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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

When behaviour change is not enough

I have to lay my cards on the table. I do believe that behaviour change initiatives can make a significant difference to people’s long-term wellbeing and to our broader collective attempts to protect the environment. Notwithstanding this position (which is most probably itself a fairly engrained bias, shaping the way I assess and think about behavioural initiatives), I think that it is important to be as honest as we can about the limitations of behavioural interventions. I was recently reminded about the importance of being open about such limits by two unrelated observations. The first observation emerged at a recent behaviour change symposium that we hosted at Aberystwyth University (Low Carbon Living and Art of Behaviour Change). During the symposium I had a chance to talk about what I call progressive forms of behaviour change (namely behavioural interventions that recognize the connections between the efficacy of the policy, its ethical orientation, and its role in empowering those who are subject to the policy). At the end of my short presentation one of the members of the audience raised the rather important point that it is all very well being progressive in our behavioural policy, but does this not disadvantage us in the face of powerful corporate interests who may be less constrained by such noble ideals. This question spoke to me of a deeper issue which tends to haunt behaviourally oriented policy: in the context of the resources that are at the disposal of those whose short term economic interests appear to rely on the proliferation of personal debt, the acceleration of climate change, and the spread of obesity, is a nudge just a drop in the behavioural ocean?

The second observation occurred while I was reading an article on how new behavioural insights were influencing the reform of financial services in the UK. The article inevitably discussed the issue of auto enrolment in pension schemes, but perhaps the most interesting insight of the piece came in relation to its reflections on Save More Tomorrow programmes. The Save More Tomorrow initiative was first developed in the US as a way of automatically increasing employee pension contributions as their salaries rose. The article asserted that a Save More Tomorrow scheme was unlikely to be effective in the UK while wages remain stagnant. This simple observation reminded me of how constrained well intentioned behavioural policies can be in the broader structural context of the struggle between labour and capital.

Apologies, I realise that this is hardly a cheery post at the moment. I mention these two observations though because they surfaced within me some nagging existential doubts about the purpose and long-term future of behavioural insights in public policy. This is an existential question for me because much of my time at present is spent analyzing and promoting new behavioural insights. Ultimately, however, (and here comes the more positive bit) I think that it is far too simplistic to suggest that it is an either choice between behavioural policy and radical political resistance, or nudging and structural economic change. There is, no doubt, a tendency within some behavioural policies to construct behaviours as isolated causal mechanisms of social action. If only those chocolate bars and crisps were more difficult to reach, we could change unhealthy eating patterns (sorry about the facetious example, but clearly the problem of unhealthy eating is not exclusively located in the act of picking up unhealthy food stuffs). In reality, of course, most choice architects and policy markers would openly acknowledge that action of unhealthy eating requires a complex array of policy responses, which address behavioural traits and more structural issues related to the pricing and supply of food. I think that the real, however, danger lies in the comfort that can be taken in developing a sound behavioural intervention (that feeling that something is being done), and the ways such efforts can placate the desire to tackle the often more challenging issues that frame behaviours.

In the academy the tension between the micro and systematic perspective is manifest in a series of recent debates between the behavioural and the social sciences. The social sciences are often critical of the behavioural sciences for their narrow focus on individual cognition and action, while the behavioural sciences question the social sciences’ understanding of the micro dynamics of human action. At Aberystwyth University we are currently exploring the potential of developing a centre for critical behavioural studies (the critical here relates to both critical behaviours, like low carbon living, and the critical perspectives we hope to bringing to our analysis). Within this centre we hope to bring together scholars working within the behavioural, psychological and social sciences. Within this centre we would hope to study the complex dialectics that connect social and behavioural changes and the complex processes of scalar translation that connect agency within structure. This quest is, of course, pretty much as old as academic enquiry itself. It is nonetheless encouraging to see many practical attempts that are seeking to fuse behavioural and social insights. I would recommend in particular having a look at the ISM model developed by Andrew Darnton and the innovative work of the Consensus consortium in Ireland. The ways in which these models and approaches creatively fuse perspectives on individual behaviours, social practices and material environments is fascinating and points the way to an interesting interdisciplinary field for policy making.

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