Sustainable Behaviour Change Seminar

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The Centre for the Study of Behaviour Change and Influence held a seminar on sustainable behaviour change in Bristol this week. The seminar was sponsored by the UK Economic and Social Research Council and involved a series of presentations from academics, policy makers and practitioners working on sustainable behaviour change.

These are some of the overarching themes and reflections from the event:

  • The limitations of “traditional” nudge type interventions for sustainable behaviour change
  • The role of values in sustainable behaviour (individual values and frames)
  • The need for an interdisciplinary evidence base for policy and multi-model intervention designs
  • The problematic use of the term “behaviour change” if the issue is actually “choice change” i.e. choice architecture
  • The role of the physical and institutional environment in influencing behaviour (e.g. building design, product design, urban design)
  • The risks of moral licensing and rebound effects from fiscal instruments
  • The importance of making data meaningful to the public (i.e. how some health behaviour apps have failed)
  • The role of disciplinary power in influencing policy choice and intervention design (i.e. behavioural economics appearing more credible to policy makers trained in economics)

While there was only one presentation that addressed design directly, many of the presentations alluded to the intersections between design and behaviour change. For example, Tim Chatterton’s call for collective and social perspectives for behaviour change interventions as opposed to individual approaches underlined the importance of co-design. Adam Cooper’s discussion on affordances relates very strongly to the design approach i.e. using user insights to redesign public services, considering the various touchpoints a business or individual may encounter etc.


Dr. Tim Chatterton
Tim’s presentation dealt with the issue of whether interventions for behaviour change should take an individual or societal focus. His key argument was that current approaches, such as nudge, are useful in certain situations but are inadequate in dealing with the pace and scale of change required to tackle more complex challenges like climate change. He suggested that framing behaviour change interventions around individuals was broadly inefficient and that addressing the community or societal level was more important.

His presentation was useful but did not outline any practical steps through which these interventions can be designed or delivered. His own research with the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department of Transport suggested that a “multi-model” approach is required. What this means in practice is that policy makers need to have access to the widest possible toolkit of behavioural interventions and theories of change that can be adapted and delivered in different contexts. He advocated for a blending of the “mindspace” approaches and the social practice approach.

Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh (Cardiff University)
Lorraine is a professor of psychology and is conducting a number of research projects related to sustainable behaviour change. One of the topics she is interested in exploring is whether there is a “behavioural spillover” from green interventions. She had investigated if the introduction of the plastic bag levy in Wales had led to a spillover of green behaviour into other contexts of people’s lives. Using survey data and a combination of factor and regression analysis she suggested there was no impact on the “greenness” of people’s behaviour following the introduction of the levy. She obtained different results when looking at other actions such as attic insulation. This result was problematic in that people that were installing insulation did not necessarily value their investment in environmental terms.

The audience discussion after the presentation related to the challenges of using surveys to determine attitudes and behaviours. The main challenge being self reported data and the understanding of green values among the respondents.

Dr Dan Welch (Manchester University)
Dan’s presentation dealt with the social practice perspective of behaviour, the role of consumption and the challenge of social inequality. Dan discussed how the social practice perspective differs from dominant behavioural frameworks that inform policy and intervention design. He also highlighted how the perspective has received little or no traction in policy circles yet.

Dan suggested the dominant model assumes that behaviour is ‘driven’ by values, attitudes, or interests, and that individuals select from a relatively stable “portfolio” of attitudes and values to decide on a course of action. He highlighted how from a social practice perspective, this model structurally overestimates the role of choice in routine behaviour and fundamentally underestimates the extent to which individual autonomous action is constrained by infrastructures and institutions, by collective conventions and norms, and by access to resources: social, cultural and economic.

He also made an important point on the nature of inequality in the behaviour change debate. The argument he made was that more well-off households tend to be responsible for greater levels of emissions and thus should be the focus of interventions.

Adam Cooper (University College London)
Adam Cooper from UCL suggested that affordances can be a useful way to consider how the physical environment influences behaviour and how this context is often neglected in behaviour change interventions. This was particularly interesting to me because affordance is an important issue in design and design research. It describes how humans interact with the physical environment and how these influence behaviour.

While Adam was specifically referring to the physical environment there is a greater awareness of affordances in the context of intangible interactions i.e. digital products and services. This perspective underpins the methodology of Open Practices e.g. design ethnography, user journey mapping, service interactions, mapping friction points.

Both Adam Cooper and Dan Welch made strong cases for the need for new forms of policy evidence in relation to behaviour change. Their argument centred around the use of large scale survey data and the need to augment this with new types of insights e.g. ethnography. Adam emphasised the need to develop interdisciplinary research practices and programmes.

Adam Roberts (Department of Energy and Climate Change)
Adam was representing the behaviour change unit within the Energy and Climate Change department. He was also drawing on his experience within behaviour change teams in other government departments. Adam suggested that nudge was “no longer flavour of the month” but the department will continue to run “nudge type” trials. He suggested that this was partly because of a trend among ministers and because it is seen as a cheaper intervention.

He argued that a sociological approach should inform policy with an emphasis on targeting interventions on both the micro and macro levels.

Adam highlighted how the government has good data on behaviour and attitudes but that this doesn’t always result in effective interventions. He outlined the need to develop a behaviour change endurance and used the transtheoretical model as a way to frame this.