OPINION7 June 2016

BE Bites: the power of feedback to change behaviour

Behavioural science Healthcare Opinion UK

Insight from behavioural science has enabled wearables company Jawbone to help its users get a good night’s sleep. Crawford Hollingworth explains

Sleep crop

How do you try to make sure you get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep each night? Milk and cookies? Take a bath with lavender oil? What about using insights from behavioural science...?

We often intend to go to bed early, knowing that it will make us more productive, patient, focused, happy, optimistic and energised the next day, and healthier in the long run. But we get waylaid by late nights out with friends, whatever box set we are bingeing on, browsing social media or absorbed in a book – in more general terms, we get sidetracked by what is known as ‘present bias’ or ‘power of now’ by behavioural scientists and go to bed much later than we planned.

And at the other end of the candle, work and life commitments chip away at our sleeping time – early meetings, visits to the gym, business travel, the demands of small children…

Jawbone, the consumer wearables technology company, decided to tackle our tendency to get too little sleep using insights from behavioural science.

Jawbone has recently moved into the health-tracking business and sells a sensor-rich wristband called the UP that monitors its wearer’s steps and sleep. The company wanted to augment the tracking data by applying BE to help to change its users’ behaviour.

So it has been recruiting behavioural scientists and psychologists to dig into the BE literature to see how it can apply BE via its Smart Coach feature to change users’ behaviour for the better.

For one of its first experiments, Jawbone looked at how it could nudge people to sleep more by leveraging commitment bias through a feature called ‘Today I will'.

During the day, the Jawbone Smart Coach sent messages to 40,000 users, asking them to reply with “I’m in”, whereby a user committed (in advance) to being in bed by a specific, earlier time. Each message was tailored to a user, calculated using their personal data tracking their typical routines and sleep habits.

Clicking “I’m in” also sent a message to the friends with whom they share their UP data, making the commitment public among their peers and, therefore, stronger.

Later in the evening, about an hour before their planned bedtime, users received a reminder of their commitment. As well as serving as a salient reminder of a previously made commitment, it can also help to dial down planning fallacy – when we underestimate how long it may take us to complete a task. The reminder gives the user a decent amount of time to handle ‘sleep admin’ (cleansing, teeth brushing, make up and contact lens removal etc), rather than the optimistic five minutes we judge it will take.

The changes in sleeping behaviour were impressive:

  • One third of the 40,000 users committed to going to bed earlier, clicking ‘I’m in’ when asked.
  • This simple commitment has led to Jawbone users getting to bed 23 minutes earlier on average; and
  • Users were 72% more likely to get to bed early enough to get at least seven hours of sleep.

Jawbone is leveraging other insights from behavioural science too. Another nudge from Jawbone’s Smart Coach draws on descriptive social norms to let users know how their sleep hours compare to others. Because people generally have an inbuilt desire to do what others do – particularly those similar to us in some way – users receiving a message like this are more likely to devote more time to sleeping to fall in with the majority. Note that Jawbone strengthen its advice by comparing users’ sleep behaviour to others like them – in this case other female Jawbone users.

At The Behavioural Architects we have seen the power of making a simple commitment and behavioural feedback not only in changing behaviour, but also in turning attitudinal desires into reality in areas such as household energy consumption, medication adherence and sports participation.  

Crawford Hollingworth is founder of The Behavioural Architects