November 2009

Nine big questions about behaviour change


This piece, commissioned by the Department for Transport in 2009, was one of my first attempts to say something sensible about behaviour change. I’m not sure I succeeded then, and I’m not sure I’ve succeed yet! Nonetheless, I stand by both the output and the approach. (You can download the former at the foot of this page.)

Who changes what?

Working on a ‘thinkpiece’ gives you the opportunity to be a little bolder than one might be when reporting a research project. Here’s an example of what I felt empowered to do:

The phrase ‘behaviour change’, like all verbs turned into nouns, fudges a critical question: who changes what? It’s far too easy to slide from talk of ‘behaviour change’ into discussion of how government can change people’s behaviour.

But government can’t change people’s behaviour. People change their own behaviour. Government can help them to do so, encourage them, cajole them, reward them or threaten them; but it can’t actually change the behaviour for them.

Like all bold statements in the field of behaviour change, this one isn’t entirely true.

Nine Big Questions about Behaviour Change

The bold statement is not “entirely true” because, of course, population level shifts in behaviour really can be achieved by redesigning the contexts in which those behaviours occur – especially when you happen to have a lot of control over those contexts. This possibility is not a discovery of so-called ‘Behavioural Economists’, nor even of the psychologists whose work they’ve belatedly read. The principle has for some decades now been saving lives through, for example, the better design of road junctions.

But the bold statement is needed because, so far as I can see, some people really do seem to believe that one important class of interventions addressing one very important strand in human behaviour provides not just one important part of an answer but THE answer.

In response to this hubris, my bold statement counsels humility.

The need for interdisciplinarity

In Nine Big Questions I tried – not entirely successfully – to put into practice something I believe deeply: that making sense of human behaviour requires multiple disciplinary standpoints and perspectives.

The predominant way of making sense of human beings these days is as ‘information processors’. This way of thinking lies at the heart of much psychology, along with economic theorising about human beings that piggy backs off it. The recognition of parallel slow and fast thinking systems, or of in-built biasses in processing, doesn’t change this basic picture any more than adding planetary epicycles changed the Ptolemaic system of astronomy.

Are human beings actually information processors? Well, yes. Clearly that’s something we do.

But are they just information processors? If your job is to design better seatbelts, then this way of thinking is not going to help very much. From that perspective, the important thing is that human beings are physical objects and anatomical/physiological systems. These are the things that determine the behaviour you’re interested in.

Human beings are lots of different things. For instance, my personal interest is in human beings as the creators and interpreters of meaning and value – both of which I see as irreducibly social in character. To my way of thinking, that’s something the individual ‘information processing’ model signally fails to describe.

I might be wrong in that particular contention, but the larger point remain: making sense of human behaviour requires multiple disciplinary standpoints and perspectives.