Steer: Mastering our behaviour through instinct, environment and reason represents the second stage of the RSA’s Social Brain project. It argues that helping people learn how they make judgements and form habits – or rather ‘thinking about thinking’ – could be a more effective and empowering way to encourage positive behavioural change than relying exclusively on either passive ‘nudging’ at one extreme, or purely rational ‘debate’ at the other.
People could make better decisions and tackle unwanted habits like binge-drinking, smoking and over-eating by understanding the way their brains, behaviours and environments interact, according to a published today by the RSA.
Drawing on a range of research from several disciplines Steer argues that this model of mindful, self-directed, and holistic behavioural change has been overlooked in much of the recent policy debates on the subject. It enables people to appraise situations, and make judgements about when they should trust, or be wary of, their gut instincts, rational judgements, or environmental influences.
The project involved a small scale practical experiment to test the model with people facing real life-choices. The RSA asked 24 volunteers to take part in workshops that taught them ‘Five Principles’ of Steer which they could apply in everyday situations. After each workshop they completed questionnaires and kept a structured diary over a two-week period making at least five entries describing the decisions they had made and whether the Steer approach had helped them decide and act in more beneficial ways.
The volunteers reported that the idea of changing habits incrementally through re-ordering their social and physical environments, as opposed to relying on willpower alone, both liberating and inspiring. The participants also reported a rise in confidence about their decision – making when they learned about the circumstances in which it is right to trust their instincts.
Although the research was qualitative and exploratory, it suggests that in becoming more aware of how their brains operate – including the limits to conscious ‘controlled’ decision making – people can learn to Steer their behaviour through goal-setting, repeated practice and changing the context within which they make choices.
The project is looking to continue and expand the work to include a wider range of participants from a range of professional contexts (e.g. social work, policing, banking) in which instinctive, rational and environmentally-induced decision making is critical for success.
‘Nudging is where knowledge about brains is used to get people to do what policymakers want. Steering is where people use that knowledge to do what they want. Nudging seems to go hand in hand with a passive citizenship shaped from the top down. Steering seems to go hand in hand with an active citizenship shaping things from the bottom up.’
Andrew Mawson and Sam Everington are the winners of the 2022 RSA Albert Medal. They have been awarded the medal in recognition of their innovative work to improve the way local healthcare services support patients.