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Holding us to account
Our notions of agency are key to behaviour change
We live in an environment where we all have to navigate a lot of challenges: financial resilience, our health and wellbeing, employment, family life and so on. This is before the myriad of behaviours that are collectively important: recycling, social justice, animal welfare, air pollution. There is a very long list of challenges we may have, that all have an implication for either changing our behaviour or maintaining behaviours consistent with our purposeful goals.
But to what extent can we hold the individual responsible for their own behaviour? On the one hand, it seems ridiculous to consider that an individual can possibly be responsible for the entirety of their lives – we well know that a whole host of factors beyond the control of the individual (such as where they were born, household income growing up) can have huge impacts. On the other hand, the notion that we do not have agency over our behaviours is also clearly wrong – for example our legal system is predicated (in the main) on the notion of individual agency.
Exactly where the line is drawn for agency is not always a straightforward one. There are many instances where, in the past, consumers have been held responsible in a way that does not seem appropriate today. As Lizzie O’Shea points out in her book Future Histories, the 1960s car industry was reluctant to introduce safety features, asserting that accidents were the responsibility of drivers rather than design flaws of the vehicles. It was only after prolonged campaigns were safety features included and the death rates declined significantly.
Where the line of agency sits will inevitably be a subject of debate and indeed moralising. If we believe that people have agency over behaviours that we consider to be socially desirable, then if they fail to do them there is potential for censure. On this point, Susan Michie recently pointed out: “Ministers have started to blame young people for the increase of transmission of the virus, when they did what the government told them to do. They went to pubs and bars.”
People have so many different things to attend to that realistically, agency and control depends on our hierarchy of priorities. For example, we may be concerned about healthy eating but we may be working hard to hold down multiple jobs, raising young children and struggling with inadequate housing. In that instance healthy eating may theoretically be something we have agency over but how realistic is it? However, if we then go to the doctor who says you need to worry about your cholesterol your hierarchy of priorities changes, so healthy eating becomes something over which you realise you need to exercise agency.
Where agency sits is a slippery issue but one that needs to be grasped by practitioner to ensure the right tools are used to achieve desired outcomes. When doing practitioner work on a particular behaviour, it is easy to simply focus on that behaviour and stop seeing it in the wider context of peoples lives. By looking at it closely we can fail to see that our target population may not place it front and centre of their lives and as such what we consider they have agency over is not as simple as we might initially assume. This has huge implications for what we do and how we apply any intervention programme.
How we think about behaviour
What we are often doing with behavioural science is deriving insights about the determinants of behaviour: if someone says that they are unlikely to partake in healthy eating because they are “not the kind of person who would worry about that”, we can infer that there is an identity issue at play. Obviously, the person will not articulate it as such. We are using science to derive an understanding of the behaviour, allowing us to think about it, or frame it in a way that is useful to us. This framing then allows us think about the behaviour in a structured way; we can identify the key determinants of the behaviour and in doing so find ways to help facilitate outcomes. This is what I mean by derived insights.
Now, of course we all do this in everyday life. We make assertions about why people are behaving in particular ways: if someone says a harsh word to us we are instantly working out why this was the case. Did that person have a bad start to the day? Was it really something I did? Is it because they are a grumpy person? In a way, using a behavioural framework is the same principle but supported by theory to offer a comprehensive, consistent and practical lens on another person’s behaviour.
This connects in with a large body of work called ‘folk psychology’ or lay theories’. The point is that what we often do is formalise these ‘folk’ or ‘lay’ theories with the use of structured frameworks underpinned by science. And in doing so we can then link into ways in which we can intervene and help people to change their behaviour.
Picture of the week: Patrick Clelland’s work explores the atmospheres of urban environments, referencing notions of nostalgia and ‘in betweenness’ which seems very pertinent today (see below).
The Guardian talked to Lisa Feldman Barrett about her book, How Emotions are Made. It’s a useful overview of the constructivist view of human emotion: For example, she points out that ‘anger’ is a cultural concept that we apply to hugely divergent patterns of change in the body, and there’s no single facial expression reliably associated with it, even in the same person. A compelling read.
A nice study on the evergreen topic of AI versus humans. This one found that relative to logos produced through artificial intelligence, those created by expert humans are judged to be of higher quality. The point being that industries relying on a spark of creativity seem to do better with humans involved.
Great article on the reality of AI meeting human psychology related to self driving cars: “The reality is that while roads themselves are generally orderly and well-known environments, what actually happens on them is anything but. So until 100 percent of the vehicles on the road are fully autonomous — something many analysts think is actually highly unlikely — every autonomous vehicle will have to be able to respond to the edge cases plus countless quirks and tics exhibited by human drivers on a daily basis.”
Example of a high tech ‘intervention’ to change sun protection behaviour – not sure if I would get one but suspect these sorts of solutions will become ever more common.
On the topic of our changing lives: this one on how we are facing a period of ongoing lockdowns as we face all manner of different emergencies
I thought this was an interesting article on luxury marketing increasingly being about “one’s ability to show they possess the things that are arguably scarcer than anything else: good taste, creativity, insightfulness, wellness, and social consciousness - less-tangible yet uniquely-human and personal qualities that money, in theory, should never truly be able to buy.”
Reads and views
Patrick Clelland’s work explores the atmospheres of urban environments, both within Australia and throughout Asia, constantly in flux, stop-starting between locations. For me it references both the changing world we are in but also a sense of nostalgia which I suspect, right now, is very potent for many.
I am liking Lizzie O’Shea’s book Future Histories (as referenced above) about the way in which, as ever, we can think more clearly about the technology we use in our present day, through an understanding of the historical context.