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Crossing the chasm from understanding to changing behaviour
Making sure your intervention 'treatment' is based on a solid diagnosis of the problem
Just how do we go about designing interventions to facilitate change? This is the question that surely sits at the heart of behaviour change: how do we make the move from understanding the dimensions that explain behaviour to designing the means by which we can actually encourage the desired outcomes, in other words, change behaviour?
The challenge of this stage is avoiding the ‘chasm’ that often exists between understanding behaviour and changing behaviour. It’s an all too familiar complaint that the nuanced understanding gleaned from researching behaviour, are not properly reflected in the design of interventions to change it. So just how can we design interventions that are effective in delivering desired outcomes?
There are a number of lessons from our practitioner work that, in our experience, are key to creating enduring behaviour change.
Lesson number 1: Make sure you properly understand the target behaviour
Just as a doctor would not prescribe a medicine without a proper diagnosis of the condition, then surely we should not design interventions without carefully understanding what the barriers are to the behaviour. We typically work alongside our colleagues in market and social research who have a huge array of tools to understand the behaviours we are interested in changing. Which of these tools to deploy will always be a researchers judgement call but we have variously worked with ethnographers, qualitative researchers, social media analysts and survey designers. Additionally we also review existing research and conduct stakeholder interviews. Having this exploration informed by a holistic framework (we use MAPPS) is important to ensure that we can properly ‘diagnose’ the range of dimensions that underpin behaviour.
Lesson 2: Link the design to the diagnosis
Once a doctor has done their diagnosis, they will draw on their detailed understanding of the principles that link the illness with the appropriate medication. We would not trust a doctor that claims to have a miracle cure – whose explanation of the mechanisms by which it works are not specific to the illness.
And so it should be the case with interventions for behaviour change. We need interventions that have an evidence base for treating the particulars of the diagnosis. So if one of the barriers to enacting the desired behaviour is that the target audience thinks no-one else is doing it, then we can reference the interventions relating to social norms/social identity. But if this is not one of the barriers in the diagnosis, then maybe best to resist this as part of the intervention, or ‘medication’.
How do we has behaviour change practitioners make the appropriate intervention design (or prescription)? This is of course the tricky part but a good behaviour change framework should always set out the mechanisms between diagnosis and intervention designs (backed up by research and an evidence base).
Lesson 3: Avoid parachuting in standard guidance
The key point is that your intervention design should be linked to your diagnosis of what the mechanisms are sitting under the behaviour. This sounds obvious but this is commonly not done: a published study I recently came across used ‘normative messaging’ (e.g. social norms/social identity messaging) as a means to convey information to change household sustainability behaviour. This was despite absolutely no evidence (as far as I could see) that the diagnosis found social norms were a barrier to achieving the desired behaviour. So why use them? The evidence that they can meaningfully influence behaviour in this generic way (beyond very small amounts) is very spotty.
Caution is needed as there is a long list of interventions (often ‘nudges’) which have a track record of having worked well. But if there is one thing we have learnt from the replication challenges of psychology, it is that just because something has worked in one context, or even in a variety of them, then there is no guarantee it will translate over in to the specific challenge we are seeking to address. This is a little like suggesting that because paracetamol has cured our headache that it can be used for a broken leg. Or perhaps to treat an infection. It may make us feel better and it might sound good, but it is not really addressing the target behaviour.
Lesson number 4: There is a distinction between design and delivery
Once we have got our intervention design, we need to think about delivery . At this stage it is important to consider what infrastructure is available: often marketing comms is considered (e.g. TV Commercials) but of course there is a wide variety of delivery infrastructure such as pack, letters, POS, social media, influencers, service design and so on. Keeping this distinction between design of interventions and delivery mechanisms helps everyone think a little more creatively about what is available and how to leverage them in a more creative way.
From this point we can go on to talk about refining the interventions, testing and impact evaluation. But for now, the key lessons are hopefully clear: an effective behaviour change project needs clear stages of Diagnosis, Design and Delivery where the learnings from each stage are pulled through to the next, in a clear and codified way. As behavioural science practitioners we can then ensure that the right treatment is addressing a clear diagnosis and not relying on ‘cure-all’ medications.