Behaviour Change - Science and Technology Committee Contents


The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee has appointed a sub-committee, chaired by Baroness Neuberger, to investigate the use of behaviour change interventions to achieve policy goals.


To meet many of the societal challenges we are currently facing—such as achieving an 80% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050 or reducing the burden on the health service as a result of smoking, drinking or the rise in obesity—individual and collective behaviour will need to change significantly. Governments, therefore, are becoming increasingly interested in understanding how they can influence the way we behave using a range of different types of behaviour change policy interventions that rely on measures other than prohibition or the elimination of choice. Recent reports, such as the Cabinet Office issue paper Personal Responsibility and Behaviour Change (2003), the Government Social Research Unit's Behaviour Change Knowledge Review (2008) and the Cabinet Office and Institute for Government report MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy (2010), are indicative of this growing interest.

The subject is complex. Choosing a behaviour change intervention or a mix of interventions to achieve particular policy goals in particular contexts draws on understanding developed in a large variety of research disciplines, including health psychology, social psychology, behavioural economics, neuroscience and sociology. The insights provided by the development and application of social marketing techniques also make a valuable contribution.

Some behaviour change interventions are recognised as having been very successful. A recent review of more than 1,000 evaluations of health behaviour change interventions has shown that theory- and evidence-based behaviour change interventions can be effective across a range of behaviour change domains. In relation to smoking, for example, the simultaneous application of a number of different types of interventions, including a ban on smoking in public, marketing campaigns to highlight the dangers of smoking and improved and better advertised smoking cessation services within the National health Service is said to have led to a significant reduction in the number of smokers over the last few years. Other interventions, such as efforts to reduce alcohol misuse, have been less successful. We shall be examining, amongst other things, what appears to make one intervention more effective than another.

Scope of the inquiry

The inquiry will examine our current state of knowledge about what interventions can effectively influence behaviour, how behaviour change interventions which have been designed on the basis of that knowledge can be used to achieve policy goals, and what factors should be taken into account by government in determining whether a particular behaviour change intervention is appropriate. It will look at the evidence-base that supports current behaviour change interventions and at the effectiveness of those interventions.

In particular, the inquiry seeks to examine:

  • the policy implications of recent developments in research on behaviour change;
  • whether current government behaviour change interventions are evidence-based, whether such interventions are appropriately evaluated, and if lessons have been learnt from the process and then applied to further interventions;
  • whether there is sufficient expertise within public services (for example, local authorities and the NHS) to ensure that interventions are evidence-based, and implemented and evaluated effectively;
  • the extent to which behaviour change interventions require a mixture of different tools to succeed;
  • how behaviour change interventions and activities are coordinated across government and beyond;
  • the extent to which, and ways in which, government should be accountable to, or engage with, the wider public about the use of behaviour change policy interventions;
  • the role of industry and the voluntary sector in shaping behaviour patterns;
  • the relationship between government, industry and the voluntary sector in promoting behaviour change to achieve policy goals; finally,
  • the social and ethical issues surrounding the use of behaviour change interventions by government.

Case study 1: Tackling obesity

The Committee will conduct two case studies as part of the wider inquiry. The first case study will look at the use of behaviour change policy interventions to tackle obesity. Obesity remains a major challenge for society. In 2008, almost a quarter of adults in England were classified as obese; and 16.8% of boys aged 2 to 15 and 15.2% of girls were also classified as obese, an increase from 11.1% and 12.2% respectively in 1995.[343]

A 2007 Foresight report on obesity, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, called for a systems approach to behaviour change interventions to tackle obesity and, in 2008, the Government launched Healthy weight: healthy lives, a cross-government strategy for England which introduced a number of interventions. Nonetheless, prevalence rates amongst some childhood and adolescent groups and adults continue to rise. These trends predict worsening public health, increased pressure on the health service and a very large cost to the national economy.


Research and Development

1. What is known about how behaviour can be influenced? What special considerations apply to addictive behaviour?

2. What are the policy implications of recent developments in research on behaviour change?

3. Is there adequate research capability within the United Kingdom to support the current pace of developments in behaviour change policy interventions? Is there sufficient funding for the evaluation of behaviour change interventions?


4. Are there adequate structures and expertise across government and the public services more generally to support the translation of research developments in behaviour change into policy interventions?

Policy design and evaluation


5. What should be classified as a behaviour change intervention?

6. How should different levels of intervention (individual, organisational, community and national) and different types of intervention (legislative, fiscal, educative) interact in order to achieve policy goals more effectively?

7. Should behaviour change interventions be used in isolation or in combination with other policy interventions?

Practical application

8. Have publicly funded behaviour change interventions been both evidence-based and subject to effective evaluation? How successful have such interventions been?

9. Within government, how are the lessons learnt from the success or lack of success of behaviour change interventions fed back into the design of future interventions? Are lessons learned from industry and voluntary sector behaviour change activities also taken into account?

10. What mechanisms exist, at national and local government level, to provide advice and support during the design, piloting, implementation and evaluation of behaviour change interventions in order to ensure that they achieve intended policy goals and also cultural changes within government and public services more generally?

Cross-government coordination

11. What mechanisms exist within government to coordinate and implement cross-departmental behaviour change policy interventions?

12. What mechanisms exist within government to cascade learning and best practice on behaviour change policy interventions?

Ethical considerations

13. When is it appropriate for the state to intervene to influence the behaviour of members of the public and how does this differ from when it is appropriate for the commercial or voluntary sector to intervene? In particular, when should this be done by outright prohibition and when by measures to encourage behaviour change? Are some methods of producing behaviour change unacceptable? Which and why?

14. Should the public be involved in the design and implementation of behaviour change policy interventions and, if so, how? Should proposed measures for securing behaviour change be subject to public engagement exercises or consultation? Should they be piloted? Do considerations differ in the case of interventions aimed at changing addictive behaviour?

International comparisons

15. What lessons can be learnt from previous successful or unsuccessful behaviour change interventions in other countries? Which countries provide the most helpful examples of best practice? Are behavioural change interventions generally transferable between different societies?

Tackling Obesity

16. The Committee would particularly welcome submissions on behaviour change interventions, whether in the public sector, the private sector or by voluntary organisations, designed to tackle obesity, in the United Kingdom or internationally, in order to examine:

(a)  the latest developments in the evidence-base in relation to changing eating and physical activity behaviour;

(b)  who are the most effective agents for the delivery of behaviour interventions to tackle obesity;

(c)  how current behaviour change interventions tackle obesity and what use is made of available scientific evidence;

(d)  whether such interventions are appropriately designed and evaluated; and

(e)  what lessons have been learnt and applied as a result of the evaluation process.

The Committee would also be interested to hear about any other issues not already covered by this call for evidence that are relevant to the scope of the inquiry.

Case study 2: Travel-Mode choice interventions to reduce car use in towns and cities

Greenhouse gas emissions from transport represent 21% of the total United Kingdom domestic emissions. Emissions from private car use constitute 78% of that figure, representing 17% of total emissions or 91.5 million tonnes of CO2 in 2008. Although technological measures are important in reducing emissions and may be effective in the long-term they are not sufficient to achieve the necessary reduction in carbon emissions in the short-term. Getting individuals to reduce the amount that they use their cars is necessary if the UK's carbon reduction targets are to be met successfully.

Behaviour change interventions to encourage people to travel more sustainably have become an integral part of transport policies in recent years, featuring in the previous Government's Low Carbon Transport Strategy of 2009. To date, however, such interventions do not appear to have led to a major change in transport mode choice, or a significant reduction in CO2 emissions from transport.

The Committee invites evidence on the following questions


17. The Committee would welcome submissions on behaviour change interventions, whether in the public sector, the private sector or by voluntary organisations, designed to change travel-mode choice in order to reduce car use in towns and cities, in the United Kingdom or internationally, in order to examine:

(a)  what are the most influential drivers of behaviour affecting an individual's choice of mode of travel;

(b)  what is the role of infrastructure in encouraging and facilitating changes in travel-mode choice;

(c)  what are the latest developments in the evidence-base in relation to changing travel-mode choice and the implications of those developments for policy;

(d)  what are the most appropriate type and level of interventions to change travel-mode choice;

(e)  who are the most effective agents for the delivery of behaviour interventions to change travel-mode choice;

(f)  how do current behaviour change interventions seek to change travel-mode choice and what use is made of available scientific evidence;

(g)  are current policy interventions addressing both psychological and environmental barriers to change;

(h)  are policy interventions appropriately designed and evaluated;

(i)  what lessons have been learnt and applied as a result of the evaluation of policy; and

(j)  what lessons can be learnt from interventions employed in other countries.

The Committee would also be interested to receive evidence on the broader scope and questions outlined in the first call for evidence, where it is of relevance to this case study.

343   Statistics on obesity, physical activity and diet: England 2010, The Information Centre for Health and Social Care, NHS. Back

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