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Here is an important and rather difficult multiple choice question for people interested in behaviour change. Which of the following best represents your understanding of what makes people change how they think and act?

1) Attitudes Drive Behaviour

i.e. You need to change what people think before you can change what they will do. e.g. I  have come to really value the environment, therefore I have started behaving in a more environmentally friendly way.

2) Behaviour Drives Attitudes

i.e. You need to change what people do before they will change what they think e.g. I started recycling and now I find I really care about not wasting stuff.

3) Both 1 and 2 apply, but in different contexts.

i.e. It depends on the definitions and contexts of the terms in question. e.g. Your attitude to a specific behaviour e.g. smoking, might be a strong predictor of your tendency to smoke, but this doesn't mean attitudes drive behaviour in general.

4) Both are false, there are never just these two discrete factors in play (and what on earth does 'drives' mean anyway...)?

i.e. attitudes and behaviours are just conceptual constructs with fuzzy edges, and they are both always influenced by numerous factors other than each other e.g. I may think voting is a good idea and this may or may not be because I enjoyed voting in the past, but if I don't vote on a particular day it might be because of my an idiosyncratic mood or the weather, not because of general attitudes or behaviour.

5) To understand behaviour and attitudes, and their relationship, you really need a deeper understanding of values.

i.e. whatever the relationship between behaviours and attitudes, perhaps both are driven by or somehow underpinned by deeply help but somewhat unconscious values. e.g. If I steadfastly use reduce power and water consumption at home after receiving information on the subject, this might be related to wanting to save money, or wanting to save the planet, but you'll never know which- and what follows for how to achieve similar impact- until you have a better sense of how my values underpin what I do and say.

None of these five options are strictly wrong, which is why it would make a terrible multiple choice question!

In my view, one and two are equally right and wrong because they are partial, which means three must be true, but on reflection that is also only partial. At a deeper level, the philosopher inside knows that four must be closer to the truth, but it's a bit harsh and unhelpful because we need some heuristics to work with, people care about behaviour and attitudes and you don't make much practical progress by rejecting all available working theories and concepts out of hand.

If I had to tick one box, I think I would therefore now opt for number five, but let me take this chance to make better sense of options 1-4 in passing:

On the attitudes/behaviour link(briefly):

Through Twitter (Hat tip Jim Mintz) I came upon an excellent overview on the behaviour-attitudes relationship. I distilled this source into the following points:

'Attitudes' are not the same as 'reported attitudes' because people cannot be relied upon to say what they really think. (Though the 'bogus pipeline', where feasible, can be a good way round this problem).

However, stated attitudes do predict behaviour quite well when

1) Other influences are minimized.

i.e. the behaviour is not heavily related to contextual or situational features.

2) The attitude is specifically related to the particular action.

i.e. your attitude to jogging is a good predictor of whether you jog, while your attitude to fitness may not be.

3) The attitude is particularly potent.

i.e. Your attitude to your health-related habits may change if your life is suddenly at imminent risk because of them.

On the other hand, behaviour is more likely to drive attitudes when one of the following theories applies:

1) Self-presentation theory

People who care about how they are thought of will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions to others.

2) Dissonance theory:  We feel tension after acting contrary to our attitudes and to reduce this discomfort we internally justify our behaviour. This is not just about self-presentation but about our own experience of internal coherence. Moreover, the less external justification we have for an undesirable action, the more we feel responsible for it, and thus the more dissonance arises and the more attitudes change.

3) Self-perception theory: When our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behaviour and its circumstances and infer our attitudes - i.e. sometimes our behaviours do not so much cause our attitudes as create them. Within this perspective, the “overjustification effect” also known as 'crowding out' can be relevant- it suggests that rewarding people to do what they like doing anyway can make them less likely to do it (e.g. showing up on time, or giving blood.)

So far, so tentative, which has brought me to think more about values and how they relate to behaviours and attitudes.

On Values(briefly):

Three main sources: Common Cause/Values and Frames, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Values Modes all make major contributions to understanding how our values shape our attitudes and our behaviour. However,  they don't all agree with each other- not by a long way- on what exactly values are, how exactly values have their influence and what it means for acting on that understanding.

That's where I am now on this important background issue- trying to figure out which aspects of each of these perspectives makes the most sense, and then thinking of how that knowledge might be best applied to the major behaviour-change imperatives of our day. Any thoughts on the above, or where to look next, much appreciated.



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