Behaviour change theory: structural factors

This post looks at structural factors that affect our behaviour. It’s part of a series on behaviour change and sustainability, which includes an introduction to behavioural theory, a summary of some of the psychological traits that influence us, and a look at how social context can affect behaviour.

The structure of life
Our lives take place within certain structural and practical contexts. This can be defined narrowly as the ‘choice environment’, i.e. the immediate context in which we make decisions, or broadly as the whole material infrastructure within which our lives take place.

Choice environment
Behavioural economics focuses on the immediate ‘choice environment’, such as where healthy food is positioned in a canteen, what the default setting is on a washing machine or whether there are bike lanes on our streets. These are important factors in shaping our behaviour – a government campaign to encourage us to save energy by washing at 15oC falls flat if most people’s washing machines do not have a setting below 40 or 30oC. Similarly, aiming for more sustainable transport behaviour is difficult when public transport or safe walking/cycling routes are not readily available.[i]

But the broader structural context in which we live also affects our behaviour profoundly. As sociologist Elizabeth Shove says “Roads, railways, freezers, heating systems, etc. are not innocent features of the background”- they shape the lives we lead.

Without roads we could not drive, without air-traffic controllers, airplanes and runways we couldn’t fly. Conversely without kerbside collection it would be difficult to recycle, and without charging up points it will be difficult to get widespread take-up of electric cars.

In the field of public health the idea of an “obesogenic environment” (an environment that encourages obesity) is well known. A Foresight report in 2007 concluded that obesity was “an inevitable consequence of a society in which energy-dense and cheap foods, labour-saving devices, motorised transport and sedentary work are rife.”[ii]

Local barriers
Disciplines such as community-based social marketing seek to overcome structural barriers in the local environment where people live. Doug Mackenzie Mohr argues that there will always be specific structures and barriers that shape life at a local level and that need to be addressed in order for people to adopt specific sustainable behaviours. Examples could include the lack of bus services to a particular locality or lack of space to store recyclables prior to collection in blocks of flats.

The economic system
At the macro-level, the economic system within which we exist and its premium on growth is fundamental to our patterns of consumption. Government as well as businesses are complicit in this, also ‘co-creating’ “the culture of consumption, shaping the structures and signals that influence people’s behaviour.”[iii] Examples here could include the economic drivers that mean plane travel is often cheaper than train travel, or the planning regulations which result in out-of-town shopping centres being built. Andrew Darnton argues that without tackling the broader structural factors that underpin our high-carbon lifestyles “we will largely remain locked into unsustainable trends with only little incremental changes here and there.” Examples of positive changes to the economic system could include pricing resources such as water and metals differently, to properly reflect their value.

Behaviour change is not just about information or social context. Recognising the structural aspects of behaviour means realising that “policy areas like those of urban planning, business development and technology” are also inextricably part of behaviour change. [iv]

That’s it for this series of posts on behaviour change – I hope it was useful, post any comments or suggestions below.

[i]   Dr Adam Corner, Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh, Professor Nick Pidgeon and Professor Greg Maio, Cardiff University, September 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from A-C,

[ii] BBC, 2007, Obesity ‘not individuals’ fault’,, and Department for Business, Skills and Innovation (BIS), 2007,  Foresight: Tackling obesities: Future choices – Obesogenic Environments – Evidence Review,

[iii] Tim Jackson, 2011 foreword to ‘Making sustainable lives easier’  by the Sustainable Development Commission

[iv] Professor Elisabeth Shove, Lancaster University, October 2010, Submission to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee call for evidence on behaviour change,


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