How Far Can We Go With Behaviour Change?

From Marie Kondo’s tips for decluttering to entire communities moving towards minimalist living, people around the world are trying to change their own behaviours for the better – sometimes radically. Here at Tulodo, our clients also often ask us about the magnitude of expected results from their work on issues ranging from health and nutrition, to conservation and education. So, how far can we go with behaviour change?

Work by some of the world’s leading behaviour scientists and researchers suggests that both small and big changes are possible and can be planned. B.J. Fogg, through his work on persuasive technology at Stanford University, asserts that tiny habits can be tied to our daily routines and then celebrated to bring about big changes. One example is Fogg’s personal commitment to doing pushups immediately every time after going to the toilet, and increasing the number of pushups every day.

Daniel Kahneman urges us to move away from old notions of human rationality and understand that behaviour is affected by cognitive biases – mostly unconscious systems of thinking. These biases can be grouped into two types of brain function – fast and slow. The “fast” system is our brain’s automatic and habitual behaviours, such as not walking into people while in a crowded mall. The “slow” system encompasses those behaviours and decisions that we think more deliberately about, such as which car to buy.

Others suggest big changes can and do happen almost immediately. Simon Chapman’s work at the University of Sydney provides evidence that the most successful method for stopping smoking is quitting cold turkey (unassisted cessation), without any help from drugs, nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), chewing gum or any other method. This has profound implications for smokers, as well as the estimated $2.4 billion NRT market.

So how far can one go and how much change can an individual or organisation expect? Our view is that thoughtful planning can enable you to go as far as you want, depending on the resources available. The behaviour requiring change and the context will always be determining factors. First, you need to deeply understand the people you’re trying to help – their “true lives”. One example from Tulodo’s work in Indonesia on young people’s access to health services revealed that how they were treated when they arrived at a health centre was a significant factor in their likelihood to have a positive experience, receive good healthcare and recommend it to friends.

This demonstrates that individuals and organisation must clearly map the causal pathway, i.e. what incremental effects can be expected along the journey to change. With careful planning you can position small or large interventions along that path, adding to or adapting them as you proceed. Make note of people’s commitments and always celebrate progress, even the smallest win. Whether you’re trying to declutter your own wardrobe, persuade shoppers to reduce plastic consumption or encourage parents to vaccinate their children, this planning will help declutter your work, re-focus your energies on productive activities, and make your efforts more likely to succeed.

Nick Goodwin is Director of Tulodo and Research Associate in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.

Editor: Yani Lauwoie

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Nicholas Goodwin

Behaviour change and international development guy.

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