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Using behavioural psychology in copy


If you imagined psychology was little more then the mind games of Sharon Stone's character in Basic Instinct, think again. According to social innovation and service design consultant Rupert Tebb, psychology can be deftly applied to copy.

Copy can be descriptive, directive, helpful, informative, entertaining, but also has the capacity to change the reader.

Tebb spoke to students at the Future Writers' Labs session on Art vs Science, using some of UCL's Behaviour Change Therapy Taxonomy (version 1), which lists 93 different behaviour change techniques, primarily aimed at improving health, but can have wider applications.

Develop a vision

Set or agree on a goal defined in terms of a positive outcome. American design firm Holstee uses this approach to add a whif of positivity to its products. It even produced a manifesto filled with positive platitudes to cement this idea.

A simpler example can be find in Nike's tagline, "Just do it," developed by Dan Wieden of Wieden + Kennedy fame.

The slogan was recently revealed to be inspired by the last words of convicted murderer Gary Gilmore, as he faced death by firing squad.

Clearly it now says something quite different about the brand and about the attitude of the brand.


This is the art of turning the minority to the majority. Perhaps the most famous example of reframing is the series of Volkswagen ads developed by DDB in 1959, but ran for decades afterwards.

While America obsessed over bigger and more powerful cars, the campaign turned this logic on its head, and pushed concepts of size, style, reliability and practicality that we still associate with the brand.


People rely on superior authority, knowledge and perspective for guidance on what decisions to make.

This is why Sensodyne toothpaste routinely, actually always, uses dentists and others sporting white lab coats to promote its brand.

Provide emotional support

Advise on, arrange or provide emotional social support. This is what makes Mumsnet such a powerful brand, and why wearables like Fitbit or apps like Lark are making inroads.

But if you remain unconvinced by the power of support, just look at the rise of social media. Of course social media can have a significant downside, but networks like Facebook and Twitter connect people with other people, as this 2005 interview with Mark Zuckerberg, peddling 'The Facebook' (then an 18-month project) shows.

Choice Architecture

Choices are presented in a way that may skew decisions. Sites that are designed and refined to sell, such as Amazon or Asos are masters at this, and a new discipline, Conversion Rate Optimisation, has grown up around this.

While these sites are designed to sell, there are other approaches. For example justbuythisone narrows choice to one product, whether that's a TV, a camera or a kettle, based on product reviews.

Choice architectures are used to present the relative merits of everything from digital cameras (the number of megapixels versus price), to mobile phone contracts (price, data, inclusive minutes and so on). Or, when filling on complex form, such as when buying insurance, the default options may be loaded in a particular way.

A new science of 'nudging' has also emerged. The most famous example is in the toilets at Amsterdam's Schipol airport. Small pictures of houseflies are printed on the enamel. This persuades the person at the urial to aim at the fly. The fly is positioned to minimise spashing. Which means less cleaning, which means Schipol saves money.

Here is Rory Sutherland's take on nudging and how to dry your hands (we couldn't find any films of him at the urinal).

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