As part of the TCC methodology we often make the point that there has been an understandable focus in public policy towards behavioural intervention on tackling ability without perhaps addressing the other key aspect within behavioural theory around addressing self-efficacy and motivation. Until relatively recently this second aspect was seen mainly in individualistic self-help terms. Look at the numerous books one can buy on the subject for personal use!
However this view is changing. Interestingly Oliver Burkemann of the Guardian, who often analyses self-help programmes has flagged up recent research into the impact of Poverty on will-power and motivation and set it in the wider context of research into willpower depletion when it comes to addressing challenges within life. In other words when confronted with many choices to change our lives we can be cognitively exhausted and thus find it hard to sustain the beneficial activity. An example of this might be giving up smoking and losing weight at the same time. What the combination of the two areas of research indicates is that poverty itself extracts a substantial cognitive cost, which does make it more difficult to escape it.
Utilising this research in the context of very poor communities overseas may well be clear. In an Indian village improving ability and capability through investment in education is reasonably straightforward, but making gains in complex western societies is much more difficult where there is already a substantial investment in improving ability, hence the need for segmentation that focuses on needs, motivational values and self-efficacy. This enables limited resources to be more effectively focused if we are to provide the additional support to less resilient communities through personal, social and structural & design public policy interventions that support the existing activity to support and improve ability. In other words understanding the why as well as what and how of behaviour. This is particularly useful in thus fully understanding the barriers to pro-social behaviour.
Once we know the values of a community we also need to map their social networks and the prevailing narratives that express the values within a community. We have hypothesised about the interplay between Social networks and people’s values suggesting that values help determine the type and size of the social network we are likely to have and that the people in our social network are likely to at varying times both reinforce and change our values. The results of early research in combined values segmentation and social network mapping (the latter based on the RSA Connected Communities methodology) in an English local authority so far seems to confirm the hypothesis.
In some cases reinforcing positive behaviours through social norms is a good thing. However the harder task is to change behaviour to lead to a more pro-social norm. The latest research by the Social Cognitive Network Academic Research Center (SCNARC) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute indicates that when just 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, their belief will always be adopted by the majority of the society. This is a degree of endorsement for the social epidemic aspects of Gladwell’s Tipping Point as well as diffusion of innovations theory. We would additionally suggest that those with inner directed motivational needs tend to be the segment that seeks to make significant change and thus when an idea or adopted behaviour reaches a certain proportion of them it rapidly tips others within that values set and then influences those with other values too.
From our work in addressing community cohesion challenges in very disaffected communities, we believe that one would be able to seed that less resilient environment with more pro-social ideas from authentic empathic advocates who share similar values and also crucially feedback information; however looking for specific individual influencers to be a magic bullet is unlikely to be the best use of resources as we all influence each other to a greater or lesser degree. What we therefore need to do is to understand the network as a whole and the values that exist within it in order to craft effective interventions. As Mark Earls the author of Herd puts it:
One of the ideas that most hinders our attempts to get to grips with human behaviour is that which sees the individual agents and not the ecosystem; the consumer (nuff said on that one) and not the social world which individuals live and which they help create.
Much of cognitive psychology (and it’s fair to say, much of the Nudge-gang’s work) remains rooted in understanding the quirks of individuals’ cognitive machinery; much of evolutionary psychology seems to be stuck in explaining the behaviour of individuals devoid of their real context – that is, other people. And in popular culture, we tend to go back to specifics (to excessive nodality as the network theorists would put it): to the specific individual and what causes or might shape that person’s behaviour. This is as true of our political debates as it is of our personal lives.
But that’s not what human life is like: it’s not individuals, living in splendid isolation…..for us social creatures, life IS other people (even if we find it hard to see it as such for our own lives).
This means it is important to map broad social networks at the relevant population level and understand the values that are more likely to support the diffusion of pro-social change within less resilient communities. In other words the most effective ‘self-help’ for an individual there is for their community to change as they are more likely to go along with and have behaviour reinforced by the social norm that emerges and also lightening the load of individual cognitive exhaustion I referred to earlier.
Is Government ready for this approach? Possibly not quite at this stage, if you look at the Office for National Statistics recently published consultation findings and reflections on National Well-being measurement, one might see that it does tend to be more focused on indicators that reflect mainly inner directed values. This might be fine if one is prepared to wait for a tipping point for pro-social norms described above to diffuse change over the long-term, but will it tackle the difficulties in supporting a broader spread of self-efficacy more immediately? Will it also tell us fully about the well-being of people who do not share those inner-directed values, or will it simply illustrate the Values Gap we have discussed previously?