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Colin Strong

November 2020

Colin Strong is Head of Behavioural Science at Ipsos where his team engage in a range of behaviour change projects for brands and government clients. He is also Honorary Professor of Consumer and Behavioural Science at Nottingham University Business School.


2 - 3 Minutes

When does a new behaviour become permanent?

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on consumer behaviour, with people having to rapidly adapt to new circumstances.

With public health measures restricting what people can do, we have seen a range of new behaviours forming, with significant changes in the use of digital technology, home working, grocery consumption and, of course, how we pay for things. Where new behaviours have had to be formed, the key question is: how long it takes for these to become more durable? Or indeed, how long does it take to form a habit?

The world before COVID-19

To understand this, let’s first look at the changed world we inhabit. Although the world has always faced upheavals, many countries of the recent pre-COVID world experienced a much more stable, predictable environment in which we could deploy smart automatic mechanisms to navigate our way. Like riding a bicycle, we become familiar with this environment – we instinctively knew what to do to master it. Navigating it could be done with simple rules of thumb and all we needed to encourage change were incremental ‘nudges’. This explains how we came to see the world through the eyes of behavioural economists such as Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler or Dan Ariely who could set out the ‘predictably irrational’1 ways we operate.

The problem we have now is that more automatic behaviour works in a world which is stable and predictable, as we can rely on the past as a reasonable indicator of the future. But COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our world – it is now much more unstable and unpredictable. We live in what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid times’, we now have to navigate change and uncertainty2.

The new era – liquid times

This means we need to understand behaviour differently.

Theories that reference our more automatic mechanisms are less useful. Today we need theories that are about how we navigate behaviour change. We need to better understand the dimensions that help us understand why certain behaviour happens, but also what we can do to encourage starting or maintaining new behaviour.

COVID-19 has created change but it is also clear people want change. Ipsos polling found that 43% of consumers globally are now planning major changes or completely changing their lives.3 Legendary psychologist Kurt Lewin talked about the way in which change comes about when our minds ‘unfreeze’4. We find ourselves at just such a time in history where people have been cast into a new environment and having to rethink how to live.

Bridging the intention-action gap

But making change happen is not always easy. There is often a gap between what we want to do and what we actually do. Think about how many people want to get fitter – but then consider that one in three people who purchase fitness trackers stop using them within six months5, and more than half go on to abandon them altogether6, illustrating the challenge of making change actually happen.

The job to be done for brands is to help people bridge the gap between intention and reality so they actually make positive changes in their lives.

With this in mind, it is important to return to the exam question: when does a new behaviour become permanent? There is a popular notion that a habit takes 21 days to form. But this is purely a myth based on a self-help book from the 1960’s with no real evidence (it was actually written by a plastic surgeon)7. Just because people are now eating more cereal, making contactless payments or doing online banking now does not mean they will necessarily continue. The formation of habit is not something that just happens but is an active act that we use to master our environment.

Brands need to help show people ways they can adapt to their new world, help them to meet their goals and navigate change. Tangibly how do organisations do this? Much of the work we do in our Ipsos Behavioural Science Unit is related to behaviour change; we use a holistic model of behaviour (MAPPS) that examines our Motivations, Abilities, how we Process information, the Physical environment, as well as the Social and cultural influences on behaviours. By looking at behaviour with this broader lens, we can then link through to design principles that brands and government organisations use to drive behaviour change activities.


Recommendations for businesses

Drawing on our holistic model of behaviour change, we have three key recommendations:

  1. Understand the consumer motivations
    What are their purposeful goals? For any behaviour to be sustained it needs to be aligned with their wider goals and beliefs (e.g. supporting local shops).
  2. Support positive identities
    If people do not see themselves as the kind of person to do a behaviour then it is more likely that it will fall away. So do the people who have started online purchases see themselves as ‘the sort of people that do that’? If they think it is for people who are not like them, then they are less likely to continue to do it.
  3. Make it enjoyable
    How can you design the customer experience so it is not just easy but is fun – or at least satisfying? This might involve building in an element of what is commonly called a human-touch, such as some humour or other ways of connecting.


So what for payments?

Turning specifically to the payments industry, there are direct applications here – relating to both contactless payments and e-commerce in Europe. By making the transaction experience enjoyable (or at least seamless), we have probably reached a point where payment systems have been around sufficiently long for them to be well-designed. The other two points require more consideration if behaviours are to be maintained.

First, given COVID-19, we can see that digital forms of payment align with the immediate goal of managing social distancing; but the task to be done is to consider what other purposeful consumer goals might be met once this need goes away. Similarly, with the challenge to create positive identities, we know that in some European markets there are still strong social and cultural associations with cash payments and digital remains something that is for ‘others’ – possibly from a different place or who grew up in a different era. Therefore active engagement and creative solutions are needed to facilitate enduring behaviour change; we cannot assume that people will simply choose to continue their current habits.

We live in a world where consumers are looking for help to facilitate and maintain new behaviours. We are at a point in history where organisations need to properly understand the principles of behaviour change in order to be part of the solution, helping consumers navigate these liquid times.

1 Ariely, Dan (2009) “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” Harper

2 Bauman, Zygmunt (2007) “Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty”. Polity

3 Ipsos Essentials Report: 43% based on fieldwork undertaken in 16 countries between June 4th to 7th 2020

4 Lewin, Kurt (1947) Group decision and social change. In: Newcomb, TM, Hartley, EL (eds) Readings in Social Psychology. New York: Henry Holt, 330–344.

5 https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom/press-releases/2016-12-07-gartner-survey-shows-wearable-devices-need-to-be-more-useful

6 Patel MS, Asch DA, Volpp KG. Wearable Devices as Facilitators, Not Drivers, of Health Behavior Change. JAMA. 2015;313(5):459–460. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.14781


All brand names, logos and/or trademarks are the property of their respective owners, are used for identification purposes only, and do not necessarily imply product endorsement or affiliation with Visa.

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