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My last post was about moving from behaviour to attitudes – coming to an informed choice through doing something and building-up the capability to see the benefits of a particular kind of activity. My example was healthy eating: I might need to actually eat healthily for a few weeks, even months, before I can properly grasp the benefits of it. When this happens my attitudes to what is desirable/good for me are partly reconfigured by my behaviour.

My last post was about moving from behaviour to attitudes – coming to an informed choice through doing something and building-up the capability to see the benefits of a particular kind of activity. My example was healthy eating: I might need to actually eat healthily for a few weeks, even months, before I can properly grasp the benefits of it. When this happens my attitudes to what is desirable/good for me are partly reconfigured by my behaviour.

 

It seems to me this model of behaviour-change should be much more commonly employed (call it the capability-building approach). This is because we are creatures of habit: the way our brains work, through plasticity, means that sustainable behavioural patterns (ones we can maintain) result from the strengthening of neural connections over time (to speak metaphorically, the behaviour becomes ‘burnt-in’). But also, we know that successful social evolution is transmitted through culture, and for behaviour-change to work, it has to bed-down and become part of our way of life.

 

We might add to this principle of capability-building, another - what I am going to call ‘tweak’. This is the idea that when we try to change behaviour (our own or other people’s), we should bear in mind two principles:

 

  1. Where we want to engender some new kind of behaviour it is often beneficial to make sure it is analogous to something humans already do and which has proven to be sustainable – we ‘tweak’ some existing behaviour by augmenting it, or creating an analogue of it. For example, if you wanted to engage more young people in science learning, why not start with a computer-game-playing format?
  2. We should always try to think of the whole person in their social context and work-out where different influences on behavioural patterns are out of kilter – we then ‘tweak’ the influences so they are all pulling in the same direction. So for example, if we want a more sociable workplace, we make the staff-room nicer to sit in. But we also give people enough time to take breaks together, as well as encouraging staff activities and interaction.

 

This is both a conservative and progressive approach. It is conservative because it asks us to work within the limits of human nature – to not expect too much change too quickly and to respect, to a certain extent, existing institutions and social structures. But it is also progressive because it says sustainable change is possible – that the whole project of progressive politics is not misguided or naïve.

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