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Matt Grist reviews some models of behaviour change and outlines the findings of new research published by the RSA

Before the financial crisis the last government was already enamoured with the behaviour change agenda. While the crisis intensified interest, being seen as an opportunity to rethink how behaviour is shaped, it also sounded the death knell of a misguided view of human beings as wholly rational and self-interested economic actors. The order of the day was the idea of ‘nudge,’ made popular through the publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book of the same name.

To ‘nudge’ is to shape people’s choices by making changes in the context within which they are made. For example, presenting a piece of information as a loss rather than a gain, may frighten people into not to making a particular choice, as losses loom larger than gains for our long-evolved brains. So ‘nudging’ shapes our behaviour by guiding the automatic brain system that governs much of our behaviour and whirs away below the surface of consciousness. The fear you might feel at the prospect of incurring a loss is an automatic response that is pre-programmed by nature. ‘Nudging’ uses these ancient emotional responses so that politicians can get you to behave in certain ways. For example, shifting from opt-in to opt-out policies, on, for example, pension contributions and organ donation.

But isn’t this all a bit spooky? Have we decided to give up on good old-fashioned rational argument to persuade people to change their ways? Should the illusionist Derren Brown expect a call from the Coalition Government asking him to become its ‘persuasion czar’? Probably not. Nudging turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, or at least an over-egged pudding. There are only very few behaviours that are simple enough to be nudged. Most of what we do is too complex for a simple change in context to guide behaviour.

Politicians loved the idea of ‘nudge’ because it was cheap and easy: just take people as they are and by some clever framing of choices get them to do what you want. But if you really want behaviour to change you have to get people to change: you have to get them to sign up to what you want to do and you have to give them the tools to change their own lives, step-by-step.

The alternative to ‘nudge’ is what Gerry Stoker of Southampton University has called ‘think’: changing behaviour by a process of deliberating (often collectively) on information, adopting a course of action and going for it. ‘Think’ does attempt to change people, step-by-step, in the wholesale way that is required for real behaviour change.

‘Think’ assumes us to be rational, responsive to argument and to possess faultless willpower. Imagine a wonderfully well-oiled committee populated by real troupers and you get the idea. Of course, as Gerry Stoker acknowledges, for every great committee there is one full of disagreeable egomaniacs who expel a great deal of hot air and not much else.

Working at the RSA under the tutelage of Matthew Taylor, I started to wonder whether there was a ‘third way’ between ‘nudge’ and ‘think’. And I think there might be. It consists in taking the insights that policy wonks use to create ‘nudges’ and communicating them to people so that they might make use of them themselves. The key is to communicate the insights in an accessible way.

I have called this approach ‘Steer’. The idea is that people can be ‘given a steer’ by their environments but that they can also guide their own behaviour, by employing an understanding of the basic principles of its functioning. I had a hunch that this might be a fruitful approach for two reasons. First, people have a natural inclination to be interested in themselves, and talking in terms of brains and behaviour could be a non-personal way of tapping into this inclination. Second, thinking in terms of either ‘nudge’ or ‘think’ forces an unnatural dichotomy that doesn’t accurately represent how our behaviour operates.

There are broadly speaking two systems in the brain. One is the ‘automatic system’ and this is the one that gets ‘nudged’. There is also the ‘controlled system’, and this is the one that can ‘think’. But if we are not careful we begin to describe ourselves as fundamentally schizophrenic.

In reality, the two systems work together seamlessly, and are completely intertwined. Think of a cricketer going out to bat. When he faces a 90mph delivery he is acting almost completely through his automatic system, which is able to process information fast enough to be effective. But he also steers that system: he sets himself the goal of playing defensively, of hitting to the onside, of taking the quick single wherever possible. And he steers his behaviour in this way because he understands the environment around him and how it affects what he does, just like the pilot of a ship can steer it through difficult waters because aware of how currents and tides work.

At the RSA's Social Brain Centre, we carried out a small piece of research to see if people could fruitfully employ the ‘steer’ approach; whether they would feel more confident about changing their own behaviour if they understood some basic principles about how it worked, and employed that knowledge to steer it. Whilst by no means claiming complete scientific rigour for our results, we found that the people we worked with responded very well to the ‘steer’ idea. For example, an overwhelming majority reported feeling more confident about changing their habits on learning about how habits are driven at the level of their brains, which included learning that our brains actually make it very hard to change habits. Rather than use this information as an excuse, our participants found it a liberation from self-loathing, a spur to do better, and a helpful guide on how that might be achieved.

So perhaps there is a ‘third way’ between ‘nudge’ and ‘think’, which would mean that giving people the knowledge to steer their own behaviour could be a fruitful addition to the ‘behaviour change agenda’. And if we are concerned about the implications for society and politics of changing behaviour then ‘steer’ may well be preferred to ‘nudge’. For the approach implies a society and polity of people taking more control of their own lives, rather then being manipulated by policy wonks and mandarins.

Matt Grist is author of Steer, published by the RSA in June 2010. He now works at Demos.


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