CHAPTER 3: UNDERSTANDING WHAT INFLUENCES
Different kinds of evidence
3.1. Current understanding of how to change human
behaviour is derived from the various sciences of human behaviour
and from two overlapping types of research.
First, basic research, consisting of the development of theory
describing the processes which shape behaviour and empirical,
including experimental, tests of this theory. Secondly, applied
research, which is the application of basic research to understanding
how behaviour can be changed in everyday setting. When applied
research is conducted using samples that are representative of
the population to demonstrate effective behaviour change it is
particularly relevant to policy makers. In this report, we refer
to the latter form of research as "research at a population
level". Of course, for evidence to be of most use it must
have been evaluated rigorously and over the long-term. We discuss
evaluation further in Chapter 7.
Understanding behaviour: basic
WHAT INFLUENCES BEHAVIOUR?
3.2. Basic research confirms that human behaviour
is the product of a multitude of interrelated factors. This is
true both of particular actions and also of patterns of behaviour
over a lifetime. Given the complexity of factors underpinning
behaviour, it is impossible to summarise concisely what is known
about those factors and how they interact. Influences on behaviour
can, however, be characterised broadly as comprising: genetics,
individual thoughts and feelings, the physical environment, social
interaction (with other individuals), social identity (interaction
within and between groups), and the macro-social environment.
3.3. We can also say that some actions are consciously
planned, or deliberative, while others are governed by automatic,
or non-deliberative, processes (the focus of "nudges").
For example, a decision to buy a new car will usually be made
only after much conscious deliberation (coupled with unconscious
motivations), but when a car is being driven down a familiar route
the driver will be able to navigate without thinking about where
they are going, so acting automatically. The distinction between
deliberative and non-deliberative choices and actions are described
in terms of dual process theories. Professor Theresa Marteau,
Professor of Health Psychology, King's College London, provided
an overview in her evidence to us:
"We can understand people's behaviour as
comprising the interaction between two systems. The first is a
reflective system, whereby what we do is a result of goals that
reflect our values and where we're aware of what we're doing.
The other system, which actually accounts for much more of our
behaviour, is an automatic system, whereby we're often not aware
of the impulses that have generated our behaviour. There is an
increasing recognition that both these systems are very important
in explaining our behaviour. Often they work synergistically,
so they work together well. Sometimes they work antagonistically.
This is one of the reasons why, while many of us have very good
intentions, we often find ourselves behaving in ways that go against
Some witnesses argued that public policy has placed
too much emphasis on the reflective system or deliberative decision-making,
leading to an assumption that behaviour change can only be achieved
by appealing to knowledge and values and, as a result, underestimating
the importance of the automatic or non-deliberative aspect of
3.4. Both deliberative and non-deliberative choices
and actions can be affected by social factors (such as personal
interaction and interaction within, and between, groups) and the
large-scale social context (such as state of the economy). Behaviour
is also influenced by the physical environment in which it takes
place. The ready availability of cheap and unhealthy food, for
example, makes it more likely that people will consume it. Similarly,
if there are very busy roads and no cycling lanes, people are
less likely to travel by bike. Professor Marteau acknowledged
the contribution of behavioural economics in highlighting the
contextual and automatic determinants of behaviour.
She observed that "... behavioural economists have been extremely
successful ... in highlighting to policy makers the potential
behaviour change gains from going beyond information-based campaigns,
which rarely effect significant behavioural change, to alter 'choice
architecture' with its potential to be far more effective".
GAPS IN UNDERSTANDING
3.5. Several witnesses identified a number of
gaps in understanding about human behaviour. Examples given to
us included a lack of understanding about aspects of the automatic
system, particularly in relation to how emotional processes regulate
a lack of comparative research into the limits to the transferability
of behaviour change interventions across cultural differences;
uncertainty about how genes interact with environmental and social
factors to cause behaviour;
and, a lack of understanding about the effect of social dynamics
on behaviour. Other
witnesses commented on the challenges involved in integrating
the numerous theories of behaviour which were emerging from across
the range of sciences of human behaviour. In this regard, Professor Michie,
Professor of Health Psychology at University London, argued
that, though there had been advances in multi-disciplinary working,
more work needed to be done.
Applied research at a population
3.6. Whilst theoretical understanding of behaviour
change appears to be strong, several witnesses drew our attention
to the comparative lack of research at a population level.
NICE, for example, commented in relation to public health interventions
"The majority of experimental evidence
about behaviour change relates to individual approaches, and comes
largely from disciplines within psychology ... much of the evidence
is limited and it is rare that evidence can be extrapolated or
generalised from those interventions to the wider population with
confidence and without caveats ... There is less experimental
evidence about what works to influence behaviour when working
with or at community or population levels."
They further noted that there is "a marked lack
of information about what works to change behaviour at policy
3.7. Richard Bartholomew, joint head of the Government
Social Research service (GSR), said that though there were theories
explaining why people behaved in certain ways there was a dearth
of clear evidence about how to translate that into change.
The British Psychological Society (BPS) agreed to some extent,
noting that further research was required "to develop cost-effective
strategies that can be adopted and utilised in practice".
The Sustainable Development Commission said that there needed
to be more "understanding of what interventions work best
3.8. Our impression that there is relatively
little evidence of the effectiveness of particular behaviour change
interventions at a population level has been reinforced by how
few substantial responses we received following our request for
examples of successful interventions. A number of witnesses also
alluded to a lack of evidence about the cost-effectiveness of
to a disappointing lack of long-term data against which to judge
the effectiveness of interventions over sustained periods.
3.9. Businesses, on the other hand, have demonstrated
success at changing behaviour patterns on a large scale through
measures like advertising and product promotion.
However, governments can face greater challenges than businesses
in changing behaviour. Government may often wish to establish
new behaviour patterns, such as getting people to take more exercise,
or helping people to break ingrained habits, like smoking cigarettes.
This is difficult to achieve. By contrast, businesses normally
seek to sell people those things that they like and want.
3.10. There is a lack of applied research
at a population level to support specific interventions to change
the behaviour of large groups of people (including a lack of evidence
on cost-effectiveness and long-term impact). This is a barrier
to the formulation of evidence-based policies to change behaviour.
To address this problem, the Government will need both to evaluate
their own behaviour change interventions rigorously and establish
new evidence by commissioning and funding more applied behavioural
research on this scale. Recommendations are made in Chapters
4 and 6 about how this can be achieved.
29 We recognise that the terminology used to distinguish
between different types of research is the subject of debate and
that distinctions between different categories of research are
not clear cut. Identifying categories is, however, necessary for
the purposes of discussion. Back
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