Why we need to apply behavioural science to help stop gun killings

simon cornettIn this guest post Simon Corbett argues behavioural science shows why incidents like the Charleston massacre won’t stop in the US until gun laws are changed. 

“If he didn’t have a gun then he would have made an IED or just found another way… he was crazy and intent to take lives”

That is almost certainly not true and BJ Fogg, head of persuasion technology at Stanford University can explain to us why. Not that any pro-gun morons are going to listen.

BJ Fogg arguably knows more than anyone else about the science of changing behaviour. We at Slingshot both admire and adhere to his methodologies and look to apply them to all of our strategic thinking.

As any marketer who uses behaviour change principles knows changing behaviour is not about just giving people clear information and then hoping it changes their attitude and in-turn their behaviour. Neither is it giving people a Big Hairy Audacious Goal and then getting them super-pumped to reach it.

The Fogg Behaviour Model clearly articulates to us that we must have three elements that all converge at the exact same moment for behaviour to occur: Motivation, Ability, and Trigger.

When behaviour does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.

So if someone has a personal reason for doing something, the ability to do it (it’s simple for them) and there is a trigger to remind them, then we will see people taking thoughts into actions.

So how does this play back into gun crime in the USA?

Well the party line from the NRA, Fox News and every right wing conservative is that gun ownership is really not the issue and it is the person and only the person to blame. But that is simply not true.

Many hateful people might have the motivation to do something terrible. Dylan Roof in Charleston it seems didn’t lack motivation; he was a white supremacist, he hated black people and wished to harm them. I suspect that the triggers to act surrounded him on a daily basis – perhaps passing the famous civil rights church, perhaps frequent encounters with black people or perhaps it was his white-power music on high rotation.

However, that isn’t enough for him – or for the hundreds that have come before him – to change his behaviour and act on these despicable thoughts. It has to be easy for him – he needs to have the ability at his fingertips to make it happen. So when his father buys him a 45 calibre pistol, the third and fatal element needed for this new behaviour to occur is added.

So when the pro-gun lobby and their cronies talk about monsters such as Dylan Roof doing these things irrespective of having a gun to hand they are wrong. It is the ease of using that gun that almost certainly allows this heinous behaviour to occur. Trying to commit an act of mass murder in a car? Well in virtually all circumstances that is impossible – as it would have been in Charleston as the church was up steps to access.

Attacking people with a knife or sword? Without exception these people are cowards who prey on the innocent and defenceless so I suggest that it would be very hard to go into a crowd of people and enter into what is essentially hand-to-hand combat. Logistically you can only really attack one person at a time which leaves you vulnerable to self-defence attack from any of the others in the vicinity. The idea of actually having to fight when you’re a coward is way too hard. Build a bomb – is way harder than pulling a trigger.

It is the gun – and the ease and accessibility to it that is the key problem here. It is the gun and the ability that it gives these monsters to act on their twisted thoughts that is the scourge of America.

If you take the gun out of the equation then you make it hard for people to do these things. And if it is hard to act then it doesn’t matter how high the motivation is and how many triggers you experience the chance of acting out the behaviour is lessened profoundly.

America must know this.

However it won’t change its behaviour around gun law. Because not only is it hard for them to do it but I truly believe that for many the motivation is simply not there. But there are sure as hell plenty of triggers and the massacre in Charleston last week if you believe John Stewart is just one more trigger that will fail to change behaviour.

  • Simon Corbett is chief of strategy and partner at Slingshot

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