Archive for August, 2010

An oblique approach to behaviour change?

August 27, 2010
Behaviour change will continue to rise up the public policy agenda in the coming months. The publication of the Public Health White Paper in December is likely to lead a significant debate as to how government led behaviour change strategies should develop.

An important issue will be examining the effectiveness of different types of interventions.Often when we are considering behavioural interventions we are referring to targeting a segment of the population with a particular behaviour/challenge you want to influence e.g. anti obesity or smoking campaign. This, in many ways, is the ‘traditional’ way of delivering a behaviour change initiative. In this posting I’m contrasting this with another broad approach that will be explored in those debates: where a specific behavioural outcome is a corollary of the intervention. An example might be an intervention that aims to make a community more cohesive. This may achieve specific targets set for it such as improved local survey results on attitudes to migrants, but also may lead to a decline in crime and anti-social behaviour. Shades of the Big Society here perhaps?

The concept of Obliquity states that in a complex system, the factors involved are too numerous and too intricately connected to be easily understood. Therefore, just as we cannot be sure that long-range weather forecasts won’t be affected by some unforeseen influence, we cannot be sure that single-mindedly striving for a single behavioural change is most likely to lead to desired outcome. This approach has many similarities to the more formal discipline of Systems Thinking which seeks to understand how things influence each other within a whole.

For instance, if you are running a large IT department and your goal is to help your company be profitable, the best way to achieve that goal is to think holistically and consider both the business and the technical needs of your company’s employees. By concentrating on a goal that involves providing quality services — and not just focusing attention on narrow financial metrics like unit costs and return on investment your IT department will help employees work more efficiently and be more productive This in turn, will make the company more profitable.

This concept has been argued recently by the Economist John Kay for business management, but can also apply to behavioural interventions too. Indeed it may well be the experience of businesses, willing to experiment and take risks, that may point the way here. Indeed, those with some existing experience in Systems Thinking approaches will understand the approach very well.

Social Networks are at the heart of Obliquity.If we are to take a whole systems approach then perhaps the most crucial thing is to build the quality and quantity of social networks and their relationships rather than necessarily conduct a direct behavioural campaign. Both Nicholas Christakis and Mark Earls have written some of best descriptions of the importance of  these social networks and the wider impact they have.

Research I have previously blogged about  shows that simply building relationships is a positive factor in improving wellbeing as a report on recent research by Brigham Young University in the Guardian on 27 July explained. Targeting specific behaviours is of course still important, but in effect “immunising” communities from the worst outcomes of damaging behaviours might also prove effective.

We will explore how this approach might fit in with existing behaviour change strategies in a subsequent posting. Have a good bank holiday!

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company

Does Social Mobility also need Social Marketing?

August 23, 2010

The recent appointment of former Labour Minster Alan Milburn to be an independent expert reviewer on government progress over social mobility is welcome as it creates the opportunity to build on the report he published under the previous government. Social mobility is an inter-generational issue that requires long-term commitment from governments, so the greater the consensus the more likelihood of some change occurring.

At the same time it also needs to be recognised that the financial situation means it will be more difficult to deliver expensive changes at least in the short-term, whatever the level of consensus.

Is there another approach that could be piloted as part of the review into this?

Behaviour Change theory often stresses the importance of the need to address issues around both personal “ability” and “motivation”. Naturally the focus in public policy in the last century or more has been on providing support to help people develop their “ability” (eg universal education) and of course there may be more that still needs to be done in this field as books such as the Spirit Level would argue. The Capabilities Approach of Amartya Sen also quite naturally focuses on tackling the inequalities around how the state or society contributes to ability.

However increasingly the other half of the behaviour change equation, “motivation”, is moving out of a past cul-de-sac of American business management and self-help books and is beginning to be recognised as a collective action problem for society to address. The argument is quite simple, and makes a practical use of the current understanding of how the brain works and the two independent systems within it: the emotional side and the rational reflective or conscious system. If we just invest in supporting abilities we do much to support the part of us that is the rational, however we then do not address the issues around our emotional selves.

Behaviour Change campaigns in areas like public health and the environment already recognise the importance of addressing both aspects of human behaviour.  However in other areas of public policy there is still the danger that however much we invest in improving “ability”, if we do not address the challenge of demotivation then the gap in a range of inequalities (from health to social mobility) could continue to widen.

Much of the early debate in this field has been around the Happiness agenda of Richard Layard, which has already led to much more resources being invested in support for talking therapies in mental health provision. Government’s have also increased the number of “personal advisors” and advocates in a number of fields from education to employment, but there has been no joined up approach to this across Government. The current financial situation may hold back further significant development here for the next few years.

How might one develop new approaches to supporting social mobility in the short-term?

One approach for future pilots might be to draw from the specific field of social marketing within behaviour change. Before one can develop new proposals for intervention, there needs to be a gathering of insight using newer forms of segmentation that give a greater understanding of levels of motivation and self-efficacy within the community. Only then can more targeted interventions be delivered to the right people, to enable motivations to be supported that then make the important continuing investment into developing ability all the more effective.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company

Should one “Nudge”, “Think” or “Steer”? It’s a lot more than that!

August 16, 2010

Former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby writing in the Guardian yesterday, produced a critical piece on the use of Nudges in public policy. He described authors Thaler and Sustein’s “libertarian paternalism”  as bearing “the same theological relationship to Friedmanite economics (Milton Friedman was also a Chicago professor) as intelligent design does to creationism”.

The danger with this critique is that Nudges, which are a tool to change the “choice architecture“(eg change the order of the food counter to emphasise salads over sweets) are then characterised as being purely something related to a single political philosophy (ie Libertarian Paternalism). Perceiving a behavioural tool in partisan terms could lead to it being discounted by the other side in any political debate.

This would be a tragedy as the opportunity to secure positive social outcomes in areas where there is wide political agreement (reducing poor health or education outcomes) could be weakened. Hopefully the debate around the forthcoming Public Health White Paper and the outcome of Graham Allen’s Early Intervention Commission could lead to a recognition of sustained long-term action through a range of approaches including the use of Nudges.

Nudges are an approach where we are spared the cognitive effort of thinking too hard about the behaviour in question. As well as the political debate above,  others argue that behavioural approaches that make us debate or think more can also be effective. Matthew Taylor of the RSA now champions “Steer” and Professor Gerry Stoker says the alternative is to “Think“.

Who is right in this part of the debate?

The answer is that there is no magic bullet, just a wide choice in ammunition.

Context is also king and the social network that you are in really counts. What people around you do has a vast impact as Mark Earls, the author of Herd has recently written praising the work of Nicholas Christakis and his recent book Connected.

The recent Cabinet Office Mindspace report also shows the vast range of tools one can use in behavioural interventions.

The most important lesson from this research is to gather the deep information to ensure one uses the right mix of tools to deliver an effective intervention through a clear understanding of the context that existing behaviour operates within. So before deploying Nudge, Think, Steer and all the other one word behaviour change solutions that are on offer, the fundamental prior action is also one word – “Insight”!

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company

Building better social networks – a business contribution to public health?

August 4, 2010

In his recent speech on Public Health, Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley set out his vision for a new Public Health Service. He was supportive of the initiatives like the Change4Life campaign but wanted to see it as a much more locally lead and much more a local social movement, perhaps contributing to the Big Society:

‘….we need a new approach. We have to make Change4life less a government campaign, more a social movement. Less paid for by government, more backed by business. Less about costly advertising, more about supporting family and individual responses.’

Responding to his announcements, some private businesses may wish to consider contributing to this as part of their Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) agenda. However those companies will also be fully aware of the level of public scepticism over the offer of this help.

The Independent Newspaper on Thursday 9 July reported an example of the reaction from health campaigners to Lansley’s speech:

“Health organisations reacted with disbelief. Betty McBride, director of policy and communications at the British Heart Foundation, said: “We wait with bated breath for the fast food merchants, chocolate bar makers and fizzy drink vendors to beat a path to the public health door. Meanwhile, parents and children continue to be faced with the bewildering kaleidoscope of confusing food labels and pre-watershed junk food ads.

“Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said he was “horror-struck” at Mr Lansley’s remarks. “[This is] nothing other than a bare-faced request for cash from a rich food and drink industry to bail out a cash-starved Department of Health campaign. The quid pro quo is that the Department gives industry an assurance that there will be no regulation or legislation over its activities.

“What the UK desperately needs are people willing to stand up to the food and drink lobby, such as Michelle Obama is doing in her anti-obesity campaign in the US, rather than politicians rolling over on their backs in front of the lobbyists as is apparently happening here’

Business involvement may well be widely seen by the public in cynical terms as “guilt money”, and thus may even have negative marketing benefit for companies, putting them off from contributing to the public good.

Is there an alternative approach?

I think there is, based on new research in this field.

Recent research has shown that building relationships are vital to wellbeing as a report on recent research by Brigham Young University in the Guardian on 27 July explained:

“A life of booze, fags and slothfulness may be enough to earn your doctor’s disapproval, but there is one last hope: a repeat prescription of mates and good conversation.

“A circle of close friends and strong family ties can boost a person’s health more than exercise, losing weight or quitting cigarettes and alcohol, psychologists say.

“Sociable people seem to reap extra rewards from their relationships by feeling less stressed, taking better care of themselves and having less risky lifestyles than those who are more isolated, they claim.

“A review of studies into the impact of relationships on health found that people had a 50% better survival rate if they belonged to a wider social group, be it friends, neighbours, relatives or a mix of these.

“The striking impact of social connections on wellbeing has led researchers to call on GPs and health officials to take loneliness as seriously as other health risks, such as alcoholism and smoking.

“We take relationships for granted as humans,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah. “That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.”

What this implies is that a company working in food retailing may want to avoid directly funding nutrition or anti-obesity campaigns which might be seen as cynical or a conflict of interests. It is instead about companies building relationships and social networks and changing the  context through which behaviour happens, which then helps people make better informed personal choices.

Building deeper authentic relationships are exactly what business marketing and branding is all about nowadays. Constructing stronger social networks within poorer communities helps contribute to changing the contexts by which negative behaviours such as obesity develop and are reinforced. This creates levels of sustainability that can actually lead to increased profits as companies respond to the new or better behaviours that are developed and reinforced; and compared to the public sector have the market insight to respond to them more quickly and effectively.

As the Guardian report indicates, irrespective of the specific intervention, it is the social network itself that contributes to individual and community resilience and motivation. Thus focusing on the network building rather than the direct intervention could be better value for money for the public sector, but also for the private sector too. Indeed this more flexible approach is something the private sector might more easily deliver than a public sector, committed as it would be, to specific interventions and specific outcomes.

The private sector is also likely to understand this more easily as this approach to public policy is very similar to the national and local marketing campaigns that companies conduct anyway. This approach may also be one that also wins greater support across the community rather than a company sponsoring an existing part of a campaign like Change4Life.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company


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