Changing the mental-environment
Working with low income and other marginalised groups means recognising the systemic ways the mental-environment shapes outcomes
Behaviour change is driven by the belief that people can change their lives by thinking and acting differently. We are understandably often cautious about the constraints of the ‘physical environment’ on this - there is no point asking people to recycle if they have no room to store the materials for example. But we argue that more attention can be paid to the ‘mental-environment’ that people operate it, which is perhaps harder to see and understand but, in many ways, just as powerful a challenge to generating positive outcomes.
Behavioural scientists are typically optimistic about making change happen. We often consider it is possible if only we can help people think about it differently and then take small steps to act differently. And while we accept that we need to be realistic about how much change is possible given the available resources, there should nevertheless be grounds for developing interventions that facilitate and shape positive outcomes for people.
But, as Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington has pointed out, the mental-environment for making change happen is much more challenging among marginalised groups, such as people who live on low incomes. She sets out the way that different approaches have been taken to supporting people in these circumstances: in 1950s and ’60s, it was considered that people caught in poverty traps were morally deficient, living in a ‘culture of poverty’ that needed to be disrupted. In subsequent decades, efforts to encourage people to improve their lives were focused on education and financial literacy. More recently, research has focused on the psychological costs of poverty itself, with interventions focusing on nudging people toward more acceptable behaviours, as financial worries eat up cognitive ‘bandwidth’.
She considers that these efforts have fallen short in an important way. This is the incorrect assumption that all members of society have equal power to decide how to think about and respond to the unavoidable constraints and challenges they face. She sets out the way in which we can easily assume that we have equal access to mindsets needed for positive behaviour change, namely:
Locus of control: believing in one’s own power
Self-regulation: sticking to long-term plans
Approach orientation: being positively proactive in moving toward one’s goals
General social trust: leveraging relationships
But the reality is not quite as straightforward as this. If, as Sheehy-Skeffington points out, your job exposes you to health risks that you cannot control, if your attempts to find a new job yield little reward despite huge effort, and if most people in your neighbourhood die relatively young, then why would you focus on giving up cigarettes? The potential future reward from stopping smoking simply does not seem as high as the relief it gives from the ongoing stress of everyday life.
What looks from a distance as a failure of self-regulation is not in fact a psychological impairment, but an adaptive response to having little actual control over one’s future.
To address this, we first need to properly understand these mental-environments. Given these may well be entirely adaptive rather than maladaptive, then simply giving people the means to change their behaviour without allowing for them, is clearly likely to fail.
If we look at alcohol consumption as an example, then focusing on the individual would lead us to consider that support for better self-regulation would be a big part of the answer focus. However, a ‘mental environment’ perspective would suggest that alcohol is frequently used as a coping mechanism in the face of discrimination, a key social and cultural stressor as Sudhinaraset et al., 2016 outline). Therefore, support for self-regulation will do little to address the coping function that alcohol provides when faced with the harm of being discriminated against. This points very clearly to the need for an understanding of the ‘mental-environments’ shaping behaviour.
Second, we need a coherent framework of what these different ‘mental-environments’ are. Sheehy-Skeffington’s points are a good place to start. And based on a reading of American political philosopher Michael Sandel’s book ‘The Tyranny of Merit’, we would also add grievance and resentment. As he points out in his searing critique of the way we assume that talent and ambition determines economic reward, “A society that enables people to rise, and that celebrates rising, pronounces a harsh verdict on those who fail to do so.”
We suggest that these ‘mental-environments’ are explored and developed into comprehensive framework so they can be readily used when undertaking behaviour change work with marginalised groups.
The final, and perhaps most difficult stage is to then assess what an appropriate response might be to address these environments. Given people’s behaviour may be a perfectly logical, adaptive response to their situation. then it suggests that we need to change the situation rather than the individual. This is certainly congruent with the way that ‘systemic’ rather than ‘individual’ interventions are increasingly considered to be important for behaviour change (as discussed last week).
One person with a long history exploring how best to respond is Hilary Cottam, who has been calling for a 5th Revolution, leveraging technology to create new social challenges and new possibilities, reinventing our social systems. Others such as Sandel have suggested re-engineering the taxation system so that the burden moves from work (and as such facilitating and honouring productive labour) and instead moving it to consumption and financial speculation.
While policy does have a key role to play, we also consider there is a range of other ways in which both the public and private sector can more immediately and tangibly participate in activities that are designed to change the wider ‘mental-environments’, not simply focus on individuals within them.
Work we have done in peer to peer support mechanisms seems to offer some solutions. A good example here is WW, the weight management service. People often go to a local meeting place, listen to a talk, and then get weighed. The people in the room are very supportive of each other and provide a caring community to be part of. The model has since evolved to incorporate an online presence offering a range of advice, ideas, recipes, and so on. There is also an online forum so you can interact with other people in the same situation.
This means there is a combination of ways that people interact, at progressive stages of their behaviour change journey, with digital and physical offering different but complementary ways in which people are able to engage.
Another example, Alcoholics Anonymous also takes a community-based approach, providing social and peer support to help people cope with their everyday stressors, an approach found to be more effective than other treatments.
Understanding the principles at play in these examples and then applying more widely to develop new interventions is a means by which we will be able to better start to link the design guidance with a framework of the systemic mindset barriers.
The poor can find themselves blamed for their misfortune, very much reflecting Sandel’s take on meritocracy, where being found on the bottom rung of society, it is all too easy to assume this is at least partly your own doing, a reflection of a failure to display sufficient talent and ambition to get ahead.
But as ever when failings are pinned on a particular group, this says more about our own prejudices and inability to understand their position, and it is incumbent on us to have the tools that not only enable better insights but to offer tangible ways to work with these groups, understand their ‘mental-environments’ and create positive change.