Although it’s been around since the swinging sixties – behaviour change theory and practice was thrust firmly into the limelight in 2010 when David Cameron’s Government launched the shiny, new  Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) – commonly known as ‘the nudge unit.’

The team delivered a range of often successful theory-based, low-cost Government interventions that influenced and ‘nudged’ the public to change their behaviour. Some saved public money and others directly improved people’s health and well-being.  Some did both!

Probably the team’s most infamous activity utilised ‘social norming’ theory (i.e. that people can be influenced to conform with the ‘moral’ actions of the majority) to encourage reluctant UK taxpayers to ‘cough up’ money they owed the Treasury.   The intervention was brutally simple – a few sentences were tweaked in an existing Treasury letter targeting those who not yet paid their tax, to emphasise that the majority of people in their area had already paid theirs. The new bespoke ‘behavioural approach’ led to more people paying their tax on time and an increase of £1.6 million in tax was received by HMRC.

Fun and effective examples of the application of behaviour change work across the world soon gained more publicity. Good examples were mainly seen in the fields of public health, well-being and safety, and promoting greener practices.  Men’s (well known) lack of precision when aiming at the urinal is both unpleasant and unhygienic but also increases the costs of cleaning public toilets. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport had had enough – so turned to male psychology and behavioural research for solutions – and found that some men seemed ‘hard-wired’ to want to have fun hitting a target.  A fly was chosen as it seemed unsanitary – so nobody would feel guilty aiming at it.

Armed with this evidence airport staff etched an image of a fly inside every airport urinal to prompt men to target the fly.  Implementing this simple design change reduced spillage by 80%, and the budget for cleaning the toilets by 8%. I’m not taking the piss – it’s true.

The main elements of behaviour change work

Coming back to the present day – there is still widespread interest in the area.

It’s unsurprising given the need to shape or change audience behaviour unites all bodies – whether charities, business or government.  However, the definition of the area is tricky and there are literally hundreds of theories and models used – some are issue specific with others being more macro that can be applied to any issue. In reality many are essentially ‘check lists’ – as not all aspects will be relevant.

Distilling everything down these are the key elements of behaviour-change work:

  • There is always a clear behaviour change goal at the centre of each project.
  • Deep understanding of, and orientation around, the target audience
    Interventions should respond to the needs and wants of a person rather than the person having to fit in with the requirements of an organisation. This necessitates acute audience segmentation and qualitative research alongside other data and intelligence. If possible, the audience should also help co-create the service or campaign being produced – as evidence shows this will be more effective.
  • Theory-driven
    The intervention should review and use relevant theories drawn from psychology, social / behavioural science, commercial marketing and other disciplines that may apply to the issue and the audience.
  • Competition and exchange
    In the research phase there are 2 key concepts that need to be drawn out:
    Competition – this examines all the factors that compete for an audience’s attention – and the positive exchange – which focuses on how we need to offer something of real value to an audience in exchange for them changing their behaviour. What we ‘offer’ must outweigh the perceived costs of changing their behaviour – i.e. time, effort, stigma, financial expense etc.
  • Make activities fun, easy and timely
    People’s lives can often be busy and stressful, so interventions are usually more successful if they’re fun, easy to do and are easily assimilated into their lives.  So, asking people to join a running club 3 miles away is unlikely to work in prompting them to exercise more – but providing fun 15 minute ‘active games’ for the whole family, that can be done at home or the local park – may work better.
  • Information, advice and communication is usually not enough to change behaviour
    for example: to reduce the number of people smoking cigarettes in England the Government has taken an effective long term multi-faceted approach: communications campaigns have been important to flag the diverse dangers of smoking  – but this is just one arm. National policy and regulation have been pivotal – such as banning tobacco advertising and smoking in public places. Innovative product development such as the introduction of nicotine replacement therapies and e-cigarettes has also been key in helping adults to quit alongside the development and roll out of NHS stop smoking services.

Does it work?

So, is behaviour change work effective?  The answer from all the evidence is a cautious ‘yes’ – if it is delivered well, based on strong evidence – and funded over the long term.