Behaviour Change - Science and Technology Committee Contents


The aim of much government policy is to bring about changes in people's behaviour and so a government's success will often depend on their ability to implement effective behaviour change interventions whilst, at the same time, avoiding significant harmful side effects.

Governments can use a variety of different types of policy interventions to change the behaviour of the population. These range from providing information or undertaking campaigns of persuasion that promote certain behaviour, to taxation and legislation. In Table 1 of this report we set out a schematic list of types of intervention.

The currently influential book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein advocates a range of non-regulatory interventions that seek to influence behaviour by altering the context or environment in which people choose, and seek to influence behaviour in ways which people often do not notice. This approach differs from more traditional government attempts to change behaviour, which have either used regulatory interventions or relied on overt persuasion. The current Government have taken a considerable interest in the use of "nudge interventions". Consequently, one aim of this inquiry was to assess the evidence-base for the effectiveness of "nudges". However, we also examined evidence for the effectiveness of other types of policy intervention, regulatory and non-regulatory, and asked whether the Government make good use of the full range of available evidence when seeking to change behaviour.

We heard evidence that, although much was understood about human behaviour from basic research, there was relatively little evidence about how this understanding could be applied in practice to change the behaviour of populations ("applied research at a population level"). We make some recommendations to address this issue.

Although we acknowledge that further applied research at a population level is needed, we also found that the available evidence supports a number of conclusions. Our central finding is that non-regulatory measures used in isolation, including "nudges", are less likely to be effective. Effective policies often use a range of interventions.

We concluded that it is important to consider the whole range of possible interventions when policy interventions are designed. We place particular emphasis on this conclusion because the evidence we received indicated that the Government's preference for non-regulatory interventions has encouraged officials to exclude consideration of regulatory measures when thinking about behaviour change. Though there is a lack of applied research on changing behaviour at a population level, there is other available evidence that the Government need to use to better effect. We were therefore disappointed to find that, although we received some examples of evidence-based policies, such as policies on energy-efficient products and smoking cessation services, we were also given many examples of policies that had not taken account of available evidence, including policies on food labelling and alcohol pricing.

We also found that a lot more could, and should, be done to improve the evaluation of interventions. This is not only good practice but would help to build a body of research that could inform effective policies targeting population-level behaviour change.

Understanding behaviour and behaviour change are necessary for developing effective and efficient policies in all areas. Although this report draws on case studies that focus on the Department of Health and the Department for Transport, our conclusions and recommendations are directed to all Government departments.

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