Insights Following the Herd: Applying behaviour change theory to achieve better outcomes
20 March 2017

Following the Herd: Applying behaviour change theory to achieve better outcomes

Following the herd

I have news for you; human beings are herd animals and to make matters even more complicated we are complex herd animals.

Take, for example, the case for not texting and driving. The RAC conducted a recent survey suggesting that nearly a third of UK motorists text, make calls and use apps while at the wheel of a car, with the number rising since 2014. Department for Transport figures show that a driver impaired or distracted by their phone was a contributory factor in 492 accidents in Britain in 2014, including 21 that were fatal with 84 being classed as serious. You would think that people would respond by not texting in their vehicles, but they don’t. The Government reacts with punitive fines and penalty points for those caught and the motorist counters by observing that driving has just become more expensive. This is clearly risky behaviour, so why don’t people stop texting whilst at the wheel?

Firstly, drivers will look around and see others doing exactly the same thing; their conclusion? Most people text whilst driving, even though the statistics show that the majority do not. We are peer group orientated, norm driven and quite frankly are prone to overestimating situations. To make matters worse the government, in this case, unintentionally encourages furtherance of the behaviour by quoting more statistics in an attempt to make it scarier, which actually makes it seem even less likely for an accident to happen.

Secondly, even though this may seem totally irrational behaviour to the ‘non-texters’, for the individual concerned, it will appear totally rational to them. Let me explain. Our behaviours are affected by our: situation, emotions, physical health and thinking. The latter, our thoughts will be influenced by our Values, Assumptions, Beliefs and Expectations (VABEs), which we constantly hone and develop throughout life. If there is a difference between our experience and what we expect, we have a problem. If there is no difference and things appear as they should be, we carry on without concern.

Thus, returning to our texting example; if you have, say: 20 years of driving experience some of which has been with bawling children in the back, a car built with safety in mind and never had an accident, you may consider it highly unlikely that you will have an accident whilst texting. Further, if you are in traffic, and your partner is at home, by texting you may not get grief when you are late. You, therefore, do not change your behaviour; it is somebody else’s problem!

In Seetec, we have been wrestling with this conundrum for many years, both with our customers and staff. We have been taking, what we consider to be logical/rational approaches to change behaviours for all the best intentions, but have failed on many occasions. We are now turning to behavioural science to see if we can appeal to the emotional, instinctive and the perceived irrational side of people. In short, if we are to effect the desired behaviour change we believe that we need to be far smarter by providing indirect encouragement and enablement.

It will now be apparent that managing behaviour is complex and requires a structured approach. One such approach is described by Susan Michie et al. in their book The Behaviour Change Wheel - A Guide to Designing Interventions. The book essentially synthesises a number of approaches to behaviour change (including Nudge Theory). It starts by introducing the COM-B model, which determines whether greater Capability, more Opportunity or stronger Motivation is required of the individual or group to change the Behaviour and progresses through the judgements required to best achieve the change, e.g. by education, persuasion, training or incentives, before considering the policies that can be adopted to deliver the intervention options.

We believe that this approach may provide a way forward for those involved in behaviour change.

So what is your stance on Behaviour Change? How do you respond to the rational versus irrational argument? Can we ignore the psychology or do we just need the right stick and carrot?