Common (thinking) errors in behavioural change

‘Why is it so hard to change behaviour?’ It struck researchers Michael P. Kelly and Mary Barker that most attempts by policymakers to promote healthy behaviour have been unsuccessful, and they wanted to know why. Their answer to that question is confronting: ‘Because policymakers keep repeating the same crucial mistakes that contradict scientific insights about behaviour change.’

In the eight years since the publication of their article, attention to behaviour change and behavioural science has fortunately only increased. Nevertheless, the same six common (thinking) errors are still rampant, which is why we would like to bring them to your attention. We are under no illusion that sharing the information below will alone lead to behavioural change (fallacy #3, ha), but if it encourages self-reflection and perhaps a good conversation with colleagues, that is pure profit.

What are those common (thinking) mistakes in behaviour change?

1. ‘Just use your common sense’

This is the biggest and overarching fallacy from which many other misconceptions stem. ‘Surely it is clear what needs to be done here, get on with it!’ But if behaviour change was simply a matter of using your common sense and making good choices, we should all be able to always behave the way we would like to behave. And we all know that is not how it works.

Human behaviour is an interplay of habits, automatic responses to the environment, and conscious choices and trade-offs. Behaviour takes place in complex social environments and cultures. (Not to mention the force field of influence by commercial parties who have an interest in maintaining and reinforcing specific behaviour).
If you seek simple and non-scientific answers to complex problems, you are fooling yourself and others. It may appear nice and decisive and no-nonsense, but ignoring scientific insights on behaviour change leads to ineffective policies and a waste of effort and resources.

2. ‘What matters is that the message arrives’

Here the thinking is: spreading an understandable message that resonates with the target audience is enough to achieve behavioural change. You provide an external stimulus (stimuli) and assume it will prompt certain behaviour (response). But scientific psychological research shows that simple stimulus-response models explain only a small fraction of human behaviour. Behaviour change is a lot more than just responding to a message. Campaigns can play an important role and can be effective, but they are only one element of an overall strategy

3. ‘Knowledge and information drive behaviour’
Another common phenomenon that behavioural science warns against is overestimating the influence of information provision. The idea ‘if experts inform people about the negative consequences of their behaviour it will lead to behavioural change’ is wrong and unscientific.

For example, people who exhibit unhealthy behaviour often know quite well that their behaviour is unhealthy and also what behaviour would lead to better health, but there are all kinds of factors in their lives that keep them from that healthy behaviour. A lack of knowledge is not the only possible cause of undesirable behaviour, and providing knowledge alone is rarely the solution.

4. ‘People behave rationally’
Someone who makes this mistake assumes that people a) assess arguments critically and rationally, b) decide on the basis of that rational assessment what is sensible and logical to do, c) then actually do so. Which, of course, they don’t.

This line of thinking is in line with ‘economic utility theory‘, which states that behaviour is determined by people trying to maximise their pleasure, benefits and profit and minimise their effort, loss and cost. This premise can be seen in several (older) behavioural theories and models. But all ‘utility theories‘ ignore the fact that people sometimes behave altruistically, or out of love, jealousy, fear, compassion, corruption, or pleasure. Not everything is a profit and loss calculation. The rational and calculating approach is just one of the ways humans function, but we also exhibit a lot of automatic behaviour where we respond unconsciously to out of the social and physical environment.

Our behaviour is embedded in a social context: our lifestyle, our daily life with all its routines and habits, is strongly linked to our identity and self-image – and the identity that others ascribe to us is also partly determined by these behaviours.

In Western culture, we have a deeply individualistic view of behaviour, where people ‘naturally’ act out of self-interest, maximising profit and minimising loss. Because ‘utility theories’ fit seamlessly with these conceptions, they are unabatedly popular, despite being demonstrably incorrect – or at least very incomplete – and with few results.

Co-location of waste

5. ‘People behave irrationally’
This is another dangerous fallacy. Sometimes other people’s behaviour is literally incomprehensible and then the temptation is to dismiss it as irrational. But if you were to look more closely, you will find out that their behaviour – viewed from their own perspective and life circumstances – is not at all as irrational as you initially thought. People often have their own reasons for doing things. Behaviour that is maintained is usually functional for people, whatever that function may be. Listen when someone explains why they do what they do and don’t dismiss their own reasoning, even though you may have ready facts about the proven disadvantages of their behaviour.

6. ‘Behaviour is easily predictable’
The fields of behavioural and medical science are dominated by predictive causal models, just like politics. The desire to predict developments is strong: we like clarity, grip, (false) certainty and the (illusion of) guaranteed results. A leads to B. ‘If we deploy campaigns with language that people can understand about what the options are, they will change their unwanted behaviour.’ But behaviour is incredibly diverse and very difficult to predict: only in the case of a limited number of automatic responses and a relatively short time frame is it possible to accurately predict which stimulus will lead to which change.

Therefore, it is much more useful and effective to unravel its cause: what circumstances brought about the current behaviour? Start with the behaviour, identify who is exhibiting it and where, and examine what causal events precede it. Because behaviour is diverse but not random: there is a reason why people do what they do. And based on those insights, you then think about what you could do to achieve change and start developing interventions.

And with that last point, we have unwittingly arrived at the heart of Design Thinking. Human-centred: you examine how a situation is put together from the perspective of the target group. Holistic: you have an eye for the social, physical and systemic context. Open-minded: willing to learn and listen. Action-oriented: pragmatic, looking at what really works, getting further by doing. We like to add ‘co-creative’ and ‘iterative’: not only talk to the people whose behaviour you want to change, but also involve them in coming up with possible solutions and interventions. Embrace advancing insight, keep testing and learning and scraping until it works.

 * Read the professors’ article here Michael P. Kelly (University of Cambridge) and Mary Barker (University of Southampton): ‘Why is Changing Health Related Behaviour so Difficult?’  

* Kelly and Barker examined cases from England, but argue that their critique is much more broadly applicable. They examined public health policies but the principles they bring out are (both in their view and ours) more widely applicable. Besides, public health is the cradle of psychology and behaviour change, traditionally much knowledge originally developed in that context is subsequently applied to other fields.