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Getting to the point

Blog

  • Behaviour change
  • Social brain

A change in my behaviour which people have urged on me is to write shorter posts; so – following a fascinating conversation on the topic with a new Fellow - here are ten points about behaviour change in just over 500 words.

Think of the handful of successful – and seemingly irreversible - collective changes in behaviour in the last few years. How about the shift to lead free fuel, the increase in recycling rates (from 8% to nearly 40% in just over a decade) and take-up in London of the Oyster card. As processes, what did they have in common?

I suggest three things:

First, the public understood the reason for the change (respectively, saving children’s brains, protecting the planet and reducing landfill, and getting in and out of stations more efficiently);

Second, undertaking the change was made pretty easy (respectively, cheap engine conversion, lead free cars, lead free petrol in every forecourt; various recycling aids such as colour coded rubbish bags; and a tap-in card system which worked;

Third, the costs of not doing the right thing was gradually increased as the behaviour changed (leaded petrol costs more and becomes more difficult to find, councils start to become more prescriptive about recycling, the premium for buying conventional tickets rises).

So, if it is this simple, why can’t we achieve a whole slew of the other behaviour change outcomes which people broadly support? Here are four reasons:

The changes above were ones which applied to everyone and so there wasn’t a risk that pushing the issue might be criticising or stigmatising people. This is not the case with behaviours such as eating too much, drinking too much or smoking (all of which habits, by the way, seem now to be going in the right direction).

The changes involved most people in roughly the same magnitude of effort (although going lead free was harder for people with lead petrol cars). Other behaviour changes, for example, home insulation or getting fit may be much easier for some people (with modern houses or gym memberships) than others.

The connection between the behaviour change and the sought outcome was uncontroversial. In other areas it may not be so clear. For example, do all parents feel confident that getting engaged in their children’s learning will be helpful (nor might they necessarily see this as their job), for many middle income earners it is far from clear that saving more for their pension is actually a wise move financially.

Not many people’s identities were wrapped up in using leaded petrol cares, buying paper tickets or disposing of rubbish irresponsibly, but this isn’t the case in relation to some other potentially harmful activities such as gang membership, binge drinking or maxing out on credit cards.

Where does all this obvious thinking take us? Well three words spring to mind: realism, design and reinforcement:

Realism in that unless behaviour change can be made attractive, easy and sticky it is hard to achieve;

Design in that we need to think about how more complex behaviour changes can be broken down into plans and processes which do have these characteristics;

Reinforcement not only in successful change relying on steady reinforcement but that we do as a society successfully change habits for the general good we should underline its value as a way of building collective confidence in future changes.

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