Good social change

A beginner’s guide to behaviour change programme planning

I was asked recently to give some advice to a group of people who were embarking on a behaviour change programme. They needed some advice quickly, and the urgency forced me to be concise. I thought others might find this useful too… so here it is. 

Fundamentally, it’s important to acknowledge that behaviour change is hard.

There’s a lot of behavioural science behind this one thought but essentially what it means is that usual approaches to communication – that can be effective to raise awareness or change views – generally don’t work to generate sustainable behaviour change.  

So here are some ideas to help with this difficult situation:

  1. Settle in for a long term programme. Behaviour change takes time – don’t plan a one year campaign and then stop. You will waste your money!
  2. Don’t rely on reason. Human behaviour is complex, and is generally driven by non-rational factors. Humans can believe one thing, absolutely agree with it, and cognitively understand what you’re telling them …. And then behave in absolutely the opposite way. This is normal, it’s true of all of us, and although it’s frustrating we can’t fight it.  So in your programme planning and implementation you need to understand and respond to the feelings and emotions that are at play and affecting people’s behaviour.
  3. Information is only the solution, if a lack of information was the problem. This follows on from the point above. Generally people know the facts. They know that smoking isn’t healthy but they still do it, they know they should get more exercise, but they don’t, they know they should take fewer car trips but they still drive to the shops.  So provision of information can be a good part of any campaign, but programmes also need to think about other ways to solve problems (eg provision of services, products to support change).
  4. You are not the target market!  Don’t rely on what you and your colleagues think will motivate change.  Use research to help you understand the barriers to behaviour, and the motivators to change – and then use this to influence the products, services and communications you develop. Use models like COM-B and the Fogg modelto think about what people really need to help them change.
  5. Don’t ask too much of people. In climate change there are literally hundreds of behaviours people could adopt. Doug McKenzie-Mohr warns against “bundling” behaviours, as this can be overwhelming and can lead to people agreeably ignoring you. It’s important to narrow behaviours down: what one behaviour will make the most difference? This is challenging but is well worth the effort of consideration. 
  6. Make it easy, and social. Behaviour change is hard – so whatever you do, make it easy for people to engage, and give them social reinforcement that they’re doing the right thing.  The EAST model has some helpful prompts when you get to designing your campaign, and your research will guide you on what is easy and social for your community.
  7. Back it up with effort on the groundDr Ed Maibach from the US Centre for Climate Change Communication talks about the importance of “big messy programmes” – ones that have a sense of local ubiquity. The importance of many small actions should not be underestimated, and the importance of many voices. Dr Maibach again: the best programmes are made up of “simple, clear messages, repeated often, by a variety of trusted sources”. Whatever campaign you design should be embracing of those voices, and useful to the people running local initiatives and services.
  8. Finally – or possibly firstly – you are part of a system. Who else exists in the system, and how can you link in with them? What partnerships can you form, and what role is it appropriate for you to play? Should you be the lead in this space, or should others be in control? How can you amplify the voices that are most powerful and meaningful, and how can you connect with other parts of the system that can encourage change.

Three questions to get started

  1. What behaviour? What are we trying to achieve?  What does success look like, and what do we want to change? What are the range of possible behaviours and what will make the most difference (and are people most open to)?
  2. What system? Who else is working in or affected by this issue? What else is happening? What’s already going on, and how can we contribute to that? What is the system this issue exists within, and what is our place in that system?
  3. What audience insights? What insights do we have about our community? What do we know about why people behave the way they do, and who or what affects their behaviour? What are our knowledge gaps and how can we fill them?

I hope you find this useful. Email me if you want to talk:

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