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Are there any aspects of social policy that cannot be addressed by a behaviour change approach?

The recently established Behavioural Insight Unit – or 'Nudge Unit' – is making wide-ranging recommendations about how to improve people's lives, and its creation seems to represent a shift away from the New Labour approach of addressing the structural causes of social problems. So far, though, none of the issues it has tackled seem as complex or deep-rooted as the problems that were the focus of New Labour's fairly self-explanatory Social Exclusion Unit, Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, and others. And yet the current governing parties (the Conservatives in particular, with their depiction of 'Broken Britain') were not shy about highlighting social problems such as these when in opposition.

Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?

The government may have changed during the last year, but the social landscape in the UK has not.  So if there has been a shift in approach, it begs the question: can a behavioural strategy which focuses on individuals address the types of social issue highlighted by New Labour's policy units and the Conservatives' pre-election rhetoric? Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?

This is a question I’ve begun to consider for the RSA, which through its Social Brain and Connected Communities projects has great interest in the issues of behaviour change and social capital. I'd be really interested to get some comments on this, but my early thoughts are that, yes, there is potential for a behavioural approach to be effective – but it's not as simple as Nudge.

There are perhaps two fundamental sets of factors behind social exclusion. One is structural: low levels of social capital, high local unemployment, poor transport infrastructure, high turnover and diversity of the local population, fear of crime etc. We obviously can't ignore or deny the significance of these challenges. But there is also a second set of factors: the behaviour patterns or (for want of more sensitive terms) habits and inertia that are established by exclusion, and make it difficult to escape from that situation. It is this second aspect of exclusion that I think suggests an opportunity for a behaviour change approach.

First, let's be clear about terminology. By 'habit' I mean a pattern of behaviours and attitudes that has become so well established as to be carried out without conscious thought. By ‘inertia’, I mean an inability or unwillingness to change in the face of external pressures or a lack of incentives. It is habits that I want to focus on here, because once they are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.

As the Steer report from the RSA’s Social Brain project describes, habits direct most of our decisions and much of our behaviour, for good or for ill. They are driven by the automatic brain system, which works intuitively, instinctively and extremely quickly.  abits can be guided by our controlled brain system, which is where we make conscious, deliberated choices (this is akin to the rational, economic model of behaviour change, or the 'think' model). But the controlled brain is slower and weaker than the automatic brain when it comes to decision making, and since the latter has an innate preference for what it already knows, the odds are stacked heavily in favour of automatic continuation of things as usual.

Once habits are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.

Moreover, trying something different is rewarding at first (specifically, it triggers a pleasant dose of dopamine in the brain), but the novelty and reward quickly wear off after a few iterations, as anyone who has a lapsed gym membership can testify, and the incentive to keep to the new routine is reduced.

Habits can also be influenced by the environment in which the automatic decisions are taken (as in the 'nudge' model), but again the ingrained nature of the behaviour means the odds are stacked in favour of the existing routine.

Changing habits, then, is very difficult. As the Steer report argues, it requires first a recognition that habit can be guided deliberately, that the environment can have an influence, and that change is initially attractive, but also that each of these is weak and short-lived compared to the brain's long-term preference for the status quo. Then it requires an approach that takes all this into account.

So what does this mean for social exclusion? Exclusion may be caused by structural factors, and those factors may contribute to its persistence, but while it persists an 'excluded' pattern of behaviour and attitudes becomes established and normal – and it is this habitual rut, as much as the external challenges, that prevents people from improving their situation. Whatever the challenges they face, individuals may consciously try to become more socially included, but unless they recognise and understand how their habits work, and in particular appreciate the relative weakness of their controlled brain, their 'willpower' will either fail to make a difference or they will give up on it before a difference can be made. And if this happens often enough, they will stop trying.

Likewise a change in the environment, such as an improvement in local transport services or an invitation from a friend to do something different, may not be enough to break the habit if there is no corresponding deliberate effort. Neither 'nudge' nor 'think' will work on its own; but a combination of the two, and recognition of the need for persistence once the initial reward for novelty has worn off, has a chance of success.

While it is of course important to deal with the structural challenges people face, I think this offers an opening for a behaviour change approach as well. If people are caught in a habitual cycle, and this, alongside unemployment, poor transport and other factors, is what perpetuates their exclusion, they stand a better chance of improving their situation if they recognise their habits for what they are, and understand how these work and can be changed. And if they do succeed in breaking their excluded habits, some may even be able to overcome the structural challenges that caused their exclusion in the first place.

Thoughts on how this might work in practice are for another post, but I think the principle has potential. It may sound naïve or unrealistic, or even callous, to argue for something other than dealing with structural challenges, but I think enabling people who are socially excluded to address and overcome one of the main sets of factors perpetuating their situation is both possible and worthwhile. What do you think?


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