Last week, I was honored to speak at MCON 2013, a day of thought leadership and conversation about engaging the Millennial generation for good.

As part of my talk, I shared insights from the science of behavior — as I believe in order to influence behavior and motivate people of all generations, we must first understand the psychology behind human behavior.

Here’s a recap of the 5 most pertinent scientific principals as they relate to Millennials:

(1) Speak to values. 

The science of cultural cognition argues that people make decisions not based on facts, but on the value groups with which they most powerfully identify. Values-based research shows that Millennials tend to value equality, less rigid society structures, the power of the collective community and joint responsibility. When speaking to Millennials make sure to emphasize these core values.

(2) Use social proof. 

People are evolutionarily programmed to follow each other’s social cues (we did it for survival). But social proof is even more powerful with Millennials.  70% of Millennials say they are more excited about a product or experience when their friends are excited about that product or experience as opposed to 40% of other adults. Make sure to incorporate social proof into your campaigns by showing that other Millennials are taking part.

(3) Show your impact.

We are seeing a transformational shift here. 60% of Millennials say that impact is a primary driver of their donations vs. 30% of Seniors and 37% of Boomers. Soon the days will be gone when donors simply trust your organization to spend their dollars wisely. Millennials need you to show them the impact they can have.

(4) Use credible, on-the-ground authorities.

Authority is another primary driver of behavior. Back in 1961, the Milgram experiments showed that people were willing to do things they felt were ethically and morally wrong simply because an authority figure told them to. More recently, researchers had a man cross the street into oncoming traffic and found that people were 3x more likely to follow him when he was wearing a suit and tie – showing that just the appearance of authority can sway us.

However, Millennials are looking to meld impact with authority and are much more excited to hear from the scientist who wrote the report or the activist in the field than your Executive Director or prominent member of your board. So as you create your bench of spokespeople, think about on-the-ground authorities you can feature.

(5) Lead fearlessly with your heart. 

Change management experts Chip and Dan Heath argue that in order to engage people with our causes, we have to lead with our hearts. Too often, non profits lead with facts and figures rather than with stories about how our work is affecting one individual or one family. We must appeal to emotions in order to get people to care.

While this principal applies to all generations, I must emphasize it whenever I talk about engaging people in our causes.


In order to influence behavior, we must understand behavior.

Emotions and values trump reason every day of the week.

There are simple scientific insights that can help us make sense of the crazy, irrational messes we are so we can craft more effective campaigns.