by R. Craig Lefebvre, Ph.D.
Many of the biggest policy challenges we are now facing – such as the increase in people with chronic health conditions – will only be resolved if we are successful in persuading people to change their behavior, their lifestyles or their existing habits. Fortunately, over the last decade, our understanding of influences on behavior has increased significantly and this points the way to new approaches and new solutions.
That statement appears in the foreword of a new joint publication by the Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. The authors of the report, intended for policy-makers, distill behavior change principles into MINDSPACE:
Messenger: We are heavily influenced by who communicates with us.
Incentives: Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts, such as strongly avoiding losses.
Norms: We are strongly influenced by what other people do.
Defaults: We tend to ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options.
Salience: Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant for us.
Priming: Our actions are often influenced by sub-conscious clues.
Affect: Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments: We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts.
Ego: We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.
Some of you will wonder why some of the other tried and true principles of behavior change are not on this list; why not include models, intentions, needs, desires, stages of change, positive reinforcement, attitudes, connections (or social support) and efficacy?
The authors note that there are at least two models for thinking about behavior change. The first approach is the ‘rational’ or ‘cognitive’ model.
They continue: Most traditional interventions in public policy follow this model. The presumption is that citizens and consumers will analyse the various pieces of information from politicians, governments and markets, the numerous incentives offered to us and act in their best interests (however they define their best interests, or - more paternalistically - however policymakers define them).
The contrasting model of shaping behavior focuses on the more automatic processes of judgment and influence. This shifts the focus of attention away from facts and information, and towards altering the context within which people act. We might call this the ‘context’ model of behavior change. The context model recognises that people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices, often because they are influenced by surrounding factors.’
So MINDSPACE becomes a methodology for, as they put it, changing behavior without changing minds.
It certainly provides something for us to think about when we try and use policy-making as a way of changing behaviors. Are we, in fact, simply applying our old prejudices for rational decision-making and persuasion by implementing policies that mandate the delivery of more information (think about BMI report cards in schools, restaurant menu-labeling programs for example)?
Or are we focusing on changing the context in which judgments and decisions about health behaviors are made? And should we also be asking how we can expand the frame for policy-making even more and focus on the marketplace itself to improve health behaviors by increasing access and opportunities to healthier behavioral options, products and services?