What can we learn from the behavioural sciences?

by Anne Nicholls

Sept 23 2020

Getting people to change their behaviour can be a tough challenge. Take obesity. There is evidence that people who are obese are more likely to die from Covid-19 or have a bad reaction to the virus. Our PM should know. But those whose diet revolves around high-calorie burgers, doughnuts and fizzy drinks are unlikely to suddenly start munching salads and quinoa just because some politician tells them to. No. The approach has to be more subtle.

Step in the behavioural scientists. These are the experts who advise politicians, civil servants, charities, brands and many others on how to get people to behave in a certain way, whether that means driving safely, completing their tax returns on time, recycling waste or eating more vegetables. 

There are a bewildering array of theories and models to absorb, drawn mainly from sociology and psychology. But rather than bamboozling you with social cognitive theory  or health belief models I have picked out three approaches that provide illuminating insights into how people behave and how communicators should engage with them. 

Affective polarisation. Why our world is becoming more divisive.

One of the disturbing trends over the past few years is the increasing polarisation within societies. This is not just confined to the UK in the wake of the Brexit referendum or the election of Trump in the USA. It is a much bigger phenomenon. 

There is a term for this trend – “affective polarisation”. Put simply, it means that people increasingly dislike and distrust those who don’t share their allegiances, as they have a natural tendency to form groups where you are either “in” or “out”. Affective polarisation is emotional and deeply rooted in our social identity. Research evidence (much of it from the USA) indicates that when you show people information they disagree with it can backfire as most don’t like being told they are wrong. The result is that they cling to their group identity and become more resistant to change. This polarisation has intensified over the past decade as ideological and partisan identities have become increasingly aligned. For example, white evangelicals in the USA are likely to vote Republican. Is there a similar pattern in the UK? Think back to the Brexit referendum  and the aftermath. 

All this may well have an impact on charities wanting to attract supporters and donors in a world where people are becoming increasingly entrenched in their views. To combat this   we need to look for things that unite rather than divide audiences. For example, a study of football fans showed that people who are primed to identify as supporters of a particular team are unlikely to help someone in distress wearing an opposing team shirt, but if they are primed to identify simply as lovers of the game the propensity to help is significantly increased. There’s a lesson there.

For more information visit the Depolarization Project website. 

The next two insights will show how people can be persuaded to change their behaviour in very different ways.

Frameworking, How to change people’s hearts and minds. 

The FrameWorks Institute is a think tank that helps organisations communicate about social issues to support progressive change. They have pioneered an approach to communications – the strategic frame analysis – that measures how people understand complex issues and how communicators can frame these issues to improve outcomes. Framing an issue effectively means presenting things in a slightly different way that changes the way people  perceive it. With the right framing, an issue can begin to reach beyond the usual adherents, attract new supporters and achieve change.

Here is an example. Many people think homelessness is simply about rough sleeping and the result of poor life choices by people, notably middle aged men, abused women and young people who have been kicked out of home. Yet it affects a much wider range of the population and isn’t just about sleeping on the streets. Often homelessness is a linked to other issues such as addiction, poverty and child trauma. FrameWorks has produced a report (based on research and analysis) that seeks to reframe the conversation about homelessness by creating a new narrative. This means adopting a set of framing guidelines that replaces messages about consumerist language that sees housing as a marketplace with one that focuses on the need for the wider community to tackle homelessness. 

Another example from a project about parenting in Australia illustrates the importance of getting the language right. Research showed that the message “We need to give parents more help” was deemed to be too judgemental. A preferred message was “Children thrive when parents are supported”. This worked because it avoided criticizing parents. Note the use of the third person  in the second message and the focus on society and community rather than the individual. 
People can change their behavior and attitudes but we need to focus on activating different ways of thinking. Choosing the right messages is vital.

For more information visit the FrameWorks Institute website.

Find out how the charity Crisis used framing to research attitudes towards homelessness.

Nudge nudge. How the gentle approach to behaviour change works.

Have you noticed posters telling you how to wash your hands to protect you from the coronavirus? Or maybe you’ve had a letter through the post reminding you to complete   your tax returns telling you that 95 per cent of people in your area have already done it? Both were campaigns designed by The Behavioural Insights Team (formerly based in the Cabinet Office). The premise behind this approach, known as “nudge”, is that gentle coaxing is more effective than hectoring if you want to influence people’s behaviour. So to get children to eat more fruit, place them at eye level in the school canteen where they can grab them easily. If you want people to sign up to a workplace pension make it the default, so people are automatically opted in.

Research shows that we often take mental short cuts to manage the massive amount of information that is thrown at us. Taking this on board, the Behavioural Insights Team advocate removing obstacles to change so that people find it easier to take action.

They have devised a simple four step approach using the acronym EAST. Interventions need to be Easy (carried out with minimal effort), Attractive (appealing), Social (a  reminder that we are influenced by others) and Timely (needs to happen at the right time).  This approach has been used to encourage exercise and health eating, persuade GPs not to overprescribe antibiotics, improve student attendance and much more. However, basing big political decisions on “nudge” theory has proved controversial. A group of more than 600 academics criticised the government’s initial cautious approach to dealing with the coronoavirus crisis and demanded to know the scientific basis for their decisions. The government’s justification was that people would get “behavioural fatigue” if coerced into social distancing. This contradicted the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for a harsher approach at the time. Surprisingly, most people did respond to the instruction to self isolate and maintain social distancing. Nudge was not needed. Nor is it the only tool in the box. Sometimes coercion and legislation are necessary to change behaviour. But nudge can work well in the right circumstances.

For more information visit the Behavioural Insights Team website.

Find out about how the Team provided insights into the impact of  Covid-19 on wellbeing

Top 10 tips

1. Meet your audiences where they are instead of trying to make major changes.

2. Decide when a softly “nudge” approach is right and when a stronger more directive message is appropriate. 

3. Don’t assume that people will act rationally and respond to facts. Emotion is a stronger driver of change. 

4. If your message is not getting the right reaction reframe it with a different narrative.
5. Sometimes campaigning can be divisive. Framing and focusing on what unites us is part of the solution.

6. Research your audiences thoroughly. Delve deeply into their motivations and values.

7. Find out what people really think and feel about an issue. Don’t make assumptions.

8. Take care over the language you use. Avoid being judgmental.  

9. Don’t focus on problems. Show that change is possible. 

10. Take time to really get to grips with issues. Use the behavioural sciences to find new ways of doing things and new insights. Check out the websites of the three organisations mentioned. There is a wealth of material.

These three examples were all presented at a conference about social science insights organised by CharityComms on 5 March 2020. See here.