Behaviour Change - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Behaviour Change

CHAPTER 1: Introduction

1.1.  Many of the goals to which governments aspire—such as bringing down levels of crime, reducing unemployment, increasing savings and meeting targets for carbon emissions—can be achieved only if people change their behaviour. Consequently, understanding how to change the behaviour of populations should be a concern for any government if it is to be successful. Recent examples of behaviour change initiatives that have had significant success include policies to reduce smoking and drink-driving and to increase the use of condoms to protect sexual health.

1.2.  The current Government have said that they intend to use what they describe as more "intelligent ways" to change people's behaviour and so challenge "the assumption" that central government can only change behaviour by "rules and regulation".[1] As a result, since taking office, their focus has been on non-regulatory interventions and, in particular, on the concept of "nudging", an idea made fashionable in recent years by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. The purpose of this inquiry was to consider whether the Government's approach is an effective one and whether it can be improved. In doing so, we have looked at what the "sciences of human behaviour" can show about changing people's behaviour, how behaviour change research is applied to the formulation of Government policies and whether the Government have taken sufficient steps to ensure that behaviour change policies are evidence-based and properly evaluated.

1.3.  We acknowledge that there are a range of issues about the ethical acceptability of behaviour change interventions and that, in some circumstances, changing behaviour will be considered controversial. Though these issues are important, we have not explored them in detail in this report but have instead highlighted them as matters which policy makers should take into account when formulating and implementing behaviour change interventions.

Scope of the inquiry

1.4.  Although the current Government have focused on "tools … to achieve behaviour change that [are] non-regulatory in character", it became clear to us during the course of this inquiry that assessing the effectiveness of non-regulatory interventions could be done only by looking at them in the context of the whole range of interventions, both non-regulatory and regulatory. We have not, therefore, restricted ourselves to considering the effectiveness of non-regulatory interventions but have examined the evidence relating to a variety of policies to change behaviour.

1.5.  That is not to say that we have assessed each and every Government policy which is intended to change behaviour. Instead, we have directed our attention to the extent to which the Government are making best use of the contribution of disciplines such as neuroscience, psychology, sociology and behavioural economics to the formulation of policy.

1.6.  To complement this broad approach, we have also undertaken two case studies. We chose these case studies on the ground that both policy areas raise significant challenges which need to be addressed urgently,[2] and for which changing behaviour will be central to success. The first looks at Government behaviour change interventions to reduce the prevalence of obesity and the second at interventions to reduce car use in order to limit CO2 emissions. This choice of topics illustrates attempts to change behaviour first for the benefit of individuals, and second for the benefit of the wider community now and in the future.

1.7.  Though, as a consequence of undertaking the case studies, this report highlights the work of the Department of Health (DH) and the Department for Transport (DfT), we believe that our conclusions and recommendations are relevant to all Government departments.

Structure of the report

1.8.  In Chapter 2, we discuss some of the terminology relating to behaviour change, clarify how we use various terms in this report and briefly consider some of the ethical and other issues associated with behaviour change interventions. In Chapter 3, we look at what science can tell us about how to influence behaviour and the strength of the evidence-base. In Chapter 4, we consider the extent to which the Government make use of the available evidence about how to change behaviour and how this might be improved. In Chapter 5, we look at the potential impact of central Government's approach to changing behaviour. In Chapter 6, we consider whether the Government evaluate their interventions appropriately and discuss how evaluation could be improved. Chapter 7 sets out the findings from our two case studies.


1.9.  The membership and interests of the Committee are set out in Appendix 1, and those who submitted written and oral evidence are listed in Appendix 2. The calls for evidence for this inquiry are reprinted in Appendix 3. In October 2010 we held a seminar on changing behaviour to reduce the prevalence of obesity, a note of which is set out in Appendix 4. In January 2011 we held a seminar on changing behaviour to reduce emissions from car use, a note of which is set out in Appendix 5. In February 2011 we held a seminar on the ethics of behaviour change, a note of which is set out in Appendix 6. We thank all those who assisted us in our work.

1.10.  Finally, we are grateful to our Specialist Adviser, Professor Charles Abraham, Professor of Behaviour Change at the Peninsula Medical School at the University of Exeter, for his expertise and guidance during this inquiry. We stress, however, that the conclusions we draw and the recommendations we make are ours alone.

1   The Coalition: our programme for Government, Cabinet Office (May 2010). Back

2   A 2007 Foresight report, Tackling obesities: future choices, estimated that, without action, obesity-related diseases will cost society £49.9 billion a year by 2050. The Climate Change Act 2008 requires the UK to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. Back

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