How can we use consumer psychology to tackle global health issues?

Consumer psychologist Adam Ferrier is a keynote speaker at the Global Ideas Forum this weekend. He wants us to consider how we can use consumer psychology to facilitate better health outcomes.

You’d have to be living in a cave not to have heard of the ice bucket challenge. (For the troglodytes among us: the procedure involves filming yourself having a bucket of icy water tipped over your head, posting the clip to Facebook, then nominating friends to repeat the process. The objective? Raising awareness for and/or donating money to the ALS Association.)

The campaign, which kicked off in 2014, was immensely successful, bringing in over $1 million of donations. It’s an example, says Adam, of the fact that actions can change attitudes much more effectively than in the reverse.

“As soon as you can get people actively participating in a movement, they’re experiencing behavioural change,” he explains. “Because the challenge takes place in a public forum, people must rationalise that the cause is something they believe in. Then they’re committed to following through with that.

“It’s a perfect example of how psychology and creativity are a powerful combination when it comes to solving global health problems.”

What role does psychology play in socially-driven campaigns?

There’s a catalyst of reasons that social media is such an effective tool for whipping up a crowd. It plays on people’s FOMO. It takes advantage of egos. It’s difficult for anyone to turn down a challenge in such a public forum.

On a more positive note: it encourages community spirit, and it’s a chance to do good in an accessible manner – after all, it’s relatively easy to get hold of a bucket of icewater and a video-capable device.

So what can we learn from this? “Getting people involved in proactive health solutions can have huge impact,” says Adam. “Taking action will lead to people’s thoughts and feelings mirroring their actions.”

Ice bucket challenge participants range from Kermit the Frog to Mark Zuckerberg. President Obama is yet to answer the summons.

What about the reverse: How does social media influence psychology?

There’s a strong correlation between societies with high levels of economic development and elevated mental health issues.

“In the developed world, our culture has become extremely status-orientated,” Adam emphasises. “Our way of life has led to a drastic increase in rates of anxiety and depression. We really need to prioritise mental health issues and properly address this imbalance.

“Interestingly, when we try to do the things we think will fulfil us, we make lots of mistakes. A consumer-driven society is largely to blame. We need to better educate ourselves by creating a discourse between the stuff that helps us feel satisfied and the ways in which we act.”

A perfect example of this, says Adam, is a fundraising campaign he worked on with the Father Bob Foundation, called Win Happiness Guaranteed. Runner-up prizes included things like a holiday and audiovisual equipment. The twist was that the grand prize was a week spent helping out in a soup kitchen.

“Studies show us that people actually get more happiness from giving than receiving. So time spent helping those in need will actually result in greater happiness,” Adam explains.

“But as a society, we haven’t figured out yet what will make us happy.”

How can we know what makes us truly happy?

For Adam, there are two particularly interesting frameworks within psychology that contribute to improved mental health. The first, as mentioned above, is behavioural therapy: effective, action-driven initiatives.

The second is the somewhat recent appropriation of the East’s mindfulness by the West. Mindfulness is a therapeutic technique that calls for us to focus our awareness on the present moment and calmly acknowledge our thoughts, feelings and surroundings. It’s used to improve the wellbeing of everyone from stressed office workers to young children to violent offenders.

“The difficulty lies in the fact that neither framework is particularly easy to implement at scale,” Adam says. “This is why creative solutions are so desperately needed. Events like the Global Ideas Forum engage a range of disciplines, maximising our chance of coming up with ideas that will work. Group situations facilitate conversation among those who have the relevant technical information and those who can contribute creatively.”

What kind of conversations does Adam hope to spark at #GIF15?

Adam believes we already have the motivation to work towards better global health outcomes. But to harness that motivation, we need to make it easier for them to act on it. This means thinking creatively about how tools like tech and social media can facilitate this.

“This weekend I want to talk about creative ways of getting people to act first and think second. And how to make an idea sexier than what it is at first glance. If you can create an engaging idea, then even the most banal-sounding cause can become desirable.

“The ice bucket challenge did both of these things. It took a cause and made it exciting, fun – something people wanted to get involved in. It’s the epitomical example of cause following action,” he finishes.


Today is the last day to get forum tickets! Get yours over at the Global Ideas Forum page.


lucy godwin, communications manager