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Get People to Act How and When You Want Them To


NextStage: Predictive Intelligence, Persuasion Engineering, Interactive Analytics and Behavioral Metrics This month CAS members tackled the issue of town planning, each using their unique abilities to explain how to get some town planning thing done. My unique abilities can probably be summed up as “getting people to act how and when you want them to”.

Light a fireHow do we get people to act?

People act when something they value is at stake. The speed of their action is an indication of the value they’ve assigned to whatever. The direction of their action is an indication of whether they’ve assigned positive or negative value to whatever.

So, if you want to get people to act quickly and positively, you need to make something to which they’ve assigned high negative value unavoidable.

Example: A small town is experiencing a rising river, possibly leading to a flood. One individual in the town has made no effort to befriend anyone in the town and because of this, those who extended friendship have withdrawn.

This person’s house is right next to the rising river. They are about to lose their home and possessions. They don’t want to lose their home and possessions so that event has high negative value to them.

Suddenly they’re calling their neighbors, “Have you seen the river? We have to do something about it!”

They’ve moved positively, becoming part of the community (ask their neighbors to be sure).

Another formulation is if you want people to act quickly and positively, put something they’ve assigned high positive value at risk.

The example is the same as above. Now the focus is on preserving the house  and possessions rather than losing them (respectively, Towards and AwayFrom. See Using Images to Create Visitor Rapport or “That Little Look…” for an example of this).

The examples above brings in two more elements; community and which direction to emphasize. The former is “town” the latter is “planning”.


People act quicker when functioning as a community than individually (generally speaking). Therefore make whatever’s at stake or whatever the event is something that will touch the greatest number of people possible.

Neighbors with no empathy — empathy, not sympathy — will not form a community that acts positively for the benefit of any one member of that community. “You have to help me or I’ll lose everything” causes a sympathetic response, something along the lines of “Gosh, that’s too bad.” But “The river is rising and we’re all going to lose our homes” is empathic — a shared emotional response to a single event — that will cause the community to act to preserve the community…and save the individual’s house in the process.

DirectionalityThe walls are closing in

Directionality is tricky. You need to make the request as general as possible — because not everybody assigns positive and negative values the same way to the same things — while being specific as possible about what you want done.

“We need to do put up sandbags to hold back the rising waters” is quite specific about what needs to be done. The “We need to” part is general. I haven’t asked you to do it, I’ve merely stated that it needs to be done. If I say this to one person and unless I know them very well, I’ve flipped a coin. Perhaps they want the town to flood so that property values will go down and they can speculate later on. If I say this to the community at large, I’ve made a request that is still general yet relies on the experience of the Commons to assign a positive directional value to it, hence cause action.


Whether town planning or otherwise,

  • You get people to act by putting something they value at stake
  • The speed of their action is related to the value they assign to what’s at stake
  • The direction of their action is related to the positive or negative values they assign to the event causing something to be at stake
  • You get people to act more easily by engaging them as a community than individually (generally)
  • You get more people to act either positively or negatively by appealing to commons-valued issues.

Now go out and move somebody.

(the images are from Stellman-Greene’s Building Better Software. You really should check them out now)

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. 2010/08/31 10:44 am

    This distills the examples of the previous month into several clear principles. An exemplar of an economy of meaning.

  2. 2010/08/31 10:57 am

    Thankee, Clarissa. I do what I can in the time allowed.


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