Engage for change
Complex behaviour change challenges such as sustainability require us to encourage engagement - but how do we do that?
As behavioural scientists we often need to dig into topics that do not immediately sound like behaviour. Topics such as trust, attention, and engagement. What, we may ask, might these have to do with behavioural science? They seem a little too abstract and high level for the sort of attention that is in the purview of behavioural science. However, we argue that these are essential ingredients to understand behaviour and to develop effective means of influencing outcomes.
To explore this, we will look at the subject of engagement, a topic that comes up on a very regular basis, particularly in the case of sustainability. Much is discussed about the need for engagement on the issue of sustainability, but it is not always clear why we need it and what this means.
Why we need engagement
First let’s set out the case the why we need engagement. Lorraine Whitmarsh has aptly made the point that it is over-ambitious to think we can simply legislate or nudge people into sustainable lifestyles. Not only are there are too many individual behaviours underpinning sustainability to address on a case-by-case basis, but, she argues, if the public informed and involved – in other terms engaged - then we can effect much greater change.
Another reason for encouraging engagement is that unless people have thought through their behaviours then there is a danger that we find rebound effects. For example, there is some evidence that people who have been defaulted into an auto enrolment retirement savings, whilst positive in intention, meant that they started to borrow more money for car loans and first mortgages – leading to an overall adverse effect on the household financial balance sheet. Participation without engagement therefore comes with dangers.
Before we get too much further, we also need to unpick what we mean by ‘engagement’ as all too often these words can lose their meaning as they get tossed about to serve various purposes. The term is often overly simplified to mean time spent on a digital apps, with all the controversy that accompanies that.
Contrary to this definition of engagement that focuses on the medium rather than what an individual is doing with it, we, instead, think of engagement as reflecting a way of processing and interacting with information; a process that reflects deliberation and reflection – which we can identify through a range of categories of ‘engagement behaviours’ – such as researching and learning about a topic, asking questions, talking to others about it. Under these broad categories of engagement behaviours, there will be a range of specific behaviours that we may be interested in – at the one end it might be going to a website and reading material, at the other end it might be joining a community group. We are necessarily flexible in how we define the resulting behaviours.
Of course, we need to convert the engagement behaviours into the outcomes we are seeking, and tools such as the Trans Theoretical Model or a Theory of Change can help to identify the cascading influence that engagement behaviours could have on the outcome. All too often it is tempting to focus only on upstream engagement behaviours – partly because it is easier to focus on encouraging someone to look at something than to engage in a complex set of actions. But partly because it is easier to measure the impact of intervention activities on these sorts of ‘upstream’ behaviours, rather than the more important ‘down-stream’ end behaviour.
While measurement of engagement behaviours is important, we must not fool ourselves that it is the end goal. Indeed, there is evidence that upstream ‘knowledge acquisition’ can result in very little impact on subsequent behaviour.
An important part of engagement, in our experience, is that of sense making. We live in an increasingly complex world where people are expected to personally take ever more responsibility for their education, financial wellbeing, health and, of course, working out how to live in a sustainable manner. At the same time, there is a great deal of information available, much of which can be conflicting and, as we well know, misleading (or misinformation). Helping people to make sense of themselves and their lives so they can navigate this sea of information is critical.
This is more than simply giving people information – we know that this is not enough – we need to be able to make sense of things to be effective decision makers and participate fully in sustainable living. Nick Chater and George Lowenstein consider that our ‘drive for sense-making’ is analogous to better known drives such as hunger, thirst and sex. We get real satisfaction from being able to tell a coherent story about our life, but also the satisfaction of gaining new information that leads to a refinement of that story
We find that schema management is important here: by this we mean that when we seek out new information, it is fitted into existing schema; if new information doesn’t fit in, there is a possibility that that information is overlooked. So we need to share information in a way that is timely, relevant and experiential so that we can effectively guide people to fit conflicting information with their existing schemas. Essentially to make sense of things to form beliefs about the world and ourselves. This fits a wider agenda that we seek to live meaningful lives, participating in worthwhile activities that are bigger than our immediate day to day concerns. How we make create this meaning, and how we help others to do this, is a social activity that governments, public bodies and brands can and should all participate in. Indeed, failure to do so can result in information vacuums and the subsequent danger of sliding into conspiracy theories (which can themselves be seen as a form of sense making).
So what do we need to do?
Engagement is a critical ingredient for effective participation in many behaviours such as sustainability. If we obtain participation without engagement, we have seen there is a danger that we get rebound effects. But in addition, if we simply focus on engagement without thinking through how to translate this into behaviour, then we have clearly not done our job well enough.
We need to think of the behaviour we are hoping to shape to be a process. First we need to grab peoples’ attention, to disrupt their more intuitive processes that might cause them to ignore the issue. Second, once we have their attention, we are then seeking to encourage engagement by connecting with them in a way that aligns with the way they make sense of the world but also at a point when they will be receptive to it (e.g. when making a significant new purchase). In doing so, must reflect how people engage with new information, which is through asking a series of questions about the new information.
Do others in my environment believe this claim? Checking for social consensus. People are influenced by how often they themselves have heard the claim. Familiarity gives the impression that a view is widely held.
Is there a lot of evidence for the claim? Some will take a speedier route to a judgment, based on how easy it is to recall pieces of evidence from their own memory – which means simple and memorable claims will trump more complex views of reality.
Does this claim match what I already believe? When something is not consistent with what we already think we stumble, whereas new knowledge that fits with our current thinking is easy to agree with (also known as confirmation bias).
Does the claim tell a good story? When details are presented in a coherent story-based format, people are more likely to believe them.
Does the claim come from a credible source? A source can be perceived as credible based on expertise, past behaviour or perceived motive – or, at its simplest, how a person feels about the source (affect heuristic).
Third, we then need to clearly show how this sense making can be activated into behaviour. Work by people like economist Antoinette Schoar is useful here, teaching small enterprises in the Dominican Republic simple rules of thumb to manage their finances, identified by studying successful entrepreneurs. Behaviour change frameworks help us at the stage to make the transition to successful outcomes, overcoming the wide range of possible barriers between intention and action.
Done poorly, simple information provision can result in poor ‘downstream’ outcomes – a meta-analysis in financial literacy found that provision of financial literacy education resulted in a rather disappointing 0.1% change in downstream behaviours. However, there is also other evidence that suggests provision of accurate information which engages with people’s beliefs and understanding, in this case about climate change, look to be effective in the long run.
The overarching point is that we need to meet people on their own terms, in the contexts where they enact behaviours, and reflecting the ways that people make sense of and integrate new information – rather than talking in abstract, non-relatable manner. Once this sense-making is started, we can then help people to then enact the behaviour using more familiar behaviour change approaches.
We can see how, in a very tangible way, behavioural science is much more a verb than a noun. We operate in a very dynamic way, picking apart the process or system that results in behaviour.