuroscience and sociology – it’s about really understanding what we do, why we do it and how we influence it.

Matt had presented at the conference on the two systems of how people think, which he describes as both operating in your brain at any one time.

  • System 1 – your quick, more emotive, unconscious way of thinking, he called it your ‘Homer Simpson’ type of brain.
  • System 2 – your slower, more thoughtful, more reflective (classically more rational) way of thinking, your ‘Sherlock Holmes’ brain.

The vast majority of your decisions are through System 1, which you use far more than you think you do.  Using System 2 takes effort and energy, so you avoid it where you can and save it for something you really need it for.

To give an example of how this thinking can be brought into a campaign, Matt explained that one of his colleagues set up and ran a behavioural insights team within the NHS, specifically using it to get people to sign the organ donor register. This is a classic example of ‘intention action gap’, as 90% of people say they support donating organs but less than a third of people actually sign the register.

The team therefore looked at the message of an organ donor campaigns and whilst the typical message is very emotional, they looked at many different psychological triggers and found the most powerful to be ‘Reciprocity’ – when someone does something good for you, you want to do something good back.  Therefore, the message of ‘If you wanted an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, give to others’ was much more powerful than any other standard message. Other messages that they compared this to include:

  • Social Norms – ‘Thousands of people every day sign the register’
  • Positive Framing – ‘You could save up to 9 lives’
  • Negative Framing- ‘Every day, 3 people die because of lack of organ donors’

Each message had a different psychological trigger behind it and they looked to see which one was the most effective.  This shows that if you apply scientific thinking to your communication messages, you may get a different result to what you thought.

I recorded this interview ahead of the recent UK General Election, and so it was timely in that one huge challenge in the UK has been how to get younger voters to the polling booths.

Matt said that there is some great research on how you actually get people out to vote.  He explained that if you have a group of people who have said they probably will vote for a specific party, the standard approach would be to call them the night before and remind them why they love your party, why they dislike the others, and that their vote is important.  However, the science suggests a different approach is needed – to use the social norm, i.e., tell them lots of other people are voting, to be part of a movement – part of something.

Secondly, Matt said that you should not ask people if they are voting, but instead ask if they are going to be a voter, using the noun rather than the verb helps people see voting as part of their identity, particularly with young people, as it appeals to a sense of who they are, as it is much harder not to be something than not to do something.

[Writing these notes up post-election, I think it can be argued that the Labour party did indeed get the younger voters behind a movement.]

So in applying this to PR in general, Matt said that this can be achieved using two routes:

  1. How can we apply behavioural insight better, with more scientific thinking, to the questions we are already being asked by clients? Providing better communications solutions to their problems.
  2. How do we answer different problems? For this, Matt used the example of a project currently being worked on where they are using behavioural science to improve the communications in job adverts to attract more talent by changing the wording to get more recruits in.

Matt believes that any challenge can be tackled by applying behavioural insight to it and therefore by looking for the better and different is how he sees behavioural science growing in PR.

Finally Matt feels that many different skills and a wider range of skills are now needed within the PR industry and believes that there will be more behavioural scientists in the industry.  His recommended reading if you want to find out more about the topic are:


He also said universities such as LSE, UCL and Warwick University run short courses as well as Masters’ courses.

All previous shows of the csuitepodcast series are available on the websiteSoundclouditunes and TuneIn.  There is also a growing community on Facebook and Twitter, where you can get involved in the discussion.  Finally, if you subscribe to the show, please can you give it a positive rating and review on itunes in particular as this helps it up the charts!


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