Transforming Behaviour Change
An Astrologer once told me that I have an exalted sun in my house of enemies. This positive feature of my chart meant that bad feelings towards me are ‘burnt up’ by the heat of the sun, for which I am grateful. I have never really understood the basis on which astrology might conceivably make sense on even the most charitable interpretation, so I had to take his word for the rationale, but I appreciated the thought, which resonated with my experience.
The lack of enemies in my life means that I lack expertise in confrontation, and I am never quite sure what to do with hostility when it is directed towards me. Sometimes I feel disproportionately shocked and wounded, but mostly I am just bemused.
While chairing a recent RSA event in our Great Room, documented in the Guardian (where I was surprised to see my first name is ‘Donald’) by Carole Jahme, I had to endure some intemperate language from a distinguished guest after I tried unsuccessfully to involve the audience with just fifteen minutes of the lunch hour remaining. This exchange was regrettable, and while I could perhaps have timed and phrased my comments in ways less likely to provoke a hostile response, the sourness of the reaction was bizarre, and there wasn’t much to be learned from the experience.
A more significant case of hostility came a few months ago, when I wrote a Guardian CIF piece in response to The House of Lords report on Behaviour Change(which, alas, received very little coverage because it coincided with Rupert Murdoch giving evidence in Parliament). If you look at the final comment, by Cornelius Lysergic, you will see ‘the old familiar suggestion’:
“F*** off with your change our behaviour s***. Just f*** off.’
That was my favourite comment by far. As I have written before with respect to those who challenge the very basis for RSA’s work on Social Brain it is always interesting to read the ‘enemy’, because they sharpen your sense of purpose. In this case the challenge could not be clearer: Why bother with behaviour change at all?
when you consider the planet’s most pressing challenges, on debt, on energy, on population, on ageing, on stress, on obesity, on terrorism, you find that most are either at root, or in part, behavioural.
The simple answer is that when you consider the planet’s most pressing challenges, on debt, on energy, on population, on ageing, on stress, on obesity, on terrorism, you find that most are either at root, or in part, behavioural. Governments have known this for a long time, but they have only recently realised that traditional policy levers relating to tax and regulation are not always enough to change behaviour in the requisite ways, and that some ‘behavioural insight’ – a pleasing phrase that probably has a limited shelf life – is required.
The Institute for Government addressed this challenge, and their Mindspace report appears to be very popular at every level of Government. For instance, I recently attended a meeting of the DCLG Behavioural Research Network where all major government departments gave a short presentation on how they are applying some of the principles in Mindspace, and more.
But the Government being interested will not allay the concerns of people like Cornelius Lysergic, indeed it will positively reinforce them. So given that it seems we need to change our behaviour, is there a way to make the idea of ‘behaviour change’ less top-down, less about elites manipulating the masses, less behaviourist and more human, less like something done to people(or pigeons) and more about doing things with them?
We think so, and in a few days we will be publishing a report called Transforming Behaviour Change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania, which will explain how and why. The challenge is to turn behaviour change into something people are encouraged to do themselves, based on knowledge of their own cognitive resources and frailties. A further challenge is to move away from what Aditya Chakrabortty called ‘cute technocratic solutions to mostly minor problems’ and focus on what we call ‘adaptive challenges‘. We need a richer conception of behaviour that is neither reductionist nor exclusively behaviourist, and recognises the need for individuals and groups to have more understanding of their own behaviour, including how it relates to values and attitudes.
Watch this space for details of that, and an ongoing account of the ideas emerging from our work.