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Behaviour Change (BC) follows a pathway, a series of steps. Advancing and regressing along a pathway towards the summit or back to basecamp are logical progressions or regressions towards achieving sustainable changes to behaviour.

In a series of insights we take a practical, in-depth look at behaviour change and how strategic approaches to interventions that have societal support, embrace holistic approaches and adopt theories of behavioural change can overcome the considerable barriers to change that exist at various levels.

First of all, let’s be perfectly clear. Behaviour change is sometimes very difficult. It’s tough on audiences, who often tend to resist change. It’s tough on those trying to implement change, because some changes mean working on areas of preference and habit that are learned and in many cases loved. Even from a project management perspective, the challenges of programme design and measurement, cost control, persistence and commitment to funding, and meaningful scale of interventions are a minefield.

Experience shows that many projects simply avoid measures of behavioural change altogether and defer to proxies such as recall, awareness, or changes in attitudes or ‘knowledge’ of their audiences. Such deferment has been observed in very significant projects—policy interventions directed by national governments costing millions running over multiple years for example.

When these project measurements are self-assessed or reported, they are subject to a range of biases and to the Hawthorne effect. Couple this with lack of controls around before and after measurements (known as UBA—uncontrolled before and after), even well funded interventions are almost destined for long-term failure.

We know that changing behaviour is important to tackle societal problems, such as obesity, alcohol abuse and gambling addition. Reducing unemployment, increasing retirement savings and meeting targets for carbon emissions are recent goals where behavioural interventions have been put to work.

As a strategic advocate for behaviour change, Reciprocom looks at the problems of BC through a prism of the behavioural nexus. That means looking at all aspects of cognitive psychology, risk communication, behavioural economics, culture-values-beliefs and trust optimisation and seeing how these elements come together to facilitate change in the individual and also the environment in which the person finds themselves.

It also means looking at how audiences repose to typical interventions, which in Asia-pacific generally fall under three categories:

  • Carrot (incentives)
  • Stick (rules, regulations)
  • Information (communication)

These interventions are all based the rational decision making or adherence to expected utility theory. Regardless of the merits of such approaches, there is one concrete point to be made regarding the process.

It has to occur in stages.

Those stages you have to almost script, identify the steps and specific behaviours that will eventually lead to ‘success.’ Breaking down the BC process is a more realistic approach that provides rewards for others to see. It also helps those charged with inspiring change to adopt evidence-based approaches that rely on the stage concept. As noted earlier, many large, government and donor-backed programmes, running to billions of dollars, ran BC campaigns with no theoretical underpinning. They banked upon “training” people to be more aware, acquire knowledge and as a result, change their behaviour. In many areas of public and occupational health, food safety and nutrition, national programmes relied on the fallacy of ‘knowledge in action’ to inspire, invoke and maintain change.

Hard changes require time, they move in steps or stages of change. These stages of change have been shown to be consistent across various health related behaviours, from weight control, using sunscreens to safe sex and quitting hard drugs. It is important to shape the steps in a logical pathway and measure transitions along, and regressions backwards on the pathway. Being able to pinpoint obstacles to advancement is critical. Sometimes these are individual reasons, oftentimes they are environmental or situational. Shape a pathway over time that adheres to one of the core theoretical constructs (Transtheoretical model, Theory of Planned Behaviour for example) and you have a solid foundation upon which to build a BC programme.

Andrew Roberts

Author Andrew Roberts

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