How best can we influence behaviours?
In order to successfully influence the way people behave, it is crucial to recognise that all our behaviour is contextualised – within the values and attitudes that we hold, the habits we have learned, the people around us, and the tools and infrastructure available to us in our day-to-day lives. Research commissioned by the Scottish Government demonstrates that considering the individual level in combination with the social and material levels is likely to be more successful in influencing behaviour  .
What do we mean by Individual, Social and Material ( ISM)?
The individual context includes factors that affect the choices made by individuals and the behaviours they undertake. These include an individual’s values, attitudes and skills, as well as the calculations they make before acting including personal evaluations of costs and benefits.
The social context includes factors that exist in the social realm, beyond the individual yet shaping their 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 and opinion leaders that influence how groups of individuals behave.
The material context includes factors that are ‘out there’ in the environment and wider society, which both constrain and shape behaviour. These influences include existing infrastructures, technologies and regulations, as well as other ‘softer’ influences such as the time and schedules of everyday life.
That’s all very theoretical…how does this translate into action?
By understanding better the various influences on how people act, multiple levers can be pulled at the same time in order to more successfully impact on people’s behaviours. There’s a wide range of specific actions that can be taken to influence behaviours, but simply put:
- At individual level: making it easy by making the sustainable choice the default choice.
- At social level: building common cause (values) and supporting the development of positive social norms.
- At material level: supporting the development of technologies and infrastructure ( e.g. electric cars and charging points), considering regulation where appropriate, and influencing softer material factors ( e.g. people’s schedules).
The success of recycling levels in Scotland provides an excellent illustration of this: a series of campaigns and information provided to households have informed us at the individual level how and why we should recycle; recycling is something we see our neighbours doing, so it is becoming a social norm; and each household in Scotland has been provided with a range of bins to support them at the material level to change their behaviour.
The Scottish Government is committed to working with partners to roll this approach out. To support this, we will publish a user guide on the Individual, Social and Material ( ISM) tool for behaviour change in spring 2013, and we will offer a series of introductory workshops to internal government officials, NGOs, intermediaries and other partners throughout 2013-14 on the practical application of the ISM tool.
What is the role of values in low carbon behaviours?
Communicating a low carbon lifestyle is more complex than relying solely on traditional money-saving motivators. It means activating values around positive wellbeing and health, social and family cohesion and a strong sense of community, and linking up individual actions to build a picture of a coherent and affirmative lifestyle worth aspiring to.
Research demonstrates that we all hold a range of values in common. These can be temporarily ‘engaged’ by certain communications or experiences – which in turn can affect our attitudes and behaviours. If we are reminded of our intrinsic values (those that are inherently rewarding to pursue, e.g. generosity, family, social justice, concern for others), we are more likely to support pro-environmental policies than if we are reminded of extrinsic values (based on external reward, such as financial success and status) – without any mention of the environment being made. This can be a very powerful tool in influencing behaviours, and the Scottish Government is looking to incorporate this research into its programme of work on low carbon behaviour planned for 2013 and beyond.
For more information on values and their role in influencing behaviour, look at the webpages of the Common Cause team of experts who have been leading the way in this work in the UK: www.valuesandframes.org