The #1 way to get people to turn their lights off

Kristen Berman
Jun 23, 2019 · 3 min read

I almost always forget to turn the lights off.

I also consider myself someone who wants to save energy and someone who cares about the environment. But when I’m walking out the door in the morning, my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about the emails that piled up from last night and if I’ll make my train. Interestingly, while my mind is elsewhere, there is one thing I never forget.

My keys.

Somehow, despite my wandering attention, my mind doesn’t allow me to neglect my keys. Every morning I grab them, without fail. The handful of times I forgot my keys at home, I can vividly remember how it felt. I remember calling my roommates begging for them to come home early. I never remember the days I forget to turn off the lights.

How would you get me to behave with lights, in the same way I behave with my keys? How could you ensure near 100% compliance to turning off the lights?

One way is to nag me. This may change my behavior a little, but it’s easy to see you probably couldn’t get me to fully conform.

Another way is to leech on to my existing behavior. Instead of trying to change what I do, leverage what I’m already doing. You could pair turning off the lights…with taking my keys.

This is what hotels in Europe do.

The key holder is connected to your ability to turn on the lights

When you enter a hotel room in Europe you must immediately drop your room key into the holder by door. If you forget to do this, you’ll quickly discover you have no electricity — no lights. You’ll turn right back around and drop the key into the slot. And, when you take your key out of the holder to leave for the day, what happens? All the lights switch off. Taking my keys are paired with turning off the lights. I don’t need to remember to turn the lights off, I only have to remember to take my keys!

Many times when working on behavior change interventions we assume that we must actually CHANGE behavior.

However, it usually easier to make someone’s current routines or habits work harder for them, than ask them to start a completely new habit or behavior.

At the basic level, this is what Apple did with the first iPhone. They didn’t introduce a completely new device. They paired the internet browsing and photo capabilities onto an existing behavior we already did — make phone calls. The device was already in our hands, and now it could just do more.

What other clever devices could help us manage our behavior?

You could imagine a toothbrush that locked/unlocked your phone, so you wouldn’t check it when in bed. Or, earbuds that always started with a 5 minute meditation if you put them in between certain hours.

When aiming for behavior change, the best way may be to design systems that don’t make us change our behavior at all. I may never learn to turn the lights off, but I’ll (almost) always remember to take my keys.

Interested in behavioral economics? Apply to our bootcamp!
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Hacking Behavior


Kristen Berman

Written by

Thinking about Irrationality. Behavioral Scientist. Co-founder of Irrational Labs and Common Cents Lab.

Hacking Behavior


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