The big manipulation

How behavioural design can resolve the refugee problem

It looks as if we’ve entered high season for influencing public opinion. A campaign for solidarity, a campaign for free speech, and endless discussions about the way we see refugees. These campaigns, and the way the media picture the refugee crisis, provoke many reactions. But however tempting, I will not fill this essay with my opinion on these campaigns.

We could spend hours discussing whether we liked or disliked a certain campaign. But there are questions beyond these campaigns, which fascinate behavioural designers even more: what actually influences the public? What will lead to behavioural change? What is strong enough to give a spin upwards for the future? Can we, advertising professionals, use our skills and expertise to design a better world?

I think there are three ways for us as creatives to provoke large-scale changes: behavioural design, emotional shock therapy and manipulating the ruling class.

Strategy 1: Behavioural design

Behavioural economics shows that if you wish to influence behaviour, making the desired behaviour easier works better than convincing people to change their ways. The best donation strategy for charities is to create a situation where saying “yes” is easier. Try to say “no” to the beautiful girl in the doorway. No digital fundraising can beat this. If you don’t want kids to smoke, make the cigarettes so expensive that they can’t afford to get hooked. If you want to stop gambling among bankers, make them personally responsible for the losses. If you want the police to stop using excessive force, maybe stop giving them all those military toys to play with in the first place. If you want people to separate their waste, make transparant binbags mandatory, so everyone can actually see what’s inside, rather than teaching them to be environmentally conscious.

Behavioural designers know that if you want to provoke a certain behaviour, you have to invest a disproportionate amount of time in tinkering with the choice architecture which leads to this behaviour. People pay 10,000 EUR to human smugglers to risk their lives and the lives of their children to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum. Even though low-cost airlines provide flights for less than 100 EUR. All these horrible events would stop if we made just one tiny change: stop obliging airlines to pay repatriation costs for passengers who flew over with them. This is why no Syrian civilian can get a plane ticket. The fact that airlines are economically punished if they accept refugees on their flights is not a detail. It’s a design flaw that has caused thousands of deaths while making a ruthless smuggling industry flourish.

As a behavioural designer, I do have an opinion on the impact of bad design and its perverse, unwanted consequences.

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Strategy 2: Emotional shock therapy

The problem with the science of persuasion and the art of seduction is that those who want power and dominance tend to master its principles best. While those who want to make the world a better place, are always trying to convince us of our moral duty. If only we could see things the way they are, if only we could understand that there is no other right way, of course we will do what’s best.

With all due respect, most people don’t base their opinion on knowledge. Much of our thinking is driven by irrational fears, frustrations, dreams and desires, all inflated and exploited by populists, corporations and marketeers like us. We have known for centuries that money spent on a campaign to change morality is money down the drain.

A good example is the campaign where famous Dutch people called for solidarity. Its intentions were good and I would be mad if I criticized the execution, but has it made any single person think: Yes dammit, I really need to change my mind?

The picture of he dead child lying on the coast of Bodrum did what no public campaign or opinion piece had done so far: it made people act. The picture went viral on social media and shocked people out of their indifference. The picture made no argument at all, nor did it mention any moral appeal. It was a simple picture of a child that could have been any Dutch child, peacefully asleep. I don’t know anyone who didn’t cry at the sight of this picture and realised that refugees are people, just like us.

Informational campaigns are like a velvet brush that tries to massage people’s ratio into a different direction. Emotional images are the bricks that we use to throw through people’s windows. No coincidence we’re so good at it.

Strategy 3: Manipulating the ruling class

In a special essay entitled “Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality” the American Philosopher Richard Rorty writes the following:

We resent the idea that we shall have to wait for the strong to turn their piggy little eyes to the suffering of the weak, slowly open their dried-up little hearts. We desperately hope there is something stronger and more powerful that will hurt the strong if they do not do these things.

Rorty hated utopian thinking. In his eyes, philosophy and morality just make good literature. Nice to read and to discuss, but there’s no relation whatsoever to reality or influencing behaviour.

Rorty argues that, if you want to make the world a better place, the only thing you can do is convince the powerful – with their dried-up hearts and piggy eyes – that doing the right thing is in their very own interest. His plea is radically pragmatic, stripped of any moral debate on what we should think or like.

So we can have a huge impact, if only we could – in the words of Rorty – open the piggy eyes of those in power and let them recognise that it’s in their own electoral interest to do the right things. Nothing is as strong as the fear of politicians that they might lose votes, the fear of corporations that their reputation is damaged and the fear of media companies that they might lose their audience.

When Bayern Munchen hooligans started welcoming refugees, the reasonably right-wing populist magazine Bild changed its point of view. Bild didn’t do this to help the refugees. They were afraid of losing readers.

If we really want change, we must convince the politicians that they’ll be rewarded if they are brave. We must convince our media that they have a great future if they mobilise the public. And lastly, we must convince our businesses that in the long run they will make more money if they do the right thing.

The fight is on

Louis Paul Boon, the great Flemish writer and self-proclaimed gentle anarchist, considered it his duty as a writer to give society a conscience. We can add to Boon’s plea that we could manipulate people into having a conscience.

In the fight against the indifference of the masses and manipulation of public opinion by populists in power, we as creatives have the most powerful weapons in our hands. It’s about time we use them.

PS: If you’d like to make your knowledge, creativity and inspiration work for a better world: I have set up a closed group on Please join!

more on the subject of Behavioural Design:

PS. If you want to master the art of influence yourself, join the Behavioural Design Academy now.

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