If Knowledge is power, knowledge about how best to change your behaviour ought to be particularly empowering, yet public dissemination of relevant behavioural science currently plays a negligible part in the behaviour change agenda. The RSA Social Brain Project is working to change this fact...
Our guest writer is Jonathan Rowson, Senior Researcher, RSA Social Brain Project
If Knowledge is power, knowledge about how best to change your behaviour ought to be particularly empowering, yet public dissemination of relevant behavioural science currently plays a negligible part in the behaviour change agenda. The RSA Social Brain Project is working to change this fact.
Existing approaches to behaviour change include ‘Nudge’, a form of libertarian paternalism outlined by Thaller and Sunstein. Nudge is paternalistic in that it assumes to know what is good for you (e.g. to save for a pension, or avoid being knocked down) but it is liberal in the sense that it merely nudges you towards these objectives (e.g. by making the pension a default you can opt out of, or by painting ‘look left’ at crossings) while leaving the choice in your hands. The nudge approach involves shaping our ‘choice architecture’ on the basis of what is known about the automatic, unconscious aspects of our nature (e.g. we rarely change default settings).
The ‘Think’ approach, advocated by Gerry Stoker, is passionately democratic, and contends that if we deliberate collectively as rational agents responsive to argument, we will find a suitable course of action and collectively follow it through. ‘Think’ therefore seeks to change our behaviour through the conscious, controlled aspects of our nature, and places faith in reason and reflection.
Both approaches have considerable power in certain contexts to shape certain aspects of our behaviour, but as general theories of behaviour change they have limitations. What is lacking is a model that is holistic, in the sense that it recognises that our controlled and automatic systems are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. As you watch the World Cup unfold, look at how the automatic expert behaviour of the players is constantly being reinforced by their conscious reappraisal of what to do and how to do it. We also need an approach that is more reflexive in the sense that it recognises that having knowledge about our brains and behaviour literally changes the subject.
People can indeed be ‘steered’ by shaping their environments, as Nudge indicates, but that they can also steer their own behaviour, by employing an understanding of the basic principles of its functioning. This empowering notion is grounded in the fact that people are extremely interested in finding out about their own natures. Secondly, while ‘Nudge’ and ‘Think’ rest on an unhelpful dichotomy between controlled and automatic processes, ‘Steer’ tries to align strategies for behaviour change with human nature as it operates holistically across contexts.
RSA exploratory research examined whether people would feel more confident about changing their behaviour if they understood some basic principles about how it worked, and employed that knowledge to steer it. The answer was an emphatic yes, and the majority reported that learning about the social and neural basis of habitual behaviour was particularly useful. Crucially, rather than use this information as an excuse to justify the status quo, our participants found it a liberation from self-loathing, and a helpful guide on how to improve their behaviour for the better, on their own terms.
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