Digital partnering for change
Peer support systems are looking well placed to facilitate behaviour change
The focus of much behaviour change activity tends to be on the use of communications to deliver change – whether TV advertising, social media, press advertising and so on. However, as we saw last week, digital tools are rapidly gaining momentum as a vehicle for facilitating change. One area that is showing particular promise in this respect are peer support tools.
This is a huge area with many different ways of looking at the issue but we can loosely define it as occurring when people share, experience, emotional, knowledge and practical help to each other. Digital tools clearly offer opportunities for people to do just this, connecting us with others who might be a similar position and offering relevant experience and expertise. These have been very successful in healthcare where people connect with others, in particular for instances of chronic conditions.
There are some characteristics of these tools that we think distinguish them from other approaches:
In many ways this approach challenges more familiar behaviour change approaches which can often (implicitly) assume that the audience will conform to the behaviours that are being advocated. What we are perhaps starting to see is a more fundamental shift, to recognize that people can have a much more active role in changing behaviour.
By this we mean that we all bring to any challenge our own background and experiences, aspirations and notions, of what we want to achieve from a change in behaviour. But also, importantly, we also bring our own resources to any problem, it does not all have to be offered to us. People can be very creative, have plenty of ideas and sometimes even physical resources that they bring to an issue; so the opportunity, as peer support systems gain momentum is that it is possible to co-create with people as partners in the behaviour change challenge rather then treat them as passive recipients.
Help to manage contextual barriers:
One of the potent aspects of peer support systems is the way they can tackle the environmental, social and cultural forces that are shaping behaviour. It is clear that we don't operate in a vacuum when we are seeking to change behaviour, instead we are interacting with a wide range of people and institutions. This means we need to be empowered to operate effectively to navigate these encounters: so, for example, in health care, the staff have power, language, and knowledge that can be difficult for many people to navigate and manage to get the treatment they want. Peer support systems provide the means by which people can be educated, informed and supported by others in similar situations who properly understand these issues via their own lived experience.
Work out how we want to change:
Related to this is the consideration that making change happen can often be seen as a one-step activity where we know what we want, and it is simply a matter of overcoming barriers in order to do it. But in reality, many of the changes we are seeking to make are complex and multifaceted – living a sustainable lifestyle, handling our health effectively, managing our financially wellbeing involves many different elements where it is not always entirely clear at the outset what these might entail or what exactly we should be aspiring towards. Engaging with other people on these issues can help us to work out what we want, as well as how we might get there.
Driving wider change:
Finally, peer support systems can also be a mean of not only changing our own behaviours but also creating influence on others. By engaging with others it is easier to put pressure on organisations and institutions to change. A good example of this is plant-based diets, as cited in a recent interview with Stuart Capstick of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations. He makes the point that there has not been many policies encouraging people to adopt plant-based diets but there have nevertheless been a big shift over the last decade towards them. He suggests that because people have chosen to eat differently and, by making that choice, it has helped shift the cultural and social norms around plant-based diets. Which in turn feeds into what manufacturers supply and what supermarkets put on their shelves, which again results in more choices for people. Individual choice and behaviour feed into that much bigger picture of how society changes.
We can see the way in which governments are increasingly looking to engage citizens in decision making and policy making through deliberative assemblies which COVID accelerated into online platforms. These are operating in interesting ways, not only collecting input from the participants but also, as this programme illustrates, allows the participants to rethink how they live and organize their lives.
The themes we have picked up here suggest that digital collaboration through peer support tools has significant opportunity. But the increase in these platforms perhaps also tells us something more fundamental about the nature of behaviour change and the way in which people can be a brand’s or public body’s best partner when attempting to make change happen - from a focus purely on the ‘me’ to the ‘we’.
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