Man on a Mission

OEB meets bestselling author and behavioural influence expert, Steve Martin, who will be taking part in 4th and final plenary (Learning in a VUCA World: How Knowledge Workers Learn to Innovate) at the conference on Friday November 30th. In addition to this, he will be running a session (details here) on the science of persuasion. Click here to look at the full programme for OEB, including the plenary sessions. 


Not many people claim to be the Taxman’s friend, but Steve Martin can. His expertise in the field of social influence was used by the UK Tax authorities to achieve additional revenue boosts of £5.6 billion (€7 billion). That’s an incredible figure in itself, but even more surprising is the fact that Martin’s intervention centred on something as simple as changing the wording of the letters that the tax collectors sent out to citizens.


Martin’s secret weapon is the relatively new field of behavioural science. In particular, exploiting what are termed “social norms”, that is the idea that humans as social animals are strongly influenced, primarily automatically, to follow the behaviour of their fellows. How did that help the tax collectors? Martin explains:


“Late payment of taxes and the late filing of tax returns cost governments a fortune. Our challenge was to see if we could address this in a new way. The traditional method employed by HMRC (the UK tax authority) is to send threatening letters and impose fines. So we tried communicating with taxpayers in a way that emphasised that the majority of people pay and file on time, and by telling them how the savings gained through prompt action could be used for the public good. The results of this simple change of approach were amazing. In the first year alone, the new style letters increased clearance rates from the previous 57% to 86%.”


Multiply that clearance rate over a whole nation’s tax year and it is not difficult to see how huge the savings can be, all at minimal cost.  That is a very attractive strategy for austerity-bound governments.


Steve Martin has been on a mission to convince the world of the benefits of behavioural influence for some years. Now he feels the idea is really proving itself and getting noticed:


“The past couple of years have seen a tremendous interest in this work. We have been part of numerous government initiatives, including working with the UK’s Cabinet Office to look at a wide range of applications for this thinking.”


He is looking forward to coming to Berlin to participate in the Corporate Plenary ‘Learning in a VUCA World: How Knowledge Workers Learn to Innovate’. He tells us:


“Our work is all about communicating with people in the most effective and proven way. This, of course, is at the heart of all learning, so I believe the opportunities are huge. We already do a lot of work in the business training sector with clients all over the world and we are building up a strong body of evidence that proves the benefits of behavioural insight in the training sector.”


For many years, Steve Martin has worked closely with Robert Cialdini, Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, and the acknowledged global expert in the psychology of influence. Cialdini is the world’s most cited living social psychologist and co-author with Martin of the international bestselling book Yes! 50 Secrets from the Science of Persuasion. Cialdini’s  Six Principles of Influence are central to the work that Martin engages in, he tells us:


“Once you understand the principles, you realise that influencing people is not luck or magic, but science. Cialdini’s work over 30 years has focussed on providing hard evidence that proves the science.”


Martin’s mission continues as the momentum of behavioural influence increases. He is involved in a number of new and exciting projects. In the health sector, he is pioneering new forms of technology-based patient communications with the prestigious Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge; he is working with the UK Civil Service on training; and in addition to his corporate consulting is spreading the message at lectures and seminars all over the world.


Some of the messages from the science of social influence are quite counterintuitive, which means we should have a really interesting debate at OEB. Prepare to be surprised!”


Key Terms Explained


Social psychology – a field of psychology concerned with how people’s thoughts, feelings, decisions and behaviours are influenced by the presence of and interaction with others.


Behavioural insight – A specific insight informed from the behavioural sciences that can be applied or employed to gain attention, change, shape or in some way influence a behaviour or decision


Social norms – what the majority of people are prompted to think about or do in a given situation. For example most people lower their voice when entering a library


Social proof – Also known as social consensus. Simply put people look to information about what others are doing to guide their own behaviours. Testimonials are a form of social proof.


Take the Influence Test – How persuasive are you?


Read Steve Martin’s latest article in The Harvard Business Review


More about Steve Martin and his work


If you want to find out more about this plenary session or about the rest of OEB, click here to look at the programme.

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