Steer: the report

Why be nudged when you can steer?

Giving people the tools to understand how their brains, behaviours and environments interact helps them make better decisions and tackle habits like smoking, binge-drinking and overeating; that's the conclusion of a new report published by the RSA.

Steer: Mastering our Behaviour through Instinct, Environment and Reason Most people are intrigued by their own nature and intrested in bettering itrepresents the second stage of the RSA's Social Brain project. It argues that helping people learn about how they make judgements and form habits can be a more empowering way of encouraging positive behaviour change than relying on passive "nudging" at one extreme, or rational debate at the the other.

Drawing on a range of research from several disciplines, Steer argues that this model of mindful, self-directed, and holistic behavioural change has been overlooked in much of the recent policy debates on the subject. It enables people to appraise situations, and make judgements about when they should trust, or be wary of, their gut instincts, rational judgements, or environmental influences.

Practical experiment

The project involved a small scale practical experiment to test the model with people facing real life-choices. The RSA asked 24 volunteers to take part in workshops that taught them "Five Principles" of Steer which they could apply in everyday situations. After each workshop they completed questionnaires and kept a structured diary over a two-week period making at least five entries describing the decisions they had made and whether the Steer approach had helped them decide and act in more beneficial ways.

The volunteers reported that the idea of changing habits incrementally through re-ordering their social and physical environments, as opposed to relying on willpower alone, both liberating and inspiring. The participants also reported a rise in confidence about their decision – making when they learned about the circumstances in which it is right to trust their

Although the research was qualitative and exploratory, it suggests that in becoming more aware of how their brains operate – including the limits to conscious "controlled" decision making – people can learn to Steer their behaviour through goal-setting, repeated practice and changing the context within which they make choices.  

Steer concludes that only by taking a "holistic reflexive approach" to brain science can we improve the way we navigate our automatic, controlled and environmental impulses.The project is looking to continue and expand the work to include a wider range of participants from a range of professional contexts (e.g. social work, policing, banking) in which instinctive, rational and environmentally-induced decision making is critical for success.

Download Steer: Mastering our Behaviour Through Instinct, Environment and Reason [PDF, 1.2MB]

  Steer: Mastering our Behaviour through Instinct, Environment and Reason