Evidence-based Behaviour Change

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Human beings are like sponges

The Collaborative Change approach is based as much on the need to deepen and diversify our understanding of human behaviour as it is on the benefits of meaningful participation. Central to achieving this deeper understand is the need to approach behaviour as being fundamentallycontextually-determined, rather than self-directed.

Researching a paper recently, I came across this quote, which I thought perfectly captured the Collaborative Change approach to behaviour change based on this contextual understanding.

“Human beings are sponges. Sponges, of course, are animals who are saturated by the ambiance in which they live, and whose physiology presupposes the presence of that ambiance. It would not make sense to speak of the physiology of sponges on he one hand, and the water ‘context’ in which they live on the other hand; the water is part of the internal works by which these animals function?”

Anne Harrington, ‘Getting Under the Skin’, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 2001 

If we are to succeed in empowering citizens to change their behaviours then we must develop approaches that both reflect and respect the full complexity of those behaviours.

That is, an understanding of human thought and action as being inseparable from the context in which it occurs—an inter-dependence of brain, body, mind and society—rather than driven by internal psychological constructs such as attitudes and beliefs. As Harrington goes on to explain: “We are not candy-coated biological pellets rattling around in a social world independent of our biological world.”

In any one situation behaviour is being determined by the individual’s emotional state (they may have had a particularly bad day), the physical environment (and how it ‘nudges’ them), the social norms of their community/culture and the other people present—all in addition to internal attitudes, beliefs and intentions.

Hartington’s sponge metaphor captures the fact that our inner world (biological and psychological states) is inseparable from our outer world (physical environment, cultural norms, inter-personal influence. It alerts us to how incomplete our understanding of behaviour would be if we were to relied on the memories, attitudes, opinions and intentions that citizens relay to us, independently of the emotional, social and physical context.

By the way, the other strand to this richer understanding within the Collaborative Change framework is the need for us to go beyond traditional self-reporting methods (focus groups, surveys etc.) of insight gathering. This is dealt with elsewhere on this blog and at greater length in the Collaborative Change manifesto.

If we are to develop interventions and services that deliver on long-term, sustainable change within our communities then accurate insight into the behaviour than defines those communities is surely a pre-requisite. From a Collaborative Change perspective, developing an understanding of that behaviour in terms of it being contextually-determined is essential on both these counts.

 


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