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Utrecht Security Region (VRU)

“Fewer House Fires by Behavioral Change”

Diede Vendrig

Persuasion Professional

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Main question

How can we evoke true behavior change in order to decrease house fires?

House fires are life-threatening and unfortunately still occur far too often. But what many people don’t realize is that everyone runs the risk of experiencing a house fire (yes, including you and me), and that this risk can be drastically reduced by taking the right steps and increasing fire safety at home.  

The Utrecht Security Region (VRU) aims to increase the awareness of these precautionary steps as much as possible, with the goal to minimize the number of house fires. They asked Unravel Behaviour how they could best approach this in their communication from a psychological perspective. And we were - of course - happy to help.

The goal: more awareness, less house fires

This goal of increasing fire risk awareness came with a number of psychological challenges.

To achieve the goal, the most important target was to make people truly feel that they themselves are in control when it comes to preventing a house fire. This is a crucial step in changing behavior; people need to believe that they are capable of doing things that minimize the risk of fire.

In addition, there were some cognitive biases that needed to be dealt with. Cognitive biases are systematic mistakes in thinking - or information processing - that are fundamentally human. The reason why these biases exist is because our brains have to process a vast amount of information each day. To deal with this amount of information, our brains are motivated to simplify information processing and follow mental shortcuts, so that we can make decisions quickly and effortlessly. However, such simplification sometimes results in a mistake: a cognitive bias. 

The most important bias that is holding back people from taking steps to increase fire safety is the “neglect of probability bias”. This bias entails that people often ignore the realistic chance that something will happen to themselves. This leads people to think: “that probably won’t happen to me”, when talking about house fires. Such reasoning greatly reduces the willingness and urgency for people to take precautionary steps.

Fortunately, from a psychological perspective, a lot is possible when behavioural change is the goal.

Getting started: an effective brochure

Unravel Behaviour was consulted to make the VRU brochure about house fires more effective. Challenge accepted!

For every page of the brochure we provided suggestions for improvement in the form of actionable blueprints and tweaked copywriting. With each recommendation we made, we clarified the psychological theory behind the advice to provide a complete picture.

The main change in content was aimed at increasing risk awareness, providing more concrete actions and giving the reader the feeling of being in control of fire safety. The core principle behind many of these changes is painting a concrete and vivid picture, both in terms of actual fire risks as well as the specific actions one could make to minimize these. The more concrete and easy you make it for the reader, the higher the probability that they will actually take action.

Psychology as a tool for behavior change

A simple but very effective adjustment in the copywriting of the brochure was adding a personal component. This can be as easy as changing the sentence “Where do house fires start” to “Where in my house does a fire start”.

Why does this technique work so well? Firstly, because of the fact that we humans tend to increase our attention to everything that has to do with ourselves. We call this Implicit egoism. Therefore, by adding the word “my” to the sentence, we immediately grab the attention of our target audience. And this is important, because without attention there is no foundation for behavioral impact.

Second, this technique causes readers to actively imagine what it would be like to see their own possessions go up in flames. Think of your favorite piece of clothing, your photo albums or that irreplaceable piece of furniture. Or your pets. As you might be experiencing at this very moment, this is not a very pleasant thought and usually leads to fear. Such ‘fear appeals’ can be very effective, however, the essential extension of this technique is that you immediately provide your audience with tools to take away this fear. If you don’t provide them with specific actionable countermeasures immediately, evoking fear will actually have a backfiring effect.

In the brochure, immediately after the fear appeal, we provided readers with tools by giving them concrete tips on how to prevent fire under the title “7 Easy Tips With Which You Prevent Fire”. And since we want to practice what we preach – never use a fear appeal without a resolution – these were the tips:

  1. Keep kitchen appliances clean. Dust and dirt can catch fire when kitchen appliances get hot. Think of the extractor hood and the toaster, for example.
  2. Turn off equipment when not in use. If equipment is left on continuously when not in use, it may overheat or cause a short circuit.
  3. Be careful with extension cords. Do not connect extension cords together and be careful not to overload them.
  4. Place candles in safe places. Burning candles still cause many house fires. Don’t forget to blow out candles and keep them away from combustible materials such as curtains on the windowsill.
  5. Turn off devices instead of putting them on stand-by.
  6. Use original adapters and cords. Counterfeit items are not always fireproof.
  7. Work safely.Working around the house often entails using tools that can cause fire. Therefore, always be careful with electrical tools while doing jobs around the house.

Do you also have a challenge in the field of behaviour change?

Challenges like these make our psychological hearts beat faster. At Unravel Behavior, we love to open our scientific treasure chest to make the world a better place to live. Do you also have a challenge in the field of behavior change? Please do not hesitate to contact us. We are happy to help!

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Unravel Behavior brings the power of behavioral science to business and society.

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Diede VendrigContact Diede:
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