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Blog: What can we learn from our coffee habits?

Dr Kerry O'Brien - Senior Behavioural Insights Specialist

Need a caffeine hit to get you started in the morning? You’re not alone. And while concerns about landfill have seen many of us switch to reusable cups, it’s often a different story with that first hit on the way into the office. You know how it is: your cup is in the office, but the café is right there. You could go and grab the cup but you don’t. It’s a small hassle, but it’s just too much. Right?

That small hassle is what’s known in the Behavioural Insights world as a ‘friction cost’. One of the key findings from the behavioural science literature is that people prefer the path of least resistance. Seemingly irrelevant details that make something slightly more difficult or taxing can have a huge impact on our behaviour. As the amount of disposable cups in the office bin will attest, they can defeat our best intentions.

A matter of life and death

While it might stand to reason that friction costs influence relatively trivial choices about when and where to get your morning coffee, they can even sway decisions of life and death. In the UK, for example, one of the most common means of suicide used to be carbon monoxide poisoning – from people literally ‘sticking their head in the oven’. The decision might have been momentous, but the process was all too simple. But in the early 1960s the source of domestic gas changed from coal – which was high in carbon monoxide – to natural gas – which wasn’t. This meant that sticking your head in the oven would lead to little more than a bad headache. While some people found other means of taking their lives, many didn’t. The suicide rate dropped by around 30 per cent.[i] Eliminating the most frictionless mode of suicide literally saved lives.

An awareness of the impact of friction costs is at the heart of many commercial practices. Think about how easy it is to sign up to a new deal, be it a mobile phone plan, a newspaper subscription, even a new car. It’s virtually effortless; the effort comes when you try to cancel a subscription or change a plan.

To boil this insight down to its essence: if you want to encourage a behaviour, make it easier. If you want to discourage it, make it more difficult. While this type of thinking is routine in the business world, it’s only with the rise of behavioural insights that it has started to be applied systematically in public policy.

Based on the tendency for people to stick with ‘default’ options – inertia is after all a powerful force – the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) worked with employers to automatically enroll workers into a pension scheme. People were free to opt out of the scheme, just as they had previously been free to opt in. That simple change saw the participation rate rise from 61 to 83 per cent and it’s estimated that an additional nine million workers will soon be covered as a result.[ii]

Even removing the most trivial of friction costs has been shown to make a big difference. BIT ran a trial with the UK’s tax office where letters to taxpayers directed them straight to the form they needed to complete, rather than to a webpage within the form. Eliminating a single click of the mouse increased the response rate by 22 per cent.[iii]

Making a difference in Victoria

The Victorian Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) has been working across the Victorian Government to apply these insights to improve outcomes. In response to a recommendation of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, for example, the BIU reviewed the behavioural drivers of information sharing by workers in the family violence system. Among the many insights gained from frontline staff was that the design of workplaces influences information sharing. One worker said that she shared more information with police in one court than another simply because the design of the workplace made it easier to access them. On the basis of these insights, the visibility, proximity and accessibility of other workers will be taken into account when developing new workplaces or retrofitting existing ones.

Behavioural insights specialists also worked with Alfred Health to reorganise the placement of food and drink in its cafés so that the least healthy (i.e. highest sugar content) items were out of sight and healthiest items were given greater prominence. The result was a 35 per cent decrease in the proportion of the highest sugar drinks sold, and a commensurate increase in sales of healthier drinks (i.e. there was no decline in the amount of drink sales). Overall, close to 37,000 fewer high-sugar drinks are being sold at The Alfred each year as a result of adding the most minor friction cost to less healthy options.

Understanding the power of friction costs is essential for anyone who wants to influence people’s decisions and behaviour. And that’s not just limited to marketers and health professionals. Whether you want more people to complete a survey, or to fill out a form; maybe you want to get your kids to eat more veggies; even if you simply want to encourage yourself to spend more time at the gym, then you’re in the business of behaviour change.

If you’d like to learn more about how to apply this or other behavioural insights to your work, get in touch with the Behavioural Insights Unit.


[i] Halpern, D. (2015). Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes make a big difference. WH Allen: London.

[ii] The Behavioural Insights Team (2014). EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Cabinet Office.

[iii] The Behavioural Insights Team (2014). EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. Cabinet Office.