Changing mindsets and behaviour, one “nudge” at a time

January 10, 2020

Changing mindsets and behaviour, one “nudge” at a time

unsplash-logo Michał Parzuchowski


By using techniques such as “nudging,” it’s possible to change people’s behaviour without limiting what they can do.


Our understanding of the unconscious mind has come a long way since Sigmund Freud, grounded in decades of research into what drives ordinary, everyday human behaviour. Today’s behavioural scientists like to say that we are predictably irrational. And what can be predicted can be managed, at least to some degree.

Organisations can use this concept to grasp this relationship between mindset and behavioural change. They also can employ it to address unconscious bias and instincts. By using techniques such as “nudging,” it’s possible to change people’s behaviour without limiting what people can do.

This primer should help to grasp this notion – but follow along closely, because it defines terms like “Do” dissonance, “Not Do” dissonance and “dissonance swing.”

  • The “Do” dissonance emerges when adopting a behaviour is inconsistent with your current mindset:
    You believe that while fruit is healthy, it doesn’t make you feel as good as chocolate does. That’s your mindset.

    However, given that someone placed fruit on your living room table, you start eating more and more fruit while watching a movie or reading a book. That’s the start of adopting a new behaviour.

    Over time, you start enjoying the freshness of the fruit you eat and start believing that eating fruit can be a source of comfort that actually makes you feel healthier and, simply, better.
  • This is what we call the “Not Do” dissonance:
    Now you are in a very different situation from before: No longer exhibiting the newly acquired behaviour, i.e., no longer eating fruit, would be at dissonance with your new mindset towards eating healthy.
  • The “dissonance swing” is simply the transition from the “Do” (the conflict as a change begins) to the “Not Do” (the behaviour at odds with a newly acquired mindset); it is the transition between the two.

The tricky part comes right at the start, i.e., shifting a behaviour when your existing mindset doesn’t necessarily favour the change. Here’s where nudging can help since, by definition, it does not restrain freedom of choice. Nudging can overcome the “Do” dissonance in several ways.

For instance, you can employ “priming,” a strong nudge concerned specifically with bringing decision-makers into the right mindset for making a particular decision. For example, briefly holding a warm mug makes you judge a person you meet as warmer and friendlier. Research indicates this could influence recruiting decisions.

Similarly, priming people for friendliness vs. rudeness makes them more sensitive to unethical behaviours. In our example of eating fruit, the nudge was simply to place the better food choice directly in front of you, making it visible and easier to obtain than the chocolate hidden in the drawer.

By engaging in the same behaviour over and over, a habit may form. And habit formation is a relevant topic for companies seeking to ensure consistently high performance, participation or healthy living. Respected research shows that when a habit is forming, it is hard to sustain a contradicting mindset.

Once habit and mindset align, the “Not Do” tension of that dissonance swing kicks in. Now we are in discord with our new habit if we do not show the new behaviour anymore. Nudging helps here, too. Its core tools can enhance and expand existing behaviour in line with the newly acquired mindset.

There is another advantage of changing one behaviour with the aim of also affecting the underlying mindset: By installing one desired behaviour – such as sharing best practices with colleagues – employees will likely feel inclined to engage in similar behaviours, such as asking for feedback or speaking up in meetings that relate to the mindset of participation.

To learn more about our work in behavioural science, including how companies can use it to address unconscious bias and instincts and manage the irrational mind, listen to our conversation on the McKinsey Podcast, below.


This article was originally written by Anna Güntner, Bill Schaninger (Senior Partner at McKinsey Philadelphia) and Julia Sperling (Partner at McKinsey Frankfurt). Full credit goes to McKinsey & Company, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.

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