Influencing behaviours - moving beyond the individual: ISM user guide

A user guide to the individual, social and material (ISM) approach to influencing behaviours.

What is ISM?

ISM is a practical tool that has been developed from a sound conceptual model and refined through research and live projects. The ISM tool has grown out of Southerton et al's (2011) International Review of Behaviour Change Initiatives where the Individual, Social and Material contexts were used to examine the effectiveness of environmental behaviour change interventions.

ISM is based on theory and evidence which shows that three different contexts - the Individual, Social and Material - influence people's behaviours. The model is shown in figure 1 on page 4. One of the key principles of ISM is that interventions should take account of influences across multiple contexts - I, S and M - in order to achieve substantive and long lasting change.

Traditional behavioural interventions have tended to focus on either the Individual, or on the Material contexts, and sometimes on both of these. However, this is often insufficient to lead to the change in behaviour that practitioners are expecting. The approach described here has more chance of success because it encourages broader thinking and points towards collaborative working to develop a more integrated package of interventions.

ISM can generate a wide range of ideas for interventions because it draws on insights from all three of the main disciplines which study behaviours and practices - social psychology, behavioural economics and sociology, mostly theories of practice. The ISM tool has its origins in encouraging sustainable behaviours, but it is also applicable to a range of other policy areas and social challenges, including health and transport, to name but a few.


Figure 1: Factors that influence in the individual, social and material contexts ('The ISM Model')


This includes the factors held by the individual that affect the choices and the behaviours he or she undertakes. These include an individual's values, attitudes and skills, as well as the calculations he/she makes before acting, including personal evaluations of costs and benefits.


This includes the factors that exist beyond the individual in the social realm, yet shape his or her behaviours. These influences include understandings that are shared amongst groups, such as social norms and the meanings attached to particular activities, as well as people's networks and relationships, and the institutions that influence how groups of individuals behave.


This includes the factors that are 'out there' in the environment and wider world, which both constrain and shape behaviour. These influences include existing 'hard' infrastructures, technologies and regulations, as well as other 'softer' influences such as time and the schedules of everyday life.

The two case studies below - on Scotland's approach to tackling alcohol misuse, and on kerbside recycling - illustrate the relevance and applicability of the ISM model. The examples also illustrate how interaction between interventions across the three contexts is important in developing a coherent approach to influencing behaviours and achieving social change.


This framework sets out a strategic approach to tackling alcohol misuse in Scotland, highlighting over 40 measures aimed at preventing and reducing alcohol related harm. The strategy draws heavily on the international evidence base and behavioural science to identify those measures which offer the greatest chance of success.

The strategy therefore includes a range of interventions:

Individual: Prevention and treatment initiatives ( e.g. targeting alcohol 'brief interventions' at those who are drinking above sensible limits) aiming to change habits.

Social: Measures aimed at changing attitudes and cultural norms around drinking in Scotland, e.g. campaigns aimed at influencing women's alcohol consumption, and advice for parents to support them to talk to young people about the effects of alcohol and to reflect on their own consumption. These policies are being delivered via a comprehensive strategy aimed at the whole population with particular targeting for high-risk groups.

Material: Regulatory measures such as alcohol licensing reforms and price based interventions ( e.g. banning quantity discounts, minimum unit pricing and restricting alcohol promotions in off-sale premises).

Whilst the strategy is based on the best available national and international evidence, a peer reviewed monitoring and evaluation framework was developed alongside the strategy. The evaluation, due to report in 2015, will assess the extent to which desired outcomes have been achieved, including the extent to which the different measures highlighted above have contributed to the success of the strategy.


Across the last 10 to 15 years, kerbside household recycling has become an 'everyday' behaviour for many people across the country. How did this society wide behaviour change happen? ISM would point to multiple actions by diverse actors covering a range of factors across the Individual, Social and Material contexts.

Individual: A lot of messaging was provided about the importance and benefits of recycling and 'doing your bit', working on people's attitudes and emotions. Recycling was made easier by introducing a wide range of collections infrastructure, including kerbside collections, and providing clear and simple 'how to' information, thereby highlighting the ease and lowering the 'costs' of participating.

Social: Kerbside collection boxes sent out strong visual signals about who was (and wasn't) recycling, thus working on the power of social norms. Recycling was also promoted within people's workplaces, schools and colleges - some people take home their new behaviours from there. Consistent branding (Waste Aware Scotland/Recycle for Scotland) was also used to create a sense of collective national action.

Material: The introduction of EU directives on waste management, and associated regulation in the UK ( e.g. landfill tax), incentivised local authorities to provide collections infrastructure for household recycling. More recently, changes in the scheduling of recycling kerbside collections relative to other household rubbish ( e.g. weekly for recycling, fortnightly for residual waste) have further incentivised people to take practical action to manage the different wastes and sent out further signals to householders about the need to recycle.


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