Posing a question that asks people to predict their behavior

Are you going to eat five servings of fruits and vegetables today?

Healthcare proponents regularly extol the benefits of eating five servings of fruits and vegetables a day for improved health. But are these reminders-typically relayed through the media-effective? Most advertisements tell us what to do, what to wear, what to buy. They rarely ask us to think about how we will behave.

However, in social marketing, in which messages are developed to influence people’s behavior for the greater good of society, a technique called “self-prophecy” is working. The technique involves posing a question that asks people to predict their behavior. Instead of telling them what to do, you ask them if they are going to do it.

Eric Spangenberg, professor of marketing, and David E. Sprott, assistant professor of marketing, both of Washington State University, are the chief developers of the concept.

Spangenberg calls himself the “anti-marketing marketer,” because his passion lies not in studying how to effectively sell more cars or diet sodas, but in influencing people to do what is best for the individual and society as a whole-desirable behavior such as voting, recycling, spending time with one’s children, exercising, and not smoking.

Sprott and Spangenberg’s studies, published in numerous academic and industry journals such as the Journal of Marketing and the Journal of Applied Psychology, show that when people predict they are going to do something, they are more likely to do it. Asking them a question becomes a force for positive change.

Their studies show that on average there is an increase in the desired behavior immediately following the asking of the question. Recent analysis of the technique’s application shows an average effectiveness rate of 20 percent immediately following the asking of the question. Sometimes the behavior change will last up to six months after the person predicts his or her behavior.

Specific studies have shown that self-prophecy has increased voter turnout in elections, improved attendance at health clubs, increased commitment to recycling aluminum cans, and increased alumni donations to colleges and universities.

What drives us to act upon our predictions is not entirely clear. Spangenberg and Sprott believe that self-prophecy results mainly from cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance can be described as the uncomfortable feeling humans get when they say they’ll do something, and then don’t do it. Or you could call it guilt.

Whatever you call it, this uncomfortable feeling drives us to act consistently with our predictions. In other words, the prediction becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Spangenberg stresses that before the technique is applied, the target market’s social norms must be identified. People must have strong beliefs about the subject of the self-prophecy, in order for the technique to be effective. Asking a group of drug-users, “Are you going to stop using today?” is probably not going to work, because they are already committed to the undesirable behavior.

Social and government agencies have taken note of the self-prophecy technique. The United States Department of Agriculture has shown interest in using it for research and surveying in the areas of animal health inspection and regulation and in public policy. In addition, the Women, Infants and Children program (WIC) in Washington state and WSU Extension are using the self-prophecy technique to influence the retention rate of participants in a government-sponsored program to get families to eat dinner together.

“This technique is clearly something that can make the world a better place,” Spangenberg says.