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Associate Professor Liam Smith explains the science of influencing behaviour

20 September 2017

News and media


Why do many public sector campaigns fail? Because they don’t take into account the lessons of behaviour change.

Change in attitudes and behaviours around smoking, wearing seatbelts and drink-driving show that governments can make a difference where they deploy multiple initiatives over time, which can add up to major changes in how people behave.

However, other initiatives fail to change behaviour, or can in some cases even be counter-productive, because they don’t consider all the drivers behind why people behave the way they do.

Associate Professor Liam Smith, from Monash University’s BehaviourWorks Australia, specialises in human behaviour and the conscious and unconscious reasons why we perform – or don’t perform – specific behaviours.

“So much of what governments do is about changing behaviours, but there is not a lot of thinking like a behavioural scientist. A lot of public service programs are targeted at changing attitudes, by using education and information, but they don’t test whether they are also targeting the way people actually behave,” Associate Professor Smith said.

Applying a behavioural lens to problems

BehaviourWorks Australia’s workshop Influencing Human Behaviour shows participants how to apply a behavioural lens to problems faced by policy-makers at any level. It shows what the key influences are on human behaviour and explains the tools that can be used to increase the odds of behaviour change in a target audience.

“Applying a behavioural approach starts by encouraging participants to look at the world as being made up of people doing things, and getting people to think that way can be hard at first,” Associate Professor Smith said.

“From here we need to prioritise key behaviours but public services too often looked at the potential impact of a behaviour change, rather than the likelihood that people would actually do it.

“For example, a department might think it’s a great idea for people to install water tanks, but then don’t give consideration to how to get them to do so beyond providing financial incentives. A better approach would be to consider all the ways households could save water and then select behaviours that are both high in impact as well as more likely to be performed.

“There is also a belief in government that there are ‘silver bullet’ behaviours that can achieve huge changes quickly. Often it can be better to target small but concrete changes in behaviour, because over time these can add up to big results.

“Once you know the behaviour you want to target, it’s important to try and understand the drivers of behaviour from the point of view of your target audience, rather than your own. On the basis of this understanding, you can design better interventions ”

Home Power Saving Program

In 2014, BehaviourWorks was brought in to try and improve the uptake of the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage’s Home Power Savings Program – which aimed to reduce energy use for 220,000 low income households.

BehaviourWorks conducted a full review of all the program’s materials and accompanied energy assessors on visits. By analysing how the program was being implemented they were able to suggest low-cost or cost-neutral solutions that lifted engagement with the program.

These included training assessors in behaviour change principles, and rewriting communications to make them simpler and give households more personalised information and tips.

When households got a visit from an assessor, they were encouraged to discuss, agree to and write down three energy-saving behaviours to stick on the fridge. Giving households specific goals to meet made the program more successful.

They also trialled three different follow up methods after the initial visit (SMS, phone call and home visit) to determine which had the greatest impact on behaviour.

The Home Power Savings Program was so successful it won the 2014 Premier’s Award for Excellence (Public Sector in the Strengthening the Environment and Communities category).

“The frank and fearless advice got results. The organisation was open to it and staff bought into the changes because they complemented the hard work that had already been done,” Associate Professor Smith said.

Growing popularity of the behaviour change approach

Behaviour change thinking is becoming popular and influential in governments across the world, as governments try and get to grips with the fact that human beings are not the rational actors that classical economic theories say they are.

Associate Professor Smith says that the drivers of human behaviour are complex and often heavily-influenced by unconscious factors, biases and the environment in which people find themselves.

“Focusing solely on economic incentives can backfire. For example, fining parents for being late to pick up their children from childcare resulted in an increase in late pick-ups and offering financial incentives to compensate for having a nuclear waste facility located nearby increased opposition to it.

“While public services have largely focused on information, education, incentives and disincentives, they have ignored other facilitators of behaviour such as making the behaviour easy to do and using innate tendencies such as wanting to be part of the majority, preferring the status quo and valuing losses more than equivalent gains.”

This workshop will give participants the ability to understand a problem at a broad systems level and then to drill down and prioritise specific behaviours to address.

Two-day Masterclass

“On the first day we look at how we can unpack problems – through process-mapping, stakeholder mapping and relationship mapping. This helps understand all the actors in the system and how they influence each other. Toward the end of the day, we do a behaviour identification and prioritisation process, which essentially seeks to answer the question: “who needs to do what differently”. Given the list of actors and the multitude of behaviours they could perform to help solve the problem, participants are given tools to help them choose which particular behaviours to focus on.

“This is a difficult task because there can be a lot of behaviours to choose from, and we need to consider both the impact of the behaviour as well as the likelihood that people will do it.

“On the second day we look at the main drivers of human behaviour and how we can use them to understand why people are doing, or not doing, the target behaviour. We then identify tools that can be used to change target behaviours and ultimately solve problems we have identified.

“Participants get a chance to examine problems from their own organisations and learn techniques that give them a greater chance of success.

“Behaviour change methods are versatile – and can be adapted for projects of all sizes and budgets. They help public servants think outside of what has been done before and bring a new approach to problems.”

The Influencing Human Behaviour workshop will take place is Brisbane from Wednesday 15 – Thursday 16 November 2017.