Behaviour change as social change
How behavioural science can set an agenda for enacting wider social change
As behavioural scientists our focus is typically on how we make change happen – we have a variety of tools, frameworks and approaches that we use to do just that. They have a certain beguiling quality when seen on a page that if we just create an intervention to influence one or two behavioural mechanisms then we can create the desired behaviour change of the target group. And while for sure we can do this, sometimes we are looking for much wider change to happen, perhaps much lower use of cars, greater attention to sexism, lower bias and prejudice towards marginalised groups. Just how do we contribute towards these wider social changes? This is not simply an issue that social justice groups are seeking but governments, charities and also brands as they seek to make much wider change happen through their brand purpose activities.
To examine this we can look at the reasons why some things grab our attention and actions take place while for other, seemingly more important issues, a long time passes before things change. A case in point is the current ‘partygate’ scandal that is engulfing the UK government. The revelation is that while government guidance was to not have public gatherings of any sort in the lockdowns during 2020, civil servants and government ministers were ignoring their own advice and throwing parties. Investigations are underway on this matter but whatever the reality of the situation, it is fair to say that this issue had certainly engaged people and initiated a great deal of activity.
Of course, there can be many reasons why a particular issue may ‘catch fire’ which may typically be explained by referencing our psychological mechanisms. An explanation such as this might suggest that the issue of parties is something that is tangible, easily understood and with a salient narrative which means that it gets attention and creates action in a way that others do not. Whilst this is no doubt part of the explanation, we would suggest that by looking at the issue solely in terms of our internal processes, we then fail to see the significance of the wider historical, cultural, social, economic and legal contexts which will inevitably be influencing behaviour.
It it could be argued that these are different disciplines and that psychology is one part of the jigsaw which does not need to offer a holistic account. However, this would be to ignore the way in which these wider contexts inevitably do relate to our psychological mechanisms: psychology can help us understand how these wider influences become internalised, through they way they can become involved in understanding, interpreting, remembering and imagining within these contexts.
An explanation of social change requires us to move beyond our own individual heads and see the way in which we are intimately connected to these wider contexts. Our engagement with the world is not done in abstract individualistic terms but unfolds in moving contexts within which people live out their individual and collective subjective realities.
The challenge for psychology is to identify the mechanisms that can help us understand this interplay – collective remembering and imagination can be seen as key mechanisms that facilitate the interplay between wider contexts and individual behaviour. And in particular how they create reference points which allow people to gauge what is fair or unfair: this is a key way in which people are energised to participate in demonstrations, democratic engagement, and social change.
As a starting point, we can see how cognitive processes are not based on absolutes but are instead based on comparisons being made between what is expected, a ‘reference point,’ and what is experienced. When an experience deviates from these expectations, it calls our attention – for good or bad. Moreover, the magnitude of change that draws our attention fluctuates depending on the broader context of the experience. Classically, this is formalised in Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, but we can see the power of references points across a range of experiences.
One example of the way in which reference points can work in this context is from the work of Ed O’Brien at the University of Chicago, who developed the principle of ‘The Next Effect’. In a series of experiments, he showed the way in which the same stimulus is less enjoyable merely when participants believe a better future version is in the works. This occurs because knowledge of better future is, in effect, self-fulfilling: it spurs people to discover more problems in the present that must have needed fixing.
The point is that imagining a better future has implications for how we are in the present, as we have a reference point for evaluation. A wide range of social, cultural, economic and political contexts may be encouraging us to see a ‘better world’ ahead of us, creating references points for comparisons with the present.
The process of making these comparisons means people can see more clearly disparities, inequalities and allow feeling of unfairness to arise. Indeed, as Seamus Power points out, pressure for change can lead to demonstrations, democratic engagement, and social change.
The same principle applies to the way we think about the past: collective memory Our reconstruction of memories is not an entirely individual act but one which draws on past shared experiences, providing a way for close bonds and shared meanings to form. In some communities we can very visibly see the way that commemoration of historical moments plays a key role in generating shared memories: these might be moments of injustice and loss or of great successes. But it is this recollection of the past that can inform how people comprehend the present.
To return to our example from earlier, collective memories of lockdowns in 2020 were devastating for many, with people isolated, unable to see friends and family and not even able to be with dying loved ones. The reports of parties being held by public servants is a very tangible reference point and as such challenges our sense of fairness, creating a sense of angry frustration.
Of course, these temporal aspects of human activity—remembering and imagining offer many different ways in which reference points are constructed and comparisons made. But just when do we consider that the comparison is problematic? When do we determine “the point at which people begin to perceive noise as signal”? As O’Brien points out here:
“People subjectively diagnose tipping points (as opposed to passively responding to objective reality), a process that is shaped by individual and situational forces.”
With this in mind, we can see that change perception is a function of lay theories of how things should change and as such will inevitably be influenced by frames at play from the historical, cultural, social, economic and legal contexts.
There are many different ways in which people, governments, brands, pressure groups have an interest in facilitating wider social change: this can range from bringing about social justice and sustainability practices to more specific activities such as financial wellbeing or eating and exercising to stay healthy. Behavioural science is in the business of explaining behaviour and then finding and supporting ways to facilitate change taking place.
As we mentioned previously, we cannot assume that one or two strong factors or causes can be identified and acted on to change behaviour. Similarly, we cannot assume that people act in isolation from the wider social, political, economic environment. The discipline needs to be able to make linkages between the contexts in which we live and our individual behaviours if we are to participate in the conversation of how we achieve the wider social change that is often hoped for by a wide range of institutions.