The Behavior Change Podcast by Lirio explores the various ways humans can leverage behavioral science to personalize our messaging, engage our audience, and drive better behavior at scale.


Greg Stilestra:

Hello and welcome to the Behavior Change Podcast by Lirio, the program where we explore the marvels of behavioral science and ways of applying it to make a better world. I’m your host, Greg Stielstra. On today’s show, we’ll look at ways of making your communications more clear. We’ll explore numerous cognitive biases and the way they affect how people interpret the messages you send. This could be especially important in light of your urgent need to communicate quickly and clearly because of COVID-19. We’ll explore that in a minute, but as always, we’ll begin with a bias brief.


Lirio Bias Brief number 179: Curiosity

Have you ever been curious about curiosity? Behavior change requires motivation and curiosity can be a powerful force, but it’s also a bit of a mystery. So what is it, how does it work and how can we leverage it to nudge people to action?

Over the years, people have tried to explain curiosity in different ways. Some thought it was simply an intrinsic desire for information. Others viewed curiosity as an attraction to novelty, a passion or an appetite. Still others imagined curiosity was nothing more than the desire for stimulation to overcome boredom. While each of these theories acknowledged some aspect of curiosity, they left others unanswered. For example, it’s true that curiosity can be stimulated internally by boredom, but it can also be triggered by external stimuli. If a friend says, “Guess what juicy news I just heard,” your curiosity is peaked, or how do you explain the fact that curiosity is aversive? When we experience it, we try to make it go away, but we also voluntarily seek it out by reading mystery novels or attempting to solve puzzles. And curiosity exhibits other traits that weren’t addressed by those theories, like its transient nature. It comes and it goes, and its intensity. Curiosity is curious indeed.

In a paper titled The Psychology of Curiosity: A review and re-interpretation, published in 1994, psychologist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon university introduced a definition of curiosity that did a better job of capturing curiosity’s many traits. Lowenstein theorized that curiosity was a gap in knowledge or understanding. He believed curiosity arose when attention became focused on one of those gaps. Information gaps, he theorized, produced the feeling of deprivation we call curiosity. A curious individual is motivated to obtain the missing information to reduce or that feeling of deprivation. Two factors define information gaps, what one knows and what one wants to know. Interestingly, this means one can only be curious about topics where one has some existing knowledge. Curiosity, therefore, should be positively related to one’s knowledge in a particular domain, and it is.

As people gain information about a topic, they become more likely to focus on what they do not know, the gaps. Lowenstein provides an example. If someone knew the capitals to three of the 50 states, they are more likely to frame their knowledge in terms of what they know. I know three state capitals. However, if they know 47 of 50 state capitals, they are likely to frame their knowledge in terms of what’s missing. There are three state capitals I don’t know. This shift is the genesis of curiosity because, at that moment, according to Lowenstein, the individual suddenly becomes focused on the gap in his or her knowledge. This suggests that curiosity is unlikely to arise in the absence of an existing knowledge base, and that the likelihood of experiencing curiosity should increase as an individual obtains information about a particular topic. We’re not limited to feeling our own curiosity.

A few years ago, after watching the movie Pirates of the Caribbean Three, my son Dominic approached his sister Shelby and said, “You are not going to believe what happens to Will.” Dominic knew that Shelby had seen the first two movies and knew the character named Will. He also knew she hadn’t seen the third movie and would be unaware of Will’s fate. So like a typical big brother, he picked on his younger sister by making her aware of the gap in her knowledge because he knew it would bother her. That’s not unexpected. What happened next was after Dom revealed Will’s fate to Shelby, she came downstairs to her mother and I and asked, “Can I tell you what happens to Will?” Shelby knew Amy and I had seen the first two movies and knew the character named Will, but she also knew we were unaware of his fate. The gap in our knowledge bothered her, and as with the gap in her own knowledge, she would not be satisfied until she closed it. When we sense someone else’s knowledge gaps, we are motivated to close them to satisfy ourselves.

Leveraging curiosity. You can generate curiosity for matters where your audience has no or very little existing knowledge in two easy steps. First, build a foundation by providing some knowledge on the subject. Second, punch a hole in it by drawing attention to missing information.

Here’s an example. Most people couldn’t tell you which states had the fewest Coronavirus restrictions, and they might not care, but if you told them the top five states are number one South Dakota, number two Utah, number three North Dakota, number four Missouri, and number five blank, they would be curious to learn the one that’s missing. Want to generate even more curiosity? List them in reverse order. The top five states with the fewest Coronavirus restrictions are number five Idaho, number four Missouri, number three North Dakota, number two Utah, and number one blank. Why does that work? My theory is that the first position enjoys a special status. It’s the ultimate, whereas the fifth position is just another number on the list. I believe people assume the top item on a list is more popular, making those who don’t know it further out of touch compared with the general population. There’s no shame in failing to name an NFL playoff team from two years ago, but you’re expected to know the Superbowl champ.

You can also magnify curiosity by narrowing the gaps. Curiosity increases as people draw closer to completing the reference set of information. Someone who knows 45 of the 50 state capitals, the reference set, will be more curious about the missing information than someone who knows 40 of them. To increase curiosity, you can narrow such gaps in one of two ways. You can reduce the gap by providing some of the missing information. If someone knows the capitals for 40 of the 50 states, you could close the gap and increase their curiosity by providing the capitals for some of the missing states. If you told them six of the missing capitals, only four would remain and their desire to know them would increase.

You can also reduce the gap by reducing the size of the reference set. Suppose someone knew the capitals of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and New York, but no other states. You could say they knew the capitals for five of 50 states, however, that framing is unlikely to peak their curiosity because it focuses on what they know rather than what’s missing. But if you change the reference set to the Great Lakes states, instead of all 50, you can say they know five of the eight Great Lakes states, a frame that narrows the gap from 45 to three and piques curiosity by focusing their attention on what’s missing.

Curiosity is a powerful force that can lead people to open email messages, click links, and read articles. Best of all, you can now generate it and intensify it whenever you like. Now that you know how, please use that information for good.


Greg Stilestra:

This just in. COVID-19 has forced almost every company to change their plans and approach. I know, I’m the master of understatement. To implement those changes, companies had to communicate clearly to ensure everyone in their organization was on same page. There were new policies about working from home, remote security, hand-washing, accessing benefits like tele-health, things like that. Now to help, Lirio hosted a webinar to share insights from behavioral science and how they could be applied to making communications more effective. The webinar was a hit. Attendees found the content helpful, easy to apply. So I thought it might be a good idea to share it on the podcast as well. Now, much of what I’m going to share is visual, and as you know, this is a podcast, so I’ll do my best to describe these concepts verbally. But if my word pictures, aren’t quite enough, we’ve created a visual guide to accompany this podcast, and you can download it as a free PDF at the Lirio website. Just go to and click on episode eight. You’ll find a link to the guide.

Effective communications involve changing behavior, and changing human behavior requires understanding it. Will people decide to read your messages? Will they retain them, or will they ignore them and give their attention to something else? To answer that question, let’s take a closer look at how people make choices. Now, if you’re a regular listener to this podcast, some of this content is going to be familiar, but it’s important. So let’s review it.

Dual process theory describes the two different mechanisms we use when making decisions. One is called system two, and system two is our conscious thought process. It’s slow because it’s sequential. We can attend to just one problem at a time. It’s also deliberate. We must consciously decide to apply it, and it’s effortful. The brain uses a disproportionate amount of the body’s total energy and system two is an energy glutton. And because it’s so much work, we try to avoid it whenever possible. Finally, system two is rational. It considers only relevant information in its decision making. We use system two when we solve a multiplication problem. We may not immediately know the answer, but we know we can solve it. We apply ourselves to the problem, working through various parts of the equation, holding numbers in our working memory and moving sequentially through the process until we have the answer. It’s slow. It’s deliberate. It’s effortful, and it’s rational.

System one, however, is very different. It operates subconsciously. We aren’t aware of its operation, and it’s fast because it uses a parallel process that works on many problems simultaneously. It’s also automatic. We can’t prevent it from happening. System one assesses every situation and renders a snap decision or suggestion about what to do, whether we like it or not. It’s also effortless, or at least it feels that way. We don’t tire of using our system one the way we tire of using system two. We do it all day, every day, without breaking a sweat. System one is considered irrational because it relies on past experience and contextual cues, mental shortcuts called heuristics, and factors often irrelevant to the choice at hand to make its decisions. System one allows us to understand someone’s mood by their facial expression, in an instant and without trying. Boom, it’s unconscious. It’s fast. It’s automatic. And it’s effortless.

Now, not only do we have two distinct decision making processes, but we must influence them differently too. We influence system two by providing information, hoping to change someone’s mind so they will then change their behavior. If I wanted you to wear a safety belt when driving your car, I might show you statistics demonstrating that people who wear safety belts are more likely to survive a crash. I’d hope you would see the sense of my argument and consciously decide to begin wearing your seatbelt. For this to work, I have to attract your attention, get you to read and understand all the statistics, draw the appropriate conclusions and consciously act on it going forward. It can be done, but it requires near constant effort that’s difficult to sustain.

Influencing system one requires a different approach. Here we must alter the context to change the behavior directly and people change their minds last. If I wanted to influence your system one to have you wear your seat belt, I might install a buzzer in your car that sounded until you put it on. The buzzer does not require you to make a rational judgment. It’s an environmental cue that has nothing to do with the safety of seatbelts, but everything to do with getting you to wear one. Some scientists estimate we make 95% of our daily decisions using system one and just 5% using our conscious system two. So it makes sense then that if we’re going to influence behavior, we better figure out how to influence system one.

The same factor that makes system one so efficient, so fast, also make it irrational, heuristics. Heuristics are efficient rules or mental shortcuts that system one often uses to form judgments and make decisions. Those shortcuts often lead to cognitive biases, systematic deviations from normal judgment that affect our decisions. Behavioral science has identified more than 170 cognitive biases that affect our system one choices. By understanding what they are and how they operate, we can use them to make our communications more effective. Let’s have a look at some.

Salience. Humans have a limited ability to process information. They cannot attend to every aspect of every situation. Salience determines which information will most likely grab someone’s attention and have the greatest influence on their perception of the world. There’s a dental practice that uses a humorous family photo in its advertising. It’s a closeup shot of mom, dad, and their young son with broad smiles. It’s figure one in the visual guide. What you notice immediately is that dad is missing a front tooth. What most people fail to notice is that dad is also missing one eyebrow. The dentist uses the image to highlight the importance of nice teeth. I love it because it highlights two important things about salience.

First, salience attracts our attention. Second, just as importantly, it effectively blinds us to everything else. Our attention is selective. We saw the missing tooth, but because we focused on the missing tooth, we failed to see the missing eyebrow. It’s called inattentional blindness. The Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Conaman, describes it this way. He says what you see is all there is. There’s a fun video on YouTube called Selective Attention that shows two groups of people passing basketballs between the different members. You’re asked to count the number of passes the white team makes, but as you do you miss something else when you’re done with this podcast, go check it out.

So now that we understand the importance of attention, let me ask you what is attracting people’s attention in your messages and what are they missing as a result? To communicate effectively, you must learn to control your audience’s attention in your communications. Here’s some ways to do that.

You can influence salience and attract attention with size. Items that are different sizes stand out and command our attention. Take a look at figure two in the guide. Position also matters. Take a look at figure three in the guide. We’re more likely to notice things we encounter first. Because we read from left to right and top to bottom, in English at least, we’re more likely to notice things in the top left of the space. That’s why it probably took you longer to notice the larger character in the bottom right of figure three than when that same character was in the top left of figure two. Motion also attracts our attention. You can use actual motion in some media like video or online or create the illusion of motion in print by using speed lines. Take a look at figure four in the guide. But remember salience depends on context. Difference may attract our attention, but somethings difference is relative to its surroundings. Orange stands out if all other characters are blue, but blue is salient if everything else is orange. Take a look at figure five in the guide for an example.

To make your message salient, begin by understanding its context. What else is on the page or the screen? What does the email inbox look like? How are other subject lines written? What’s the background color? Is the environment noisy or quiet? Analyze the context your message will occupy, and then make standout.

Figure six in the guide is an actual email sent by a health system HR department regarding work from home issues, policies and requirements associated with COVID-19. It was written by someone who believed every recipient would read, even saver, every word they’d written, but what’s your first reaction? Well, because of salience, the first thing you notice are the redactions. But once you’re over that, you’ll notice the size of the message. It’s huge. It’s all text and bullets. It’s dense. It feels heavy. It looks like work. You want to avoid it, maybe do your taxes or get a root canal instead. Your system one doesn’t really react to the words themselves. You’re probably not actually reading them. Instead, you react to the text as a block of gray stuff that is more than you want to decipher, and you make a snap decision about whether or not to read it. For many, it represents too much friction and they’ll skip it.

One of the reasons you feel this way is because someone else wrote it. Chances are your messages look like this too, but it feels different. We love our own stuff, and that makes us bad at judging how others will react to it. Mark Twain once said, “I apologize for sending you such a long letter. I didn’t have time to write a short one.” Short messages are harder to write. Short letters require you to think and organize and edit. It’s work, but it’s worth it. Mark Twain apologized to his reader because he had done them a disservice by not taking the time and effort to make his message concise. Design your message for the reader, even if it’s more work for the writer.

If you think people will want more information, then structure your message by salience into layers based on importance. Make key messages most salient using position, size, color. If people can’t skim it, they’ll skip it. So help them skim. You can include secondary messages, but make them less salient. Your message should contain a visual hierarchy that matches the informational hierarchy of the content. Put tertiary info somewhere else, like another webpage or a PDF and link to it so it doesn’t clutter up your message. This approach allows everyone to quickly skim the key points while making additional information available for those who want or need it and preventing it from interfering with the effectiveness of the key messages.


Status quo bias
People have a strong preference for the way things are and often fear change. The familiar is safe. It hasn’t killed us yet. That’s one reason why we prefer it. You can leverage status quo bias when introducing innovations by connecting the new to the familiar. The automobile, for example, was introduced as the horseless carriage. The carriage was the thing people already knew. The horse drawn carriage was the new minus the horse. Automobiles were even designed to look like the things they replaced. Early televisions, for example, looked like radios too. So when introducing something new, like tele-health for example, should you call it tele-health? Well, you could. That’s what the industry calls itself, but it’s a new unfamiliar term to patients. What if you called it travel free doctor’s visits? Like horseless carriage, that term is something they already know minus an inconvenience. Or what about calling it an electronic house call? That positions it as the return of a fondly remembered medical service that’s delivered in a new way. The point is don’t automatically reflexively use the existing term. Think about it and ask yourself whether there’s a better alternative.


In group bias
In group bias is the tendency that people have to favor their own group above that of others. This bias can have powerful influence on both individuals and group behavior. Social groups have unwritten rules about how their members should behave. These are called group norms and represent the accepted standards of behavior for members of the group. Since people drive a portion of their self identity from their membership in social groups, group norms exert significant influence over member behavior, creating a strong desire to conform. When introducing tele-health, you might be tempted to promote it based on its features or benefits by saying something like “Try tele-health it’s easy and convenient,” but a message leveraging the power of group norms may be more persuasive. What if you said, “As employees of the ABC company, we’re all using telehealth during this crisis.” That suggests employees should do it because you’re one of us, and that’s what we do. It may be a more persuasive incentive than the features and the benefits.


The mere exposure effect
It’s a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things merely because they’re familiar with them. So rather than asking employees to visit a telehealth website, something that’s foreign and mildly intimidating, take the tele-health experience to them. Show them pictures of the interface. Present images that represent the interaction they’re likely to have. When people see images, they will automatically interact with them mentally. This simulated interaction gives them a virtual experience. Repeated simulations make them more comfortable and familiar and make them less apprehensive about interacting with the real thing.


As I mentioned, when people see an image, they mentally interact with it. They automatically use it in their mind. The more easily they can put themselves into the image, the more likely they are to interact. Figure six in the visual guide shows two images of a hand holding a smartphone. It’s harder for readers to simulate interaction with the image on the left because the photo is taken from the perspective of someone looking over the user’s shoulder, a third party, not actually holding the phone. It’s easier for the reader to interact with the image on the right because it is taken from the perspective of the user themselves. Handedness also matters. It will be easier for left-handed users to simulate interaction with an image using the left hand and easier for right-handed users to simulate interaction with an image using the right hand.


Messenger effect
The weight decision makers give to information depends on their reaction to the messenger source. People prefer messengers with authority, similarity and likability. Authority is especially influential. In a Texas study, a man at an intersection crossed against a traffic light. Sometimes he wore street clothes, and other times he wore a suit and tie. When he jaywalked while wearing a suit and tie, people were more than three and a half times more likely to follow his lead and jaywalk with him. Who’s the most effective messenger for your message? If you need employees to follow a new work from home guidelines for COVID-19, should the message come from human resources or the CEO? Which messenger will encourage the greatest adherence?


Social proof
In uncertain situations, we copy other people’s behavior. We assume they know something we don’t and that copying them is the surest quickest path to the best choice. It’s a powerful tool that you can leverage in your communications. Here are some tips. Make the desired behavior visible so it can be copied. People can’t copy behavior that they can’t observe. How can you make it more visible? The “I voted” sticker is a great example. Use examples setters that are similar, likable, and authoritative. We’re more influenced by the actions of those we believe are similar. Make undesired behaviors invisible so they aren’t available to be copied. Social proof is a double edged sword. Don’t cite statistics claiming obesity is on the increase if your goal is to have people lose weight. That will only position obesity as a norm and give people permission to copy it. Finally, if people think the wrong behavior is common, but it really isn’t show them how rare it actually is. College students assume binge drinking was common, but when an anti-binge drinking campaign revealed how rare it really was, incidents of binge drinking were reduced even further.


The audience effect
An audience effect arises when a person’s behavior changes because they believe someone else is watching them. It was discovered in 1898, when people observed that bicyclists were faster when competing against each other than against the clock. You can generate the audience effect with eye cues, pictures of people’s eyes looking at the subject. In many experimental settings, eye cues have been shown to trigger reflexive, unconscious processing that increased pro-social and decreased antisocial behavior.

Behavioral scientists conducted an experiment in an office break room. Employees were supposed to pay for coffee or tea by placing money in an honesty box. The honesty box had a sign explaining the requirements and the price for the beverages. That sign was topped by a visual. The experimenters changed that sign each week. One week it showed flowers. The next week, the visual showed someone’s eyes. Each week experimenters would collect and count the money and change the sign. At the end of the experiment, they found employees were consistently more likely to pay when the sign featured eyes than when it featured flowers. You can see examples of the signs and the results in figure seven of the visual guide.


Gaze following
Not only do we notice when people are looking at us, we also notice where they are looking and follow their gaze. We look where others look because this is true. You can use direction of someone’s gaze in a photograph to direct the audience’s attention in your communications. Figure eight in the visual guide shows two different advertisements featuring an image of a baby. Heat map technology reveals where the reader’s eyes went as they looked at the ad. In one ad, the baby looked at the reader and the heat map revealed the reader spent most of their time looking back at the baby’s face. But in the other ad, the baby was looking at the ads, headline and body copy. And the heat map revealed the reader, followed the baby’s gaze and looked at the ad copy too.

As I mentioned, there are more than 170 cognitive biases that affect the way your employees interact with your messages and make decisions about the things you ask them to do. I hope the handful I’ve shared today improve the effectiveness of your messages during this important time. When you’re ready to improve all your messaging all the time with the help of behavioral science and artificial intelligence, Lirio is here to help. Find us on the web at to learn more.

You’ve been listening to The Behavior Change Podcast by Lirio. Lirio provides an email based behavioral engagement solution that uses machine learning, persona based messaging and behavioral science to help organizations motivate the people they serve to achieve better outcomes. On the web at, L-I-R-I-O.C-O, or follow us on Twitter at Lirio_LLC.


The thoughts and opinions expressed in this podcast are solely those of the person speaking. The opinions expressed are as of the date of this podcast and may change as subsequent conditions vary. There is no guarantee that any forecasts made will come to pass. Reliance upon information in this podcast is at the sole discretion of the listener. © Lirio, LLC

Reach Out

Want to learn more about how Lirio’s behavioral engagement solution utilizes behavioral science and machine learning to help organizations motivate the people they serve to achieve better outcomes?