How Behavior Leads to Belief

At Turnkey, we often say, “Behavior leads to belief.” I am glad that we are typically on a fundraising focused webinar when we say that, as the phrase is often met with disbelief. I present at my best when the eye-rolling is invisible to me. What we mean by that phrase is that if we can elicit a behavior from an individual, that individual will form a narrative about why that behavior makes sense.

For example, if you register for your fundraising walk two months earlier than in the previous year because you were offered a reward for doing so, your mind will re-frame your level of affinity to the organization hosting the walk. Your conversation with yourself sounds something like this, “Well, if I registered this early I must clearly be committed to this organization.” The mind will forget that it was prompted to action by an offer of recognition. What matters to the mind is the behavior itself.

I asked Otis Fulton, our in-house psychological expert, to find a great example outside of peer-to-peer fundraising to share.

Dr. Amy Cuddy is an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Her 2012 TED presentation on what she called “power poses” is among the most viewed TED Talks of all time and demonstrates “behavior leads to belief” magnificently.

Her own story, now familiar to the 20-million-plus viewers of her TED Talk, began after she was thrown from a car during an accident at age 19. She was a student at the University of Colorado, and doctors told her she might struggle to regain full mental capacity and finish college. The brain injury she sustained caused her IQ to drop by two standard deviations. Nonetheless, she worked her way back to academic excellence at graduate school at Princeton. All the time, she suffered from the feeling that she was an impostor; that she was unworthy of being a student at an elite university.

She was so afraid to give her first-year talk as a Ph.D. student, she told her adviser she was quitting. Instead, she feigned confidence all the way to her current faculty position at Harvard. “Fake it till you become it” is her mantra. Her latest research illuminates how “faking” body postures that convey competence and power (power posing) configures our brains to better cope in stressful situations. As David Brooks summarized her findings in The New York Times, “If you act powerfully, you will begin to think powerfully.”

Otis concluded, “The idea that behavior shapes one’s attitudes seems counterintuitive. But when our beliefs are weak or ambiguous, that is exactly what happens. We evaluate our own attitudes in the same way we evaluate those of others—by watching what is said and done. Hearing yourself speak informs you about your attitudes; seeing your actions provides clues to how strong your beliefs are.”

What if we changed the way we structured our goals? Right now, just about all of our marketing efforts and much of our fundraising efforts are really just measurements of how people feel about our organizations. If they register for our event, that is a measurement. If they fundraise, that is a measurement. If they give, that is a measurement. Measuring has no impact.

What if we began to treat our communications, indeed all our touches on our constituents, as opportunities to elicit behaviors, which would help them gain the idea that they were tight with our mission? What if that idea—elicit behaviors—was the driving force behind event structure, marketing and communications campaigns, mission and leadership volunteerism, everything? What if the only goal were to elicit behaviors, which would lead to belief? What if all your targets simply believed in your mission more? What might you achieve?