Taking Spirituality Seriously

October 2, 2013 by · 16 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Later this month I will be giving a short talk at the beginning of an RSA public event introducing the project outlined in The Brains Behind Spirituality. I am arguing that we need a reappraisal of the cultural and social value of spirituality as essential foundational work for deepening our understanding of a range of practical and policy issues.

As outlined in the above essay, rather than thinking of ‘the spiritual’ as an aspect of religion, or as an alternative to religion, we want to view it through the lens of what we have learnt (or perhaps remembered) about human nature over the last few decades; including the fact that our cognition has evolved and it is embodied in flesh, embedded in culture and extended through technology; we have a fundamentally social nature, we are burdened and blessed by automaticity, and we now understand that our ‘self’ may not be unitary and soul-like but rather in some sense illusory, protean or virtual, and created and maintained mostly through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

The resulting conception of the spiritual is evolving, but some core aspects of what might be considered central to spirituality – meaning, belief and morality for instance, do start to look very different. In the talk I will develop the idea that meaning is best understood as embodied and made, that belief is more about social and cultural norms than factual propositions and that morality is best understood as dispositional rather than rational; not so much about adhering to ethical precepts, but closely connected with our idea of self and our capacity to experience it as illusory and constructed, while also working towards the experience of integration.

It is a daunting task. In about twelve minutes I will have to cover a lot of ground, so for now I wanted to try to hone the part about the rationale for the project, which also relates to why the RSA might be doing something like this. I currently see three main reasons why it is timely and important to enrich our idea of spirituality:

In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and less likely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration

1) In a context where economic expansion is both harder to achieve and unlikely to improve our welfare, we need to enhance our idea of non-material aspiration – of what we should be aiming for – and ‘wellbeing’, a relatively static concept, doesn’t always suffice.

2) In light of the intractability of various social and ecological challenges, include climate change, security, and public health, we need to deepen and widen our understanding of what ‘behaviour change‘ might mean.

3) There are several policy domains where ‘spirituality’ is recognised as being important – education, end of life care, mental health, but the concept is rarely unpacked in detail and needs a sounder grounding in what we know about ourselves.

To take these in turn:

1) Beyond wellbeing: aspiration in austerity.

The extent to which money makes you happy is complex, and to some extent unresolved, but the evidence appears to indicate that, at best, money brings diminishing returns for wellbeing. More to the point, in the context of public debt, austerity, and increasingly salient environmental limits on economic expansion, it is likely to be harder for most people to meet material aspirations for the foreseeable future. It is therefore timely to look more closely at what non-material aspiration looks like.

The issue is not so much the familiar ethical question of how we should live, but the more subtle one of how we can grow and develop over time rather than merely change. If what I seek to improve or increase is not necessarily my wealth, what is it? The domain for such questions used to be philosophy and religion, but these questions have a new urgency in the developed world, and we may need to look in new places for the answers.

One such place is ‘How much is enough?’ by Robert and Edward Skidelsky, which is a marvellous book (Rowan Williams called it ‘crisp and pungent’) with the underlying claim in the virtue ethics tradition that our proper collective aim is to help people not just to be happy, but to have reasons to be happy.

You don’t need spirituality to have reason to be happy, but it could help rather a lot. It is noteworthy, for instance, that the positive psychologist Martin Seligman calls spirituality ‘a signature strength’ which is an important aspect of resilience, and he suggests it is about “knowing where you fit in the larger scheme,” as he writes in his book, Flourish.

There are abundant definitions of spirituality, and my particular framing of spirituality is gradually emerging. I am beginning to think of it as a mixture of three inter-related fundamental aspects of how we relate to each other and the world: perspectives (world views, life stances, values), practices (meditation, rituals, customs) and experiences (belonging, aliveness, transcendence). On this framing, spiritual growth is about enriching our capacity to develop and align our perspectives, practices and experiences. In this sense spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

2) Deepening behaviour change: ‘improving the grain’ of human nature.

The hegemonic behaviour change perspective – libertarian paternalism (‘nudge‘) takes many aspects of human nature as givens- things we should just accept and work with rather than try to change. Policymakers in the UK and many other countries are increasingly advised to ‘go with the grain’ of human nature, as if this grain was invariant and inflexible. This perspective has its place, but is largely blind to the potential of spiritual practice.

spirituality is fundamentally about non-material aspiration, about ‘being the change you want to see in the world’, which goes beyond wellbeing and taps into a higher-order conception of behaviour change.

To take two examples, while much of human behaviour is automatic, and heavily influenced by the choice architectures of the surrounding environment, messenger effects, social norms and a range of other influences, meditators who have cultivated the capacity for mindfulness have much greater control over their reactions. Over time, mindfulness helps behaviour to become significantly less reactive, and much more in people’s conscious control. This may not make them entirely immune to all cognitive biases, but it does show the possibility that we can change our ‘grain’.

Second, in the Summer RSA Journal, there was an article about ‘The Biological limits of empathy‘ by Steven Asma who makes the superficially compelling case that there are limits to how much we can expand our empathy:

“If care is indeed a limited resource, then it cannot stretch indefinitely to cover the massive domain of strangers…Our tribes of kith and kin are ‘affective communities’ and this unique emotional connection with our favourites entails great generosity and selfless loyalty. There is an upper limit to our tribal emotional expansion and that limit makes universal empathy impossible.”

Now I am not saying he is strictly wrong, but I strongly suspect he hasn’t heard of metta bhavana, or ‘loving kindness meditation‘, which is precisely about expanding this sense of empathy and care beyond our natural impulses. If every child were to learn this practice and be supported in doing it regularly with supervision and advice, the ‘upper limit’ to empathy and ‘emotional expansion’ may not hold at all.

Moreover, I have only skimmed the surface with just two forms of practice, from a predominantly Buddhist perspective. Other traditions would have things to say, and the Common Cause group may add that you don’t even need spiritual practice to illustrate this point, and that it is enough to prime people’s sense of caring about bigger-that-self problems to get them to think and act more generously and altruistically.

3) Informing spiritual needs and practices in specific domains.

Later this week RSA Education is hosting a workshop on “Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Education‘ and although I don’t know the area well, I believe the ‘spiritual’ dimension is considered particularly hard to teach and assess.

One of the best references to inform this perspective is Guy Claxton’s Inaugural address to Bristol Graduate School of Education in 2002 called ‘Mind Expanding‘. He unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

Claxton unpacks spiritual needs of children as the search for entirely normal and adaptive experiences including belonging, peace of mind, aliveness and mystery.

The claim is that if they don’t find such experiences in safe nurturing environments, they may seek them out elsewhere. So gangs may give belonging, crime may offer aliveness, drugs the experience of mystery and so forth. The point is definitely not to encourage such activities, but to recognise the legitimate spiritual need that legitimately seeks a less harmful form of expression.

There are also significant bodies of research on spirituality in nursing  and in psychiatry and no doubt numerous other domains that need to better understood and appreciated.

So that’s my current pitch for the relatively public aspect of the ‘so what?’, and ‘why bother?’ question of Spirituality. It’s very much a work in progress, so if you have made it this far, I would be very grateful for any thoughts.

When email is an unwelcome house guest…

June 12, 2013 by · 7 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Email means different things to different people. Some wise souls use it almost exclusively at their workplace, and view email as a tool for tasks, to be dealt with efficiently and dispassionately. But many, and probably most, now view their email as an extension of themselves. In this sense it’s more like a portal to quench curiosity, or a stage where we play our part, or worse, it’s a ticking bomb of words that may or may not explode at any minute. As such, email has become the vortex of choice for our unquiet minds.

While I aspire to be more like an email technocrat, and manage it for short periods, I am part of the generation that uses email, despite its various limitations, as the default means of communicating. And I have noticed, largely through the use of email on smartphones, that I am gradually being sucked into the vortex.


Image via medibeauty.biz

To illustrate, yesterday evening I reached home about 6.30, connected with family, had dinner, took my son out for a brief walk and came back home ready to put him to bed. I was a little tired, but otherwise present, relaxed, at ease. And then I made the mistake of just quickly checking my smartphone for new work emails.

There were a few that made no psychic impact, but one that read like an implicit rebuke to a previous email I had sent, and it lingered uncomfortably in my psyche for the next two hours until I managed to sleep. I did lots of other things in that time, but the impact of the email was still there, a centrifugal force pulling my attention away from the thoughts and feelings of the people around me, and diluting the quality of experience in the here and now.

Many people view email as a portal to quench restless curiosity, or as an identity update, or as a verbal bomb that might explode at any minute, and as such it becomes the default vortex for our unquiet minds.

The cost of convenience

Of course, there is the enormous convenience of being able to easily work from home and out of office hours and it helps to have work email accessible on your phone. Still, that expectation and convenience creates habitual patterns of behaviour that are by no means entirely benign.

The collapse of boundaries between work and home is not always a bad thing, but the ubiquity of smart phones means that there is always an imminent threat of such a collapse happening at the wrong moment. Perhaps some people can absorb news about a funding application, troubling information about a colleague or a reminder of an imminent deadline and return to the mood and attentiveness they had before checking, but I haven’t met them yet, and suspect they are few and far between.

Just checking?

Perhaps the core issue is the default verb we use for email. This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check? It suggests a kind of vigilance and surveillance that a responsible person ought to undertake, like “I’m just going to check I have my passport” or “I’m just going to check I locked the front door.” If we shifted this mindset of ‘checking’, the presence of email on our smartphones may not be such a threat to our presence and peace of mind. If email was instead something one had ‘to do’ or ‘to write’ or ‘to read’, the perceived urgency ‘to check’ would not be there and the restless habitual tendencies that underpin it might thereby be weakened.

This whole idea of ‘checking’ email feels wrong to me. Why this verb- to check?

To be clear, I think this challenge of handling emails is significantly complicated by smartphones, not least because 78% of people check email on their smartphones. When you sit at your desk you can (and really should) get better at managing your mails, and Oliver Burkeman, for instance, is excellent on how to achieve what he calls ‘inbox nirvana‘. However, when your phone is synchronised with your work email, as most now are, this kind of management is much harder. You read your emails on the phone while waiting in queues, while travelling, and more generally when you are not strictly ‘working’, so you are much more likely just to scan them and leave them in your inbox rather than act on them with the requisite clarity of purpose.

So what to do? The crux of behaviour change is often distilled as the challenge of making good things easier to do and bad things harder to do. In this case, I don’t want to lose the option of using/reading/writing/enjoying my work email on my phone when I actively choose to, but I do want to be saved from my my tendency just to ‘check’ for the wrong reasons. Is there software or an app that might help here? Otherwise we are back to wrestling with the brute binary of the on/off button, and we all know who tends to win that one.

Flushing the toilet on water wastage

May 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Flushing the toilet is something that most people do automatically without putting too much thought into it. But given that the average Brit flushes the toilet five times per day and that older toilets can use up to 9 litres of water per flush, perhaps this is something we should be taking more notice of.

According to these websites here, here and here, flushing toilets is the largest single use of a household’s indoor water consumption, making up roughly 30% of indoor water consumed.  The average family moving from a single flush to a lower-use dual-flush system could save 80 litres per day.  And on a very sobering note, “Many people in the world exist on 10 litres of water a day or less. We can use almost that amount in one flush of the toilet.”

I must admit that I myself don’t often think about flushing the toilet; but recently a sign in a public toilet made me think twice. I was at Federation Square, a building complex and public space in downtown Melbourne, to catch up with Bri Williams, an Australian-based consultant and fellow behavioural-science-enthusiast.  The toilets at Fed Square had a dual-flush system with the following sign above the flusher: fed square loos 1

fed square loos 2

half-flush and full-flush buttons at Fed Square public restrooms

Working at the RSA in the Social Brain Centre, we are often looking out for examples of tool that help with behaviour change.  So the design of these public toilets stood out for me as a way to help make water conservation easy, salient, and normal.

First, the dual flush system makes it easy to conserve water – at the push of a button, even.  No need to contemplate about whether to use the old saying “if it’s yellow let it mellow”…

Next, the request to save water is highly salient – the sign is placed immediately above the flush buttons, right at eye level.  You can’t miss it. This is important because the request happens at the time of the behaviour (known as a hot trigger, as opposed to a cold trigger which would ask for an action at some point in the future, decoupled from the time of the request).

And finally, the sign makes water conservation normal. By stating that toilets use rain water to flush the toilets, it shows the ‘user’ that the rest of Fed Square is committed to reducing water wastage.  Normalising a new behaviour – in this case water conservation – is an important component of successful behaviour change.

To find out more about the benefits of dual-flush toilets, visit the websites listed above, or even take “the ultimate dual flush toilet quiz” here (it is amazing and somewhat terrifying what you can find  googling “toilets”).  Big actions, such as building redesign to capture rainwater for practical use, are crucial to make a large impact on outcomes (pro-environmental and other). But changes that each one of us can make to small, frequent actions, such as flushing the toilet, all add up to have a large impact too.

Get Britain Cycling

April 24, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Get Britain Cycling‘, the report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into cycling has been published today. I attended one of the inquiry sessions at Westminster earlier this year, where I was able  to listen to expert witnesses give evidence on cycling, so it’s exciting to see what came of it.

get britain cycling

The report emphasises the need for urgent action to help get Britain cycling and highlights the range of ways in which cycling can play a significant role in addressing problems that need to be tackled. These include sedentary lifestyles and obesity, air pollution from cars and our increasingly congested towns and cities.

The major conclusion is that there are “massive and unnecessary” barriers which prevent people from taking to their bicycles. The report insists that we need a bold vision from government to get Britain cycling, which, like many things, really rests on top down support. It also talks about the need for a “fundamental cultural shift” in how Britons think about travel.

The report calls for a target of increasing cycle journeys from the current less than 2 per cent of journeys to 10 per cent by 2025 and 25 per cent by 2050. It suggests that to do this we will need a national cycling champion and a national action plan. Key elements the report identifies that will be needed include:

  • Better, more consistent and more coherent funding
  • Incorporating the needs of cyclists at every stage of road design
  • Safe speed limits (20mph in all residential streets)
  • Training and education (for children and adults)
  • Political leadership

The issue of funding is clearly key, and the impact of long term lack of investment in cycling shouldn’t be underestimated. Outside London, less than £2 a head is spent on cycling in England – compare that with the £24 a head spent in Holland and you can see why the Dutch are leaps and bounds ahead of us in terms of having a national cycling culture.

I haven’t yet read the full report, but the headlines from the summary and recommendations seem to me to hit the nail on the head. As I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, I’ve been examining the issue of cycling in recent months. From the perspective of the Social Brain Centre, the need to get people cycling can be seen as a behaviour change challenge, and I’ve been working on ways which small steps can be taken to contribute to what the report has called a fundamental cultural shift.

There is a need to normalise cycling, as well as the very urgent need to invest in better infrastructure to make it safer and more appealing. Part of the process of normalising cycling is to better understand the barriers to and facilitators of cycling, and it is this side of things that we’re intending to focus on in the action research currently under development.

Watch this space for more on that as it develops. In the mean time, the report is going to be presented to the government, and a coalition of charities and cycling organisations, led by the Times, have set up an e-petition calling on the government to implement the recommendations. If you agree that it’s time to get Britain cycling, do your bit and sign the petition now!


Could baby faces and pom poms be the answer to anti-social behaviour?

March 8, 2013 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain, Social Economy 


(Baby faces on shop windows, Greens End, London. Image via lbbonline.com)

In a moment, some fun ideas about music, babies, pom poms and the colour pink, but I want you to take them seriously, so first consider this:

Anti-social behaviour is not crime as such, but it can be highly unpleasant, and is linked to criminality in public perception, so tackling anti-social behaviour has value in itself whether or not it directly reduces crime.

It is not easy to have a convincing effect on crime or anti-social behaviour because both are a function of whether and how people report their experiences, and how those reports are then categorised and measured by police.

Finding ways to be tough on crime and the causes of crime (perhaps Tony Blair’s most famous policy encapsulation) remains a fundamental policy challenge that needs to be taken seriously (e.g. poverty, policing) but there is a place for lighter touch and more creative interventions if those measures help to inform rather than replace more significant efforts to tackle the problems.

In each of the following cases, the researcher or prospective funder is entitled to ask: How do you know it’s working? Sometimes there will be such evidence, but often the answer appears to be: Well we don’t know for sure, but it’s grounded in a credible idea, we believe in it, and most people seem to like it. Sometimes, especially when funds are tight, that may have to suffice?

So with those qualifications in mind, here are a few ideas on how we might be playful (but nonetheless serious) on changing the atmosphere in which anti-social behaviour happens.

1) Playing classical music on the Underground, either through loudspeakers of buskers is not new, but it appears to have a calming effect on commuters in a context that is otherwise stress and conflict inducing. Of course the evidence for the effect is not unequivocal and it depends on the music, the volume, whether it is played by a person or not etc, but the idea is basically sound (pun gleefully intended).

2) Getting graffiti artists to paint baby faces on shop doors is based on the idea that we have evolved to respond compassionately to baby faces (big cheeks, big eyes) so when we see them we automatically shift towards caring tenderly for our beloved fellow humans and away from that raging desire to smash open a generic door to get at the loot.

Police officer attaching pom-poms to a tree

(Pom Poms in Leicester. Image via www.bbc.co.uk)

3) More recently, Matthew Taylor sent me a link to a BBC article on a particular kind of Guerilla knitting  that seems particularly speculative but nonetheless intriguing. The claim seems simply to be that people smile and feel more at ease when they see pom poms dangling from trees, and that this therefore encourages them to take routes and use areas that they otherwise wouldn’t. It appears (although I believe just anecdotally) that it may have helped to reduce fear of crime in an area of Leicester.

I really don’t know what to make of these ideas, but I generally like such interventions for two main reasons. First, they are a human, sensual and entertaining way of dealing with issues that tend to be otherwise gritty and difficult. Secondly, they problematise the idea that you always need hard evidence to make a difference. For a life-saving drug that might also kill you, it helps to know that it has been rigorously tested, but in the social world where the core issues relate to people’s hearts and minds, there is a place for this kind of playful speculation.

Although I would prefer not to be quoted and remembered as somebody who believed that pom poms were the solution to crime, I genuinely think we should respond to such seriously playful interventions as thoughtfully and supportively as possible.

Addendum: A colleague informs me that researchers have also tried painting furniture pink in particularly troubled areas on the grounds that “it’s hard to look tough sitting on a pink bench.” Again, it’s hard to measure the effect without knowing how tough somebody thinks they look on a blue bench, green bench etc!

What form of behaviour change does climate change call for?

March 5, 2013 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

“If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.”   (G Monbiot, Heat, 2007, xvii)

I recently gave a 15 minute presentation on the Social Brain Centre‘s emerging ideas relating to behaviour change in the context of Climate Change. The title was: “What kind of behaviour change do we need?” The details will soon be unpacked in a report, grounded in evidence from a national survey, but the idea in outline is as follows:

  • Begin with those people who fully accept the reality of climate challenge, want to do more to deal with it in their own lives, but somehow don’t manage to (‘climate ignorers‘)
  • Focus on practices that have strategic value (changing behaviour in a way that promotes attitudes or values that reinforce rather than undermine related behaviours)
  • Help people change certain social practices (often called ‘habits’) that are formative of their relationship to climate change.
  • Design this change in a a way that promotes social diffusion to shift social norms and shape political will at a local level.
  • Through a shift in civil society, local government and businesses, change political will at national and international levels.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours.

Now I know that pattern of change sounds a bit too good, platonic and partial to be true, but it’s a relatively coherent roadmap, and it helps to frame the role, relevance of nature of the behaviour change interventions that we want to work on. I’m really excited about this work programme, which feels very promising, and I am therefore very grateful to our funders for giving us a chance to give some practical definition to this theory of change.

And yet, when I gave the talk, I didn’t feel quite right afterwards, and sensed that I hadn’t connected with the audience as well as I might usually hope to. What was going on?

I gradually realised that the room was full of people who are working actively to reduce emissions in the UK. Everyone present had some form of connection with The Sainsbury Family Charitable Trusts Climate Change Collaboration and many, perhaps most, have some practical experience of attempts to implement The Green Deal.

On reflection, I realised there is a subtle but important difference between behaviour change for climate change as a social and cultural phenomenon, and behaviour change for energy-related behaviours. I suspect most people in the room were focussed on the latter issue, while I spoke mostly to the former.

Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

The climate change challenge is compounded by the fact that people think about it in very different ways. Many see it fundamentally as a technical problem. On this view, Climate Scientists tell us about the extent of the risk to the stability and predictability of natural systems in probabilistic language, the political class, advised mostly by economists, make a collective judgement about how serious the problem is, and then they decide on what a credible and achievable solution looks like. In theory, businesses, civil servants, consumers and citizens then rally to that judgement.

On this framing of  ‘climate change’ it’s a clear problem lending itself to a solution. The corollary is that behaviour change is principally about working to make efficient energy use easier and more rewarding, and then measuring the impact of those interventions against national targets. If you can get people to retrofit their homes in the right way, switch to green energy providers, and improve the fuel efficiency of their cars and their driving behaviours, then you are taking huge strides towards solving ‘the problem’. 

Climate Change: Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?

But many don’t see it as that kind of ‘problem’ and are sceptical that such ‘solutions’ could ever really work. At the risk of sounding (Bill) Clintonesque, there is a difference between Climate Change as a natural phenomenon and ‘Climate change’ as a social and political issue, and even when you accept the reality of the former, there is huge scope for dispute about the latter. Indeed, in a previous post I suggested there are at least 30 wedge issues on climate change.

Perhaps the most important wedge in these wedge issues is one we make in Transforming Behaviour Change (see part two, p17), namely the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges. In this respect it is noteworthy that Harvard Professor Ron Heifetz suggests that most failures of leadership stem from the tendency to treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Could this be happening to Climate Change?

While you can and should deal with some energy-related inefficiencies as technical problems, climate change as a whole is a more complex adaptive challenge requiring a wider set of responses. I will develop this point in our forthcoming report, but for now consider the following simple example that shows the huge difference between measuring impact through emissions(national, in aggregate) verses measuring it through carbon footprints(personal, international).

Although not generally consonant with our approach, a review article in The Economist gave a good example of a technical solution that fails to grapple with the underlying challenge. Simply stated, Government emissions targets do not reflect the carbon cost of imports, and this (in my view!) is at least partly because factoring in the carbon costs of imports calls into question the whole nature and purpose of the global economy. 

Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions.

By concentrating on their own carbon production, and how to reduce it, Europeans have ignored the impact of their continued demand for goods made using carbon- intensive processes. Since Chinese and Indian manufacturing is usually dirtier than Europe’s, the real upshot of Europe’s choices has been an increase in global emissions. The regulatory approach, argues Mr Helm, has got the worst of all worlds. It is expensive, it has not cut emissions and its treaties are unworkable. No wonder the public is growing sceptical.”

As always with climate change, there is a lot going on in that paragraph, but the key point is that the ‘demand for goods made using carbon intensive processes’ is an adaptive challenge, not a technical problem.

Dealing with that challenge requires forms of behaviour change that go way beyond our immediate relationship to energy in our homes. Indeed, viewing climate change as an adaptive challenge means engaging with attitudes and values relating to consumption more broadly, and even our perceived need for economic growth.

In other words, coming back to George Monbiot’s quote, to make a meaningful contribution to addressing climate change, the form of behaviour change we work on has to go beyond improving energy efficiency, and at least raise the question of how we might successfully change our lifestyles.

Values, attitudes and behaviours: Which box would you tick?

September 3, 2012 by · 9 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Here is an important and rather difficult multiple choice question for people interested in behaviour change. Which of the following best represents your understanding of what makes people change how they think and act?

1) Attitudes Drive Behaviour

i.e. You need to change what people think before you can change what they will do. e.g. I  have come to really value the environment, therefore I have started behaving in a more environmentally friendly way.

2) Behaviour Drives Attitudes

i.e. You need to change what people do before they will change what they think e.g. I started recycling and now I find I really care about not wasting stuff.

3) Both 1 and 2 apply, but in different contexts.

i.e. It depends on the definitions and contexts of the terms in question. e.g. Your attitude to a specific behaviour e.g. smoking, might be a strong predictor of your tendency to smoke, but this doesn’t mean attitudes drive behaviour in general.

4) Both are false, there are never just these two discrete factors in play (and what on earth does ‘drives’ mean anyway…)?

i.e. attitudes and behaviours are just conceptual constructs with fuzzy edges, and they are both always influenced by numerous factors other than each other e.g. I may think voting is a good idea and this may or may not be because I enjoyed voting in the past, but if I don’t vote on a particular day it might be because of my an idiosyncratic mood or the weather, not because of general attitudes or behaviour.

5) To understand behaviour and attitudes, and their relationship, you really need a deeper understanding of values.

i.e. whatever the relationship between behaviours and attitudes, perhaps both are driven by or somehow underpinned by deeply help but somewhat unconscious values. e.g. If I steadfastly use reduce power and water consumption at home after receiving information on the subject, this might be related to wanting to save money, or wanting to save the planet, but you’ll never know which- and what follows for how to achieve similar impact- until you have a better sense of how my values underpin what I do and say.

None of these five options are strictly wrong, which is why it would make a terrible multiple choice question!

In my view, one and two are equally right and wrong because they are partial, which means three must be true, but on reflection that is also only partial. At a deeper level, the philosopher inside knows that four must be closer to the truth, but it’s a bit harsh and unhelpful because we need some heuristics to work with, people care about behaviour and attitudes and you don’t make much practical progress by rejecting all available working theories and concepts out of hand.

If I had to tick one box, I think I would therefore now opt for number five, but let me take this chance to make better sense of options 1-4 in passing:

On the attitudes/behaviour link(briefly):

Through Twitter (Hat tip Jim Mintz) I came upon an excellent overview on the behaviour-attitudes relationship. I distilled this source into the following points:

‘Attitudes’ are not the same as ‘reported attitudes’ because people cannot be relied upon to say what they really think. (Though the ‘bogus pipeline‘, where feasible, can be a good way round this problem).

However, stated attitudes do predict behaviour quite well when

1) Other influences are minimized.

i.e. the behaviour is not heavily related to contextual or situational features.

2) The attitude is specifically related to the particular action.

i.e. your attitude to jogging is a good predictor of whether you jog, while your attitude to fitness may not be.

3) The attitude is particularly potent.

i.e. Your attitude to your health-related habits may change if your life is suddenly at imminent risk because of them.

On the other hand, behaviour is more likely to drive attitudes when one of the following theories applies:

1) Self-presentation theory
People who care about how they are thought of will adapt their attitude reports to appear consistent with their actions to others.

2) Dissonance theory:  We feel tension after acting contrary to our attitudes and to reduce this discomfort we internally justify our behaviour. This is not just about self-presentation but about our own experience of internal coherence. Moreover, the less external justification we have for an undesirable action, the more we feel responsible for it, and thus the more dissonance arises and the more attitudes change.

3) Self-perception theory: When our attitudes are weak, we simply observe our behaviour and its circumstances and infer our attitudes – ie sometimes our behaviours do not so much cause our attitudes as create them. Within this perspective, the “overjustification effect” also known as ‘crowding out‘ can be relevant- it suggests that rewarding people to do what they like doing anyway can make them less likely to do it (e.g. showing up on time, or giving blood.)

So far, so tentative, which has brought me to think more about values and how they relate to behaviours and attitudes.

On Values(briefly):

Three main sources: Common Cause/Values and Frames, The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt and Values Modes all make major contributions to understanding how our values shape our attitudes and our behaviour. However,  they don’t all agree with each other- not by a long way- on what exactly values are, how exactly values have their influence and what it means for acting on that understanding.

That’s where I am now on this important background issue- trying to figure out which aspects of each of these perspectives makes the most sense, and then thinking of how that knowledge might be best applied to the major behaviour-change imperatives of our day. Any thoughts on the above, or where to look next, much appreciated.


Why we disagree about climate change: 30(!) wedge issues

August 23, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Climate change has moved from being predominantly a physical phenomenon to being simultaneously a social phenomenon. And these two phenomenon are very different…It is a story about the meeting of Nature and Culture. - Mike Hulme.

Ever had the feeling that we will never agree about what to do about climate change? Me too. But can we at least agree about what we disagree about? That would represent massive progress, but is easier said than done.

To make sense of this challenge, I have been enjoying Mike Hulme’s book: Why we Disagree about Climate Change:

“Our recognition of climate change as a threat to the ways of life to which we are accustomed and which we value depends on our views of Nature, our judgements about scientific analysis, our perceptions of risk, and our ideas about what is at stake- economic growth, national sovereignty, species extinction, or the lives of poor people in marginal environments of developing countries- and whether it is ethically, politically or economically justifiable to make trade-offs between these….”

The core point is that “Even when scientists, politicians and publics agree on the basic principles and most robust findings of climate science, there is still plenty of room for disagreement about what the implications of that science are for action.”

General disagreement is one thing, but what follows are the thoughts prompted by beginning to think like Hulme, and a first draft of a list of wedge issues on climate change; major issues that shape our perception of what the problem is and how we should act- issues that are therefore likely to divide us, even when we recognise the problem represents a shared threat.

I expect this list will grow and change, and I imagine there are other categories that should be included (e.g. sociology, anthropology, epistemology, perhaps more about different kinds of energy). It also feels like the right length of major wedge issues is probably about 50 and I’m already noticing questions I missed out.

I hope readers will help me make the next draft a much better one- so do let me know what you think. I have only briefly annotated here, and given a few links, but I  plan to explain each of the wedge issues, and why they matter, in the next instalment, either here or in a more formal report. Enjoy!


1. Do we really understand how the climate works?

(If it’s so much more complex than the financial system, and we got that badly wrong…)

2. Is climate change happening?

(Yes, demonstrably so, but some say ‘climate change’ is not – i.e. it’s nothing out of the ordinary if we had access to records that went far enough back. They are almost certainly wrong)

3. Is climate change anthropogenic (man-made)?

(Almost certainly, but there are enough sceptics to allow people to imagine there is a position to be taken here- we are often asked “Do you believe in climate change”)

4. Is ‘runaway global warming’ likely or not?

(How valid/important is the idea of ‘tipping points’)

5. How many degrees of planetary warming are ‘safe’?

(Is the 2 degree limit a political or scientific judgement?)


6. Are there any likely scientific breakthroughs that will solve ‘the problem’?

7. Do current intellectual property laws help or hinder the development of carbon abatement technologies?

8. Will anticipated technological change happen quickly enough to prevent avoidable harm, or not?

9. Could an ‘energy internet’ meet our energy needs?

(Some, e.g. Jeremy Rifkind argue the key is to make households produce and share energy, not just share it)


10. Is it viable to stop seeking economic growth in the developed world?

(Some say economic growth is economically imperative, but ecologically impossible)

11. Do we have to assume indefinite economic growth in climate models?

(Most climate models, e.g. The Stern Review, assume 1.2% growth in perpetuity- this matters because it implies future generations will be richer, and better able to deal with the worst effects of climate change)

12. What should the price of carbon be?

13. Is ‘absolute decoupling’ possible?

14. Does/could ‘cap and trade’ work?

15. Can we design a viable carbon market that is ‘functional and fair’?

(The magazine Ephemera recently devoted an issue to this question)


16. Do natural systems and species have intrinsic value or not?

17. Can we place a quantitative or comparative value on a life?

18. Should/can we value the quality of life of future generations as much as our own?

(This question, the so-called ‘discount value’ appears to be a critical wedge issue because it can only be a value judgement, with no objective way of settling the question, but most economic models discount future generations considerably in their models).

Communication/social marketing

19. Is ‘climate change’ the best expression to work with?

20. Is climate change an environmental issue?

21. Is Climate change best framed as a public health issue?


22. Are relatively short democractic electoral cycles part of the problem, or not?

23. Does the developed world have an obligation to allow the developing world to pollute relatively more to correct for historic exploitation, or not?

24. Do we need more regulation or less?


25. Is nothing sacred?

(Are there things that don’t have a price, or that if they were given a price, would be valued even less?)

26. Are we likely to be reborn?

(A funny one, and I’ll probably delete this later, but it occurs to me that if a key question is the discount rate, and our attitude to future generations, our sense of whether ‘we’ will be there in future might be relevant)

Behavioural Science

27. Do attitudes drive behaviour, or is it the other way round?

(A biggie, but I was impressed by this resource as giving some ammunition for an answer)

28. Is the rebound effect serious or not?

29. Should we appeal to economic incentives, or not?

30. Should we work directly with values, or not?


New Report! Reflexive Coppers

April 16, 2012 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

Today we release a new report detailing our attempts to apply Steer behaviour change principles to police work – Reflexive Coppers: Adaptive Challenges in Policing. 

Journalists seem to think the report is worth knowing about. It was picked up by the press association and has been written up in several national papers, including The Telegraph, The Guardian and The Daily Mail (with typically trenchant comments below the main article). Earlier this morning (zzzz…) I was speaking on The Today Programme (where Evan Davis asked me to ‘keep it practical’ and ‘try to avoid too many big concepts’ before we went live) followed by Nick Ferrari (who was very friendly before and after, but asked the pertinent question on air: how much did this (taxpayer-funded) report cost?) on LBC Radio, and I just heard I’ll be on Five Live at lunchtime.

So what’s all the fuss about? I am beginning to understand three things about media coverage of think tank reports:

1) Timing is everything. The quality of writing, insight, evidence, sample size, policy recommendations, design, title and so forth are considerably less important than timing the release of the report so that it coincides with topical issues and questions that the media are already exploring but haven’t yet exhausted (in your control) and so that it doesn’t coincide with a massive unforeseeable news story(alas, not in your control; with previous reports I have twice received cancellation calls from the Today programme around midnight the night before because something bigger has happened that they need to cover instead- in one case a major breakthrough in cancer research, in another an interview scoop with a disgruntled army general).

2) The press release matters.  Questions asked by the press tend to be fairly direct: What is this? Why does it matter? What happens now? Your answers to those questions have to be clear and concise, but they don’t have to be particularly compelling- you are looking for a nod of recognition rather than a euraka moment of insight or a hug of solidarity. Moreover, many news outlets are covering so much content that there is little time for a detailed analysis. News stories tend to quote directly from the press release, and on radio the questions you are asked tend to arise from it, rather than the the much longer report that few people would have read, or, let’s face it, ever will read.

3)You need an injunction. Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? And the ‘they’  in question is usually some sort of authority – teachers, parents, governments, police….

Press seem to like it when a report says “Do X” or “Don’t do Y” and the issue then becomes- well, will they do/not it? 

So almost all the coverage today will be about one tiny piece of the report: our suggestion that police officers should take twenty minutes a week to reflect on the tensions and dilemmas in their role, viewed through the lenses of brains and behaviour that we shared with them.

And that now is the story, even though it was added right at the end of the report, when we were thinking about the ‘so what?’ question and the obvious operational and funding constraints that might work against scaling up our suggestion in a more ambitious way. The hope, of course, is that all this coverage leads at least some people to take a closer look at were such a suggestion might come from.

The Research

The research was conceived by my predecessor Dr Matt Grist as a practical follow-up to our work with the general public in Steer. Our qualitative feedback from the 24 members of the public who took part in this research was that learning about their brains and behaviour, and discussing its role and relevance in their lives was not only of interest, but also lead to them thinking and acting differently, at least in the short-run. Eventually we hoped to get a more empirically robust measure of the approach, but first  we wanted to do another pilot test of the approach with a target group with a clearer set of operational challenges, and decided to focus on the police service.

Our initial advert seeking participants attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers and support staff so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach

Our initial advert seeking participants (posted on the intranet of the Metropolitan Police, with the assistance of their research division) attracted a huge response of about a hundred officers- so there is clearly a huge appetite for this kind of approach- although this number reduced to below twenty once dates were fixed. The five principles we discussed with the participants were:

1. Use your habitat to shape your habits. 

How does the working environment shape your automatic behaviour?

2. Trust your gut, but remember to pay attention.

Your intuition, based on professional experience, is powerful, but how can you remain vigilant in situations where something genuinely new is happening?

3. Take your time, literally.

There are three main decision speeds – automatic, reflective and ‘mulling’ – which do you use most and why?

4. Be influenced by others, but know your own voice.

You need others to help you think, but how can you guard against groupthink?

5. Don’t let consistency get in the way of learning.

The desire to reduce cognitive dissonance often prevents us from understanding what really happened – how can we avoid this?

To find out more about these ideas, why they were selected, how police responded to them, and more, please take time to read the report and let me know what you think.

I am grateful to colleagues Gaia Marcus, Benedict Dellot, Janet Hawken and others for helping to deliver the research, Steve Broome for helping to design it and second author Dr Emma Lindley for restructuring and rewriting large parts of the penultimate draft of the report, making it, I believe, a much more user-friendly document.

You Know More Than You Think You Do

November 10, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

RSA’s Director of Design Emily Campbell just celebrated three years of working here, and future plans, with plentiful bubbly and some highly inclusive gluten free chocolate cake.

Before joining the RSA I had no idea what ‘Design’ meant. I thought it was something vaguely connected to arcitchture and buildings, and had no particular need, or so I thought, to think otherwise. Now I hope I am confused on a much higher level. Largely because of the influence of Emily and colleagues, I see that Design is a way of thinking, of inventively reimagining the world. In fact now when I think about behavioural challenges, I find that cognitive frailties and behavioural foibles often look like Design problems in disguise.

The core emphasis of RSA Design is that everybody can become equipped to think like a designer. In this sense design is not about aesthetics, but about logic. Design is viewed here as a form of resourcefulness. Hence the expression ‘You know more than you think you do.’ Any thinking person, and even those who don’t think much, can be given some experience of the perceptual and creative tools of a designer. The RSA believes that by taking on the mantle of a design perspective, you can unlock your own capacities to fashion systems and solve problems.

I should also confess that until recently Buckminster Fuller was a name I only dimly recognised, but after reading the following quotation(of which there are many) in the New Yorker I was keen to find out more about his work. 

‘But Fuller was also deeply pessimistic about people’s capacity for change, which was why, he said, he had become an inventor in the first place.

“I made up my mind . . . that I would never try to reform man—that’s much too difficult,” he told an interviewer for this magazine in 1966. “What I would do was to try to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions.”’

This is sagacious insight, and gave me pause. But of course choosing between people and the environment is a false dichotomy. What matters is to undersand deeply how the two are connected, and work with that understanding to change the world. We know more than we think we do, and should face our challenges with that understanding.


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