How To Influence Human Behavior Without Changing Minds

Incentives — the backdoor to persuasion nobody talks about

Barry Davret
7 min readApr 24


Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

No matter how old we get or how smart we become, there’s a timeless truth about human nature that never changes.

We hate being told what to do or how to behave, and that’s what makes persuasion so tricky. We resist when we sense others trying to change our minds.

But what if you could get others to behave in a way advantageous to your cause without garnering their agreement? There’s an old saying those who control the incentives dictate the outcome. That’s why I refer to incentives as the backdoor to persuasion. You may not win over your audience or change their minds with words, but you can nudge them to behave in the way you want.

Governments, businesses, political parties, religions, and even parents make heavy use of incentives. A $10 tax on a pack of cigarettes incentivizes you to give up the habit. When you tell your kid they can’t use their devices until they do their chores, you’re incentivizing them to behave the way you want without convincing them of the righteousness of your cause.

Unfortunately, we often lack that kind of leverage in everyday life, which makes using incentives challenging without an understanding of how to design them. To do so, you need three components: a sense of what motivates people to act, a core program that taps into this motivation, and a device that creates urgency.

Here’s a blueprint on how to do it.

The incentive formula

Twenty years ago, a sales mentor taught me the most important lesson I’ve learned in the art of influence. People, he said, seek to avoid pain at all costs. Pleasure may entice and tempt us, but pain compels us to act with an urgency that pleasure can’t match.

Here’s the formula for all you analytical nerds:

If the pain of (Action A) < the pain of (Action B), then we will take Action A.

A turbocharged version of this formula looks like this:

If the pain of (Action A) < the pain of (Action B) and the pain of (Action A) is now or in the near future, then we will take Action A without delay.



Barry Davret

Work in Forge | Elemental | BI | GMP | Others | Contact: barry@barry-davret dot com. Join Medium for full access: