Research Context

Our understanding of behaviour has roots in many decades of behavioural and neuroscientific research which sought to unpack and understand the factors, processes or causes of behaviour. This is now supported by research from across the social sciences and other disciplines that are providing new theories and models of behaviour and behaviour change.

Considering Behaviour

Within the literature, behaviour is conceptualised and defined in different ways. For example, some literature takes an individual-centric approach by emphasising the internal enablers and barriers to behaviour change. These include unconscious behaviour (routines and habits), social and psychological factors (attitude, interest, beliefs, feelings, and self efficacy/confidence), knowledge factors (limitations in or access to knowledge) and demographic factors (age, education, gender, income). Other sections of the literature emphasise the interplay between internal and external factors.

This can include factors such as infrastructural factors (physical and digital infrastructure), cultural barriers (social norms and traditions), economic barriers (people’s ability to invest) and institutional barriers (law, politics and organisational structures).

There are also a number of, sometimes competing, theoretical frameworks that aim to describe how behaviour changes. These include Social Norms Theory, Social Practice Theory, The Theory of Planned Behaviour & Theory of Reasoned Action, The Health Belief Model and the Stages of Change (Transtheoretical Model).


Policy & Behaviour Change

Many governments have attempted to create the conditions for Behaviour Change for Sustainable Development through semi-public infrastructure, public information campaigns and supply-side interventions (e.g. business support programmes, demonstration projects). There is a growing understanding that many current policy interventions for behaviour change in business and households can be ineffective, or worse, counter-productive.

The assumption that behaviour can be changed through the provision of information (i.e. the ‘deficit’ and ‘regulation’ models) is flawed. The ‘rational choice’ assumption on individual behaviour undervalues the dynamic, interactive and social nature of behaviour change. Recent empirical studies have shown that “anomalous behaviour” such as status quo bias, endowment effect, loss aversion, framing effects, anchoring and preference reversals can render interventions ineffective. Additionally, people typically do not or are unable to calculate an optimal strategy when purchasing environmentally preferable goods or services and resort to heuristics or “rules of thumb” which are often context specific and sub-optimal.

There is also recognition that the intention to change does not always give rise to a change in individual behaviour. This “Value-Action gap” is a result of several factors inherent to human behaviour and is of particular interest to sustainable development policy. For example, while people express the intention to act in a pro-sustainable manner and take actions (e.g. switching off lights, recycling waste) few people maintain these behaviours. There are various reasons for this explained by the literature but one reason is that people may be ‘locked’ into particular behaviours because of factors relating to their social context.

Similarly, many interventions to support sustainable practices in business have been based on a linear understanding of innovation. Interventions often address specific market failures such as externalities, imperfect and asymmetric information but undervalue the interaction between actors and institutions within the wider innovation system. The co-evolutionary view of socio-technical systems highlights system failures such as lock-in and path dependency failures, hard and weak network ties, capability and learning and infrastructure that make interventions ineffective.

behaviour change can be about seeing people as the problem or solving people’s problems

Carli DiSalvo

Design & Behaviour Change

The research on Design for Sustainable Behaviour Change has predominantly focussed on the design of artefacts, services and interactions that support the reduction of avoidable resource consumption during use phases. There is no consistent or commonly agreed framework or methodology but the literature provides a general overview of how an understanding of behaviour can shape the design process.
Some of the proposed design methodologies are highly contextualised in the sense that they focus on specific practices (i.e. cooking or washing) or they are focussed on specific artefacts and interactions embedded within those practices (i.e. water saving shower heads, efficient washing machines). These methodologies are aimed at either reinforcing positive practices or limiting negative practices. Because of that, the approaches tend to focus on the persuasive or preventative characteristics of the context in which practices occur.

There is a small but growing number of frameworks that support the development of policy interventions (see “connecting the dots” below). These include the UK Institute of Government’s Mindspace report, The Behavioural Insights team’s EAST framework, DEFRA’s 4E’s, The Scottish Governments ISM model and the Michie’s “Behaviour Change Wheel”. While there are many frameworks, there is a need to consider the capacity (knowledge, competencies, legitimacy) of government and intermediary organisations to co-design, prototype, develop, deliver and evaluate behaviour change interventions develop smarter systems of participatory evaluation.