What is behaviour change?

Photo by Volkan Olmez on Unsplash

One year on from the UK’s first lockdown in March 2020, behaviour change has never been a hotter topic. Over the last decade, we’ve watched it develop from an emerging field to a well-known area of practice in its own right, and over the last year, it’s hit the headlines alongside social distancing, mask wearing, and working from home. We now hear the term ‘behaviour change’ used in many different ways and contexts — so we thought we’d explain what it means to us.

On one level, behaviour change is what it sounds like: it’s the practice of changing people’s behaviour. For us, it’s about real-world change for social and environmental good. At a time when we need to change our lifestyles en masse (to get the UK to net zero and tackle major public health challenges, for example) the role of behaviour change in meeting the demands of the present has never been clearer.

Although it’s become a buzzword, behaviour change is better thought of as a methodology, rather than a magic bullet solution to a given challenge. From our perspective, a behaviour change approach means starting with a realistic understanding of how and why people behave the way they do. Traditional attempts to influence the way people act are often based on communications and awareness-raising, but one of the most important aspects of a behaviour change approach is acknowledging that for the majority of people, knowing you should do something and doing it are not the same thing.

Take the UK’s fruit and veg intake: 90% of UK adults know they should get at least 5 portions of fruit and veg a day, but fewer than 30% manage it. This is a simple but instructive example of the need to go beyond just raising awareness.

But if awareness isn’t enough to help people act, then what is? According to Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize winning theory, as humans we do our best to avoid effortful ‘System 2’ thinking. Instead, we favour the quick, instinctive decision making of ‘System 1’ thinking. We’re shaped by our context, we rely on habits (whatever we did last time) and we’re heavily influenced by rules of thumb — mental shortcuts to decision making that may have little to do with the most ‘rational’ or beneficial option.

“Humans are to thinking as cats are to swimming. We can do it when we have to, but we’d much prefer not to.” Daniel Kahneman

A successful behaviour change approach goes with the grain of human behaviour, to increase the uptake of positive actions and reduce the chances of us making mistakes that can damage us (or the planet). In practice, this can involve an array of strategies and tools, like showing that a behaviour is a social norm, or making it the default option within a set choice environment. Some tools make it easier to adopt a positive behaviour: we might think of this as reducing friction. Others work by putting people under pressure, through promises or penalties, for instance.

We always start our projects with an insight phase, so we ensure we’re working from an accurate understanding of why people are doing what they’re doing, and take the opportunity to put aside any biases or preconceptions we might have. Having established the specific behaviour we want to change, we apply behavioural tools to develop interventions. We then test and evaluate ideas in the real world, applying learnings to ultimately scale up impact. Ultimately, we believe behaviour change is as much an art as it is a science, which means creativity is vital in growing an insight into a big idea.

We firmly believe in the role behaviour change has to play in overcoming some of society’s most pressing challenges, so please get in touch if we can help you!

To speak to us or subscribe to our mailing list, just drop us an email at info@behaviourchange.org.uk.