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Want to Nudge Your Behavior in the Right Direction? Practice A Little Self-Surveillance

watching eyes photo


Most of us know that overcoming habituated behavior is made easier when we engage our conscious minds and become more aware of our behavior. Yet research from Dr. Rose Meleady, of University of East Anglia’s School of Psychology, Dominic Abrams and Dr. Tim Hopthrow at the University of Kent, and Dr. Julie Van de Vyver at the University of Lincoln, show that self-surveillance strategies can also powerfully nudge our behavior in a desired direction.


Drawing on lessons learned from behavioral science, Dr. Meleady and her team studied the effect of three different signs used at a busy railway level crossing in Canterbury, Kent to encourage commuters to shut off their engines while waiting (an average of two minutes). The first sign simply instructed drivers to switch off their engine when the barriers were down, which happened four times an hour. The second sign had the same instructions as the first but also included a pair of “watching eyes”, which have previously been shown to successfully reduce theft from bicycle racks, reduce littering in public spaces, and increase donations to charity buckets. The last sign aimed to encourage drivers to monitor their own behavior and reflect on whether they were complying with the instruction. It read: “Think of yourself: When barriers are down switch off your engine.”


The results were compelling. When drivers were instructed to monitor and reflect on their behavior, they shut off their engines 50 percent of the time. On the other hand, the sign with the watching eyes resulted in drivers turning off their engines 30 percent of the time, and the simple instruction led to only 20 percent of drivers complying (Meleady, et. al., 2017). Dr Meleady summarized her findings, “We found that the mere presence of an instructive sign had little effect on drivers’ behavior. Rates of compliance increased when instructions were accompanied by subtle surveillance cues. These findings reinforce the importance of directing attention towards the individual when trying to encourage behavior change, and beyond that, suggest it may sometimes be more effective to encourage self-surveillance rather than using cues suggesting public surveillance” (Meleady, 2017).


What we can learn from studies like Meleady’s, and many like them, is that self-surveillance is a powerful way to help us overcome old (undesirable) habits, and instill new (desirable) ones. So how can you use self-surveillance to help nudge your behavior in the right direction?


One of the best ways is through the use of signaling. Like the sign that encourages drivers to think of themselves, signals are devices that draw our attention to our behavior in a variety of contexts. For example, signals can be placed on the refrigerator to improve eating habits, on the nightstand to encourage establishing a bedtime routine that leads to more sleep, and on the dashboard of a car to encourage calmer driving. Signals can be either instructive, such as, “Think of food as fuel”; “Get more sleep so you feel better tomorrow”; “Do not let other people’s bad driving ruin your day”, or evaluative, such as, “Are you eating foods that will make you feel energetic and healthy?”; “Are you taking steps to get more sleep”; “Are you driving safely and calmly?”


Signals can also be used at fixed times, such as every time you get in the car, head toward the bed, or open the refrigerator door, or through the use of a timer or phone app, intermittently, (such as a set timer that goes off every day at noon), or randomly (going off at various times during the day.)


What type of signal – instructive or evaluative – and a timing schedule – fixed, intermittent, or random – you choose is up to you, and signals can be changed at any time to better reflect your needs. What is most important is that you find the type of signal that works best for you and offers the best results.


Over time, what you will find is that through becoming more aware of your behavior, you will feel more mindful, less impulsive, and more in control of your choices – all things that nudge behavior, and motivation, in the right direction.

Photo by Isaiah115

Want to Nudge Your Behavior in the Right Direction? Practice A Little Self-Surveillance

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2017). Want to Nudge Your Behavior in the Right Direction? Practice A Little Self-Surveillance. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from


Last updated: 12 Sep 2017
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