'Behaviour change' past, present and future: interdisciplinary responses to behaviour change in policy and research

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Business and Law


Government is increasingly concerned with ways to most effectively change people's behaviour. It is important for individual, social and economic health that interventions are implemented to counter the unhealthy and damaging behaviours that have become natural in our obesogenic environment and commercially-driven culture of over-consumption. However, there are various different approaches to behaviour change, including regulation, behavioural economics, mass media, social marketing, industry regulation and community development.

Policy makers rely on evidence from research to underpin decisions on the best techniques to achieve behaviour change. Thus, many academics are involved in research to understand what drives damaging behaviours and how best to influence them. Fields such as marketing, psychology, sociology, urban planning, economics, geography and IT have all contributed to the planning and implementation of interventions tackling many of the UK's most problematic behaviours.

There have been recent developments in the field of behaviour change which mean that the emphasis is no long on exploring the influences on behaviour from the perspective of a single discipline, but rather on disciplines working together to tackle problem behaviours - interdisciplinarity. This development has occurred because it has been acknowledged that behaviours which have complex, multi-layered and interrelated influences, like smoking or transport, are unlikely to be solved by looking at them from one angle. Thus an interdisciplinary approach to behaviour change has been recommended (for example by The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee), both in terms of theoretical exploration of behaviours and interventions to change them. NICE also recommends that interdisciplinary interventions are used for the best behaviour change results.

However, although recommended, there are problems with interdisciplinarity in behaviour change, which this seminar series aims to help overcome. Firstly, interdisciplinary research is often challenging for academic researchers because few journals welcome interdisciplinary papers, but also because different disciplines often struggle to communicate and work effectively together. Disciplines can often be culturally different. This seminar series will provide a platform for different academic disciplines to come together and explore potential routes towards collaboration by discussing overlapping and divergent conceptual thinking around behaviour change issues.

Achieving interdisciplinary research collaboration is vital because it is one of the best way of finding innovative solutions to complex problems, and as such these seminars will also have a very practical focus. The aim of discussions between the invited policy makers or advisors and a varied mix of academics will be to generate ideas for creative interdisciplinary policy solutions to behavioural problems.
Another problem is that policy makers and academics do not always communicate effectively with each other, meaning that policy makers may not be able to make use of the latest evidence from research. It is vital that policy makes best use of available research, so the seminar series proposed here also provides an opportunity for policy makers and academics to communicate their ideas in the short term and also to establish and plan a longer term forum for effective communication across the behaviour change field.

The overarching aim of the seminar series is therefore to improve the effectiveness of behaviour change practice for the benefit of wider society by providing a foundation for innovative collaboration and effective communication between academics and policy makers. Through debate and discussion, this seminar series will provide opportunity to move beyond existing silos and begin to establish strategies for a transdisciplinary field of behaviour change which can also serve government and research agendas.

Planned Impact

The main beneficiaries of the research are:

- Government Policy makers
- Charities
- Academics researching behaviour change and the influences of problem behaviours
- Industry bodies
- The general public

How will they benefit:

Government policy makers and the scientific community within Government will benefit by the opportunity to engage with behaviour change specialists across a range of topics of particular interest to policy makers. This will enable policy makers and their advisors to shape policy and the provision of public services that seek to change behaviour in a more effective way. Given the emphasis of the specific topics to be covered by the seminars, and the involvement of the Behavioural Insights Unit in the Cabinet Office in the application, we also expect tangible benefits in terms of health, sustainability, and the cost-effectiveness of service provision.

Many charities and industry bodies are also engaged in behaviour change. They will benefit through access to experts in the field, and the generation of interdisciplinary insights into how to enact effective behaviour change interventions. The full dissemination plan accompanying this bid is intended to enable as many third sector organisations as possible to share in the seminars' findings.

The field of behaviour change will also benefit through the engagement with policy, encouraged in the seminars, and the emphasis on interdisciplinary insights into behaviour change. As noted in the case for support, many different disciplines are engaged in behaviour change, but given the structures in academia there is currently limited interaction between them, or synthesis of approaches. It is this synthesis that has been recommended for the future of 'behaviour change' by important bodies such as the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee (2011) and NICE (2007). The proposed seminar series addresses this head on, and will advance not only our understanding of behaviour change, but also create new, innovative approaches that combine methods and analysis techniques from multiple disciplines.

As the recipients of behaviour change interventions, the general public will benefit through the design of more effective interventions, which will lead to improved health and wellbeing for all. These interventions will inevitably provide the most benefit to those from the more deprived and socially excluded populations. Also, the open approach of these seminars to analyzing different intervention approaches represents the team's clear aims to include all political, ideological and theoretical approaches in the conversation about effectiveness. For example, there will be an emphasis on combining top-down, designed / nudge type approaches with more participatory approaches common in social marketing and community development. This interdisciplinary approach will seek to avoid 'victim blaming' and give the 'targets' of interventions a voice that can often be overlooked.


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Description The seminar series is exploring the key issues in behaviour change; where we are now and where we need to be. Each seminar tackles a different area. We have had all nine seminars; focusing on key issues, physical activity, drug/acohol/smoking, sustainability, corporate behaviours, mobility, online security and civic engagement. The first was an introductory and scoping seminar and the final one picked up one of the key cross-cutting issues to come a topic of discussion in its own right.

The key cross-cutting issue discussed in seminar nine was based on one of the key findings so far; that the nature of 'evidence' in behaviour change needs to be reconsidered. There is a tendency to require positivist, quantitative (often RCT-style) data to underpin behaviour change interventions, but this has skewed the type of interventions that are used towards more individualist, downstream types. This is because researchers tend to measure what they CAN rather than what is actually required for large scale behaviour - or even culture - change. This became a theme in the discussions, as did related discussions around the need for different types of research (including ethnography), different methodologies (including discourse analysis) and different theoretical bases (including social practice theory). The 'systems approach' to behaviour change has also cropped up a lot in discussion, meaning that activity at an upstream as well as downstream and midstream level is required for change to occur, and this may not have immediate results, yet be required to lay the foundations for change in the future. The final seminar was a discussion between 15 key thinkers in policy and academic circles who are interested in the 'policy evidence gap'. The discussion was chaired by Paul Lincoln from the UK Health Forum and included five introductory statements from different perspectives in public health and sustainability. The ensuing discussion was themed into 'problem scoping' and 'solutions'. The discussion lasted four hours and 49 pages of typed transcript have been produced. The plan is to analyse this transcript and produce a written report, academic paper and article as a result.

In sum, the discussion concluded that there is a problem in the way that academic researchers conduct and disseminate research, which does not always meet the needs of policy makers. In addition there is a limitation in the scope of the types of research that are a) emphasised in academe and b) considered to be 'evidence' by the policy audience. One of the suggestions that came from the final seminar was for a behaviour change 'hub' to be launched which would act as a repository of advice, evidence and expertise on the full range of behaviour change thinking, research and theory that is available for policy makers and practitioners.
Exploitation Route The discussion, captured in the synthesis documents from each seminar, might be used by speakers and delegates in their behaviour change activities.

Furthermore, the plan to produce written documents (papers, articles and policy advice) scoping out the problem of the evidence-policy gap and identifying potential solutions, may form the basis of a step change in the way that behaviour change policy is formulated and underpinned.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Environment,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Transport

URL http://esrcbehaviourchangeseminars.blogspot.co.uk/
Description The impact of the seminar series has raised the profile of interdisciplinary behaviour change. The evidence for this is an invitation from Public Health England to sit on their advisory panel as they shape their future behaviour change strategy. They recognise the significance of including fields beyond behavioural insights (behavioural economics) and psychology, and have invited me to ensure inclusion from a range of perspectives. The invite was made expressly as a result of the seminar series. I have also been able to use the seminar series to raise the profile of practice theoretical approaches to behaviour change, which was a strong theme which emerged from the seminars. This was prominent in the book which I developed alongside the seminar series, and in the special issue which I edited expressly as a result of the series. Both contained an emphasis on practice theory. As a result of these works. I have been invited to numerous events to speak on practice theory in behaviour change, including the cross-government behavioural insights network conference, a talk for CREST on security behaviour change and an FCO 2-day workshop in partnership with Cambridge University.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Healthcare
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Public Health England behaviour change advisory committee
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Description Cross-government behavioural insights network conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I was an invited panel member and keynote speaker at the conference, where I introduced the interdisciplinary research agenda to the network. I particularly introduced theories of practice and the latest research in this field.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018
Description Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Cambridge University Science and Policy Centre 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact I have been invited to participate in a 2 day workshop with behaviour change experts, fashion, marketing and business experts, the FCO and science and policy researchers to explore a way forward in the problem of illegal wildlife trade. The invitation is on the basis of my interdisciplinary behaviour change expertise.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2018