Understand why people behave the way they do
What is it?
It is a clear understanding of what causes and influences the problem or negative behaviour, and what causes and influences the desired or positive behaviour.
Why do this?
This is done to gain rounded insight into the influences which might cause the target audience to change. By simply focusing on the problem, and how to influence it, you can miss the potential to build, reinforce and strengthen the desired behaviour. More >
Social marketing interventions that fail to understand the influences on the target audience’s everyday life are unlikely to succeed. There is also a wealth of theory which can help identify relationships between these influences, and help reduce or eliminate the negative, and enhance the positive.
The Contribution of Theory to Understanding Behaviour
There is growing evidence that those interventions that directly consider the theory base of their work are more effective in the longer term. This does not mean that people need to become ‘expert theorists’, but it is useful to reflect on what people believe will influence a given behaviour.
It is particularly useful in allowing stakeholders and partners to get to know each other, and understand the viewpoints they may hold about what may influence a particular behaviour or set of behaviours. However, it is also helpful to consider doing this at different stages, as different aspects or components of an intervention can draw on different types of behavioural theory. Doing this early in the process helps to avoid the trap of generating messages and finding ways to communicate them before you’ve looked at whether ‘communicating a message’ is likely to influence the behaviour in question.
When getting a planning, development or stakeholder group together it is useful, as part of getting to know each other, to review the theories that people hold about what influences behaviour. This helps bring often unspoken assumptions into the open and provides an opportunity to reflect on them in a considered and careful way
How might you do this?
Gaining an understanding of behaviour requires insight and often involves the knowledge and experience of a range of people. These include health and other professionals and those who live and work with the target group. Additionally, research findings should help to clarify the nature of behaviour. A clear description of both the desired and problem behaviours will help to create a shared understanding and focus.
You might want to:
- Split the team into two groups (depending on numbers), one to focus on the problem behaviour and the other on the desired behaviour. More >
- Each group can then address the following tasks:
- Describe the current desired and problematic behaviour.
- What are the patterns and trends over time? Are the behaviours increasing, decreasing or changing in some other way?
- What behaviour could be changed or maintained in the short term?
- Are behaviours likely to change with a little more incentive?
- If audience members take action (positive or negative) will it make a difference in achieving the overall project goal?
- Be sure the behaviour you are linking to each target audience makes sense. More >
- Are the selected behaviours supported by your market research findings?
- How did audience members view the behaviour and did they express a desire to change/maintain it?
- Is the behavioural objective different from what they are already doing?
- Is the given behaviour under an individual’s control?
- Try to clarify what the behavioural change actually requires of the individual. More >
- For example, does it consist of:
- a one-off action (easiest to bring about) such as signing up to be an organ donor
- repeated or daily actions that are simple and take little effort (using a seat-belt)
- repeated actions within a finite period (having children fully immunised by the time they start school)
- situational actions (giving oral re-hydration to a child with diarrhoea); or a permanent lifestyle change (hardest to bring about), such as taking regular exercise
- Try and develop a shared understanding about the assumptions (theory) that people are using to explain behaviours
- Each group can then feedback, and similarities between the positive and negative behaviours can be identified. More >
These should be noted as inputs into developing possible interventions. Some of the questions may not be answerable at this time and an action list can be drawn up to gather further information.
Remember that understanding what influences the desired behaviour is as important as focusing on the problem behaviour.
Help people draw on their own experience to describe what they think influences a behaviour. More >
Many everyday understandings and assumptions have more complex names and descriptions, but it can be off putting to concentrate too much on this. Try to avoid a common tendency to adopt a preferred theory, and then apply it to every situation and context. It is important to adopt an ‘open theory approach’ where time is given to learn about the customer and their beliefs, values and behaviour before overlaying your own ideas or theories to explain what they are doing. Start with understanding the customer first, then look at which theories might offer insights into why they do what they do and what might influence them.
Recognise that there are a huge range of different theories and ideas about what influences behaviour. Try to involve a mix of people with different perspectives, experiences, skills and ideas. More >
Try to avoid only having people with similar academic or professional backgrounds. For example, if only psychologists are involved there might be an understandable tendency to see only psychological-focused solutions suggested. Equally, if you only have communications specialists involved, it would be all too easy to just end up with a communications-based approach.
Try and be clear about what theories you are drawing from to inform the intervention, as it will help in the subsequent review and evaluation. More >
This is when you assess whether the assumptions made in the planning and development of an intervention have proved to be right.
An action plan for further information collection if necessary.
Current behaviour checklist.
A checklist of relevant theoretical approaches for understanding the target audience(s) behaviour.
An understanding of the nature of the challenge and desired behaviours.
An understanding of the causes of positive and negative behaviours.
A shared understanding of the theoretical perspectives adopted by team members.