Is it time to stop talking about behaviour change?

April 27, 2011 § 8 Comments

Behaviour change is the new black – although the idea has been around for a while it is increasingly the mantra of those working on climate change. Funders are interested in it. Government swears by it. Researchers puzzle over it. Voluntary organisations take it as their agenda. What’s not to like?


What’s a behaviour change programme?

Behaviour change programmes identify problem behaviours in a target group or audience and then devise interventions that might bring about change. The programmes are usually devised by professionals and the approach is rooted in cognitive behavioural and social psychology where it has had some success in tackling health issues. The approach is usually a rational one, aimed at tackling the most obviously soluble aspects of a problem.

The theoretical models that lie behind behaviour change programmes are often complicated but they are rarely concerned with feeling, with the subjectivity of the individual who is targeted or in the relationship of that individual to the person making the intervention. The client or audience remains ‘other’, a problem to be solved.  And although processes of change are posited they generally focus solely on the behaviour that has been designated problematic.  The formula is usually ‘we’ need ‘them’ to change their lightbulbs/take the bus/waste less food. The interventions suggested range through the provision of information and exemplars, processes of rational learning, rewards and disincentives. DEFRA’s 4 ‘E’s model is an framework  from the environmental sector.

Are behaviour change programmes likely to be helpful in tackling climate change? It is of course welcome to see attention being turned from technological solutions to ones that involve people, but behaviour change programmes are fraught with difficulties – from the question of who defines a behaviour as problematic through to whether the right questions can be addressed in this way.

Behaviour as symptom

As a psychotherapist I see problem behaviour as a symptom. It’s often what brings someone into the consulting room – ‘I get angry all the time’, ‘I’m scared of dogs’, ‘I’m drinking too much’  – but these are surface phenomena. Something has given rise to them. Somewhere there are disturbed relationships, unrealistic dreams, defensive solutions to earlier difficulties and a miserable and confused knot of feelings. Without exploring and understanding the complex nexus of desire, identity, history and relationship the symptom is unlikely to give way. Rational explanations of the symptom’s dysfunction or suggestions of sensible alternatives do not often have much effect. And if they do, another symptom pops up somewhere else. Overeating is replaced by anorexia. Rage at the children reappears as depression and a stomach ulcer.

The behaviours that are targeted in climate change interventions – leaving appliances on standby, exceeding the speed limit, wasting food –  are also symptoms. Behind them lie our disturbed relationship to the rest of the natural world, our fragile identities dependent on ‘stuff’, our anxious preoccupations with security and status. Impacting on each one are the decisions of governments and corporations, the predations of marketers, the values of the dominant culture and the opinions of our peers.  And just as with psychological symptoms, if one behaviour is vanquished another pops up to take its place. In climate change work, this is what economists describe as  the rebound effect. The money saved by insulating the loft and swapping out the light-bulbs results in the thermostat being turned up and the lights being left on for longer, or is blown on a flight to Madrid. The underlying problem remains.

What’s needed for personal change?

Psychotherapy argues that in order to change, we have to talk about what is wrong. It relies on creating a safe relationship where conversation is possible. We have to accept the painfulness of mixing everything up, questioning our assumptions and letting go of solutions that have seemed sweet and seductive but have also been damaging. We have to face inner conflict and ambivalence and accept that our rationalisations may hide unconscious destructiveness.

In making the changes that climate change demands the same holds true. We have to talk. We have to feel safe to talk. We have to face grief, pain, anxiety and guilt.  We have to accept that the problem is bigger than we hoped and will ask more of us than we feel able to give. We have to deal with conflict with family, friends and colleagues. We have to find the courage to act socially and politically – inside and maybe outside the law – in defence of the future and of justice.  Words like empathy, compassion, relationship and respect, that are fundamental to the practice of psychotherapy and which make it possible to face this bigger picture are missing from the language of behaviour change. Its focus is rational and on the part not the whole, on the simple not the complex, on the doable not the necessary.

Being ‘nudged’ towards the recycling bin or rewarded financially for installing PV is unlikely to deliver on the bigger agenda but does this mean that behavioural change programmes are all pointless? It would be a brave person who would say so. Undoubtedly the behaviours targeted are ones that need to change. But the risks of this approach are many. Although it deals with people and acknowledges some aspects of their psychology:

  • It doesn’t reflect the complexity of individuals’ psychological difficulties about climate change and the range of feeling engendered by the subject.
  • Its models of change are cognitive and don’t deal with the affective domain and the whole person.
  • It doesn’t reflect our deep implication in the socio-cultural-economic system that has caused the problem.
  • By encouraging us to approach others as units whose behaviour needs to be manipulated into the required pattern it may diminish our sense of ourselves and other people as responsible citizens. It may infantilise us.
  • It avoids the need for political engagement and lets the big culprits off the hook.
  • Its focus on small, achievable steps may avoid deeper engagement or produce despair at the scale of the problem.
  • Its focus on financial rewards may reinforce counter-productive materialistic values. (See Tom Crompton’s Common Cause report )

Well – that’s a big charge sheet – argue back someone – let’s have a conversation about this.


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§ 8 Responses to Is it time to stop talking about behaviour change?

  • Tamsin Edwards says:

    No arguments here, but the obvious question: do you have any suggestions? I’m not familiar with the literature on how to persuade people to change their behaviour…

    Tamsin (climate scientist, @flimsin)

  • Thanks for sharing your doubts on behaviour change, analysed from a psychology perspective. I could add some more doubts from an environmental sciences and policy making perspective:
    In our economic ‘waterbed’-system, a good deed goes seldom unpunished: the first order gain is lost (eaten up) to a large extent by second order system feedbacks (rebound effects). E.g. by using highly efficient light bulbs, cost per lumen-hour are lower, implying that additional lighting will be used, which indeed is the case. It may also imply saving money, which is then usually spent on additional activities, e.g. an extra holiday (flight) to Whereveristan.
    Secondly, the ever growing economy (production, consumption) is always as least as fast as the pace of energy and climate savings.
    Third: empirical research analysing behaviour, attitude, income, motives and what have you, reveal that personal income is the one and only factor explaining one’s individual carbon footprint. All other factors are just random ‘noise’. Income explains 60%.
    Fourth: technological development is fast, meaning that behavioural do’s and dont’s lose validity within a couple of years.

    The conclusion from an environmental scientist/economist perspective is: only hard caps to emissions, reinforced either by a cap-and-trade-system or by sufficient pricing of external costs, will have the desired effects such as keeping global temperature increase below a certain limit.
    These caps have to be achieved politically. Attempts to change behaviour are ineffective, frustrating for both the change agents and the consumers, and undermine the only effective way forward: setting planetary boundaries within which the economy can safely operate.

  • Ro Randall says:

    When I’m thinking about solutions to the climate crisis I think of technology, policy and people as the three legs of a three legged stool – take one away and the stool falls over. So although I think ‘behaviour change’ is problematic I do think understanding and involving people directly is critical. It’s just that our understanding needs to be more sophisticated and more respectful and that it needs to address the big personal questions – like income (Jan Paul is spot on there) and identity – rather than the little ones.

  • rorandall2 says:

    I’ve got lots – they start with thinking about the big questions – like the connection between income and carbon emissions that Jan Paul raises – and then exploring the campaigns, strategies or projects that make it possible for people to talk about these difficult issues, think about the changes that need to be made and work out the part they are going to play in them. These strategies need both leadership and participation. The Carbon Conversations groups ( I developed are one example but there need to be many more.

  • […] good friend and colleague Rosemary Randall has recently posted this blog on why the fixation on behavior change – or rather, the way behavior change is currently […]

  • Charlie says:

    No small frustration: it seems there’s an opportunity for your perspective to drive new ideas about things we can actually DO while considering the deeper human issues behind our behavior. What can WE do to help each other use less energy, have smaller footprints?

    I disagree in a small way with Jan Paul’s idea that income drives footprint, in that there are people who actually choose not to take the car, not to drive the US average of 100 miles per weekday, not to vacation by airplane, who could easily afford to do those things. Of course that’s not a majority of those with smaller footprints, but I’m curious if there isn’t something we can learn from those folks that could inform a broader conversation…

  • Alex Cull says:

    From a sceptical (or denialistic, as some would have it) point of view, I think this sort of intervention will falter ultimately, as what it is doing is almost to try to pathologise what most people would consider normal behaviour. The clue, surely, is in your description of the sorts of problems and behaviours that prompt clients to seek therapy.

    Someone, for example, who has pronounced anger management issues (“I get angry all the time”), is not only experiencing a condition that psychologists would recognise as being detrimental to mental health but the sufferer would probably also be aware that he/she has a problem. He/she would know this by the unpleasant emotions of anger and guilt, by experiencing the upset and upheaval of falling out with friends and family or losing his/her job, etc., and by being aware that most other people generally are not experiencing this condition and are able to manage their emotions more or less effectively.

    However, the behaviours the “nudgers” (for want of a better word!) are targeting are seen by the majority of us as normal, and in many cases desirable. Actions such as driving a car, eating meat or taking a short haul flight to a holiday destination seem to us (the majority of us who are unconvinced of catastrophic man-made global warming) to be at the very least harmless (mostly), and I do not think that many of us experience the sort of “inner conflict and ambivalence” you later mention – unless you are arguing for the existence of widespread, strong and yet almost completely repressed unconscious pain connected with awareness of climate change, which would be an interesting hypothesis indeed.

    As a layperson, I’m wondering if this isn’t a rather unusual situation in the history of therapy, one in which some psychologists identify as pathological (to a degree) a large range of behaviours, from choosing to buy food products high in “food miles” to flying to Majorca on a family holiday, that most of society view as perfectly normal and who would be puzzled at the idea that they constituted anything that would require psychological help.

    This approach would seem to attempt to turn the traditional model of therapy on its head. Personally I can’t envisage it meeting with much success (and wouldn’t want it to succeed) but I’m certainly finding the idea fascinating, and look forward to seeing what develops (and, importantly, what strategies the “nudgers” will try next.)

  • eccemarco says:

    (NOTE: there are some comments that have been posted on the entry of this blog post on climatesafety, FYI, in case you wanted to answer to those comments too)

    Ro, thank you for a nice article, I found it full of insights as I work in the field of strategic sustainable development and behavioral change is part of the game (we teach theories of advanced societal leadership as an elective course). For me your article speaks to the importance of the “quality” of the engagement. Increasingly, there seem to be theories of social change that are trying to get people together and host deep conversations where some profound commitment (and meaningful discoveries, hopefully) can emerge. Theory U by Otto Scharmer come up as a good example for me. The idea is to create a safe space for a collectivity to explore its purpose as a single group, their place in the world, and what they want to bring about in the world as a result on that “presencing” state. I see that the role of skilled psychologists and facilitators will become increasingly valuable as people will realize the magnitude of the changes needed.

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