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Behaviour change theory: an introduction

Why do we live in draughty houses, drive gas-guzzling cars, or throw plastic bottles in the rubbish bin?

As part of my research last year, I put together a summary of some of the key drivers of human behaviour that relate to sustainable living, drawing on a range of different disciplines from behavioural economics to sociology. This wasn’t published as part of our final policy report, so I’m going to post it here over the course of three blog posts.

The complexity of daily life
Even a single act, such as having a daily shower, is the product of a whole mixture of factors. In the case of showering these might include: personal emotions (it wakes me up), social expectations (I have to look smart for work), cultural norms (being clean has come to mean showering daily), structural context (my bathroom has a working shower in it and I can afford the water and heat), and habit.

Commentators from different academic disciplines, or with different ideological bents, might argue whether this shower is simply a personal choice, or a custom engrained in the fabric of our society. Rather than choosing one favoured approach policymakers should be open to insights from all disciplines. This is because they are, for the most part, complementary; compensating for each other’s blindspots, and picking up factors that other disciplines have not accounted for.

Different approaches
This table below, based on analysis by social researcher Andrew Darnton, outlines the differences between some of the principle theories of human behaviour, and implications for policy.

Approach Description Policy implications
Behavioural economics Works on the principle of the individual being a rational being, acting to maximise his utility. At the same time, it recognises that we do tend to accept sub-optimal outcomes, because we operate under cognitive constraints. Interventions need to consider the automatic mind, and target the ‘decision context’, or immediate environment within which individuals act. E.g. providing incentives, framing options, priming the senses etc
Social-psychological models Behavioural outcomes are determined by individuals, acting as a driving force, in the context of their social networks. Interventions should seek to win hearts and minds, using information and persuasion to change individuals’ attitudes, and hence their intentions. Social norms-based interventions, e.g. telling people what (important) others do,  may be powerful here.
Ecological models Considers individuals in the context of their immediate environment, and wider society. Macro-societal influences create boundaries around the choices available to individuals. Interventions need to target factors at the individual and local environment level, at the same time considering macro influences such as technology, institutions and culture.
Systems Thinking This is a practical discipline, in which systems are more than the sum of their parts. One of the best known recent system maps is the Obesity System Map, produced for the Foresight ‘Tackling Obesities’ project Interventions should aim for change at multiple points across a system, targeting a range of factors, and working at various scales (e.g. individual, organisational, community, societal).
Sociological models Focus on practices rather than behaviours. Practice theory says that practices such as cooking are recognisable entities, which individuals simply reproduce. Interventions should target the components of a practice, and identify stakeholders who are responsible for each of these, without needing to target individuals directly.

The next three posts will draw on insights from these disciplines to look in more detail at 1) factors that shape our behaviour on an individual level such as psychological biases; 2) social factors such as the influence of social norms; and 3) structural factors such as infrastructure, the availability and price of goods and the economic system itself. I’ll look at these in the context sustainable living and explore some of the implications for UK policy.

(Source for table: Memorandum by Andrew Darnton, AD Research & Analysis Ltd, in response to the House of Lords Behaviour Change inquiry)

Written by

Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.

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