Could sensehacking help ‘lower the bar’ in the battle for positive behaviour change?

17th September 2021 12:17

Written by Alex McCluckie, Research Director. Email Alex or comment on LinkedIn.

Hacking the senses and why it doesn’t matter why people do what they do, as long as they do it!

It was a sunny Sydney evening as Denys Yurchenko heard his name called over the loud speaker. Looking down the stretch of track ahead to the bar he had set himself, Denys locked eyes on all that stood between him and Olympic qualification in his chosen sport, the pole vault. When his time came, Yurchenko took one last deep breath before taking off, pole in hand and launching himself towards the heavens. Higher and higher the Ukrainian went until he soared over the bar, elation coursing through his veins; coursing that is, until it was interrupted by a short, sharp, shock (see here…and if you do, fair warning, the image is grainy but it’s still best you steel yourself).

Now as far as I see it, there’s a question lurking in Yurchenko’s experience. That is, in trying to accomplish our goals, must it be a prerequisite to do so by consistently setting the highest possible bar?

Various client requests of late have had me investigating what it may take to nudge consumers’ behaviour in an array of areas, from reducing the amount of sewer misuse occurring behind closed doors to understanding more about what would help reduce per capita consumption. 

Taking the latter as an example, it can be interesting to review various water companies’ comms around this. You’ll often find that in looking to persuade people to be mindful of and/or reduce their water usage, many of the messages deployed are designed to encourage people to do the right things for the right reasons (i.e. behave in environmentally friendly ways, because it is good for the environment).

There’s nothing wrong in principle with this, however in taking this stance as our default I fear that, much like our Olympic pole vaulter friend, we may be setting ourselves an incredibly high bar.

Now, one question this poses is:

Does it really matter why people do the right thing, as long as they do it?

If the answer to this question is a ‘no’ then this suggests that rational sequential logic, whilst great in getting boardroom approval for an initiative, activity or marketing campaign, could be something that is actually holding us back by limiting the breadth of thinking that we’re willing to entertain.

Time to hack the senses?

To expand on this, I’m currently dipping into Charles Spence’s “Sensehacking”. It is an engrossing read, one that espouses how correctly balanced multisensory stimulation is fundamental to our wellbeing and livelihoods. Whether in the bedroom, the garden, the gym, at work – you name it, the examples of how what we smell, see, hear and even feel can combine and be used to deliver the astonishing are truly enlightening. Check out some of the below to see what I am talking about:

The clearest demonstration of how our senses connect far more than we ever imagined can be found in this example, known as the McGurk effect (click here) and it certainly gets me thinking.

Could it be that we could sensehack ourselves towards a better way of achieving our behaviour change objectives? There isn’t the space to write a treatise on all the ways this could occur, but maybe with a rudimentary example I can start a conversation around what positive impacts sensehacking could potentially have and whether it could make a dint in some of the industry’s biggest challenges, from a more human and psychological perspective.

Water consumption…

Now, I’ve been wondering whether, rather than (or in addition to?), comms appealing to merely a sense of duty, could there be an opportunity to sensehack ourselves to use less water; something that in the face of climate change and a growing population is only going to grow in importance. Well, it turns out that at least one attempt to understand this has already been made.

In wanting to understand what impact visual and auditory information can have on the perception of running tap water, researchers out of the Netherlands conducted a clever little experiment. Participants were asked to judge how long it would take to fill up a one-litre water bottle under a number of different conditions created by combining two visual and two auditory stimuli. 

By switching the audio, via headphones, of a high volumetric flow rate and combining it with the visual, via a TV screen, of a low volumetric flow rate (along with testing other combinations), the researchers found auditory information to play a significant role in the everyday experience of running tap water.

Specifically, the water flow was judged as higher when the slow video was combined with the fast audio and conversely, it was judged as lower when the fast video was combined with the slow audio.

As the researchers conclude, could these results suggest that designing taps that foster environmentally friendly behaviour by intensifying the sound of running water without altering the actual amount of water coming out be a way to use unconscious processes of multisensory integration in order to use less water?

So, what do you think? Whilst not without its flaws, can you think of other ways to sensehack customers, consumers, even ourselves in the name of ‘lowering the bar’ in order to bring about change? I don’t promise that sensehacking offers a panacea for any industry’s ills, but at the very least I think it provides some food for thought on how to think about problems, challenges and crucially where complementary solutions could come from in the future.


Golan, A. & Fenko, A. (2015). Toward a Sustainable Faucet Design: Effects of Sound and Vision on Perception of Running Water. Environment and Behavior, 47 (1), 85-101

Spence, C. (2020). Sensehacking: How to Use the Power of Your Senses for Happier, Healthier Living.

Sutherland, R. (2019). Alchemy. The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense.


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