Articles ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ (and other strategies for behaviour change)

‘It seemed like a good idea at the time’ (and other strategies for behaviour change)

Changing the way that decision-makers engage with evidence is no easy task. For all our efforts, making high quality evidence available and accessible often just isn’t enough. What motivates a politician to commission a review, or a social worker to access a new online tool? What makes us want to use evidence in our everyday work? And what kinds of support do we need to ensure we do it well? Faced with these challenges, that reach from us as individuals, through to the organisations and systems we’re part of, it can be all too easy to fall back on our best guess.

Last month, we welcomed our Evidence Champions to Nesta for a workshop with the UCL Centre for Behaviour Change. The team at UCL specialise in asking and answering these kinds of questions – what concrete changes in behaviour need to happen for us to see the changes we want to in the world, and how do we get there?

Behavioural science and theory can help us understand evidence use

Smarter evidence use in decision-making means behaviour change at different levels. It might involve changes in the way we use evidence – bringing a research review to a meeting, or recommending a website to a colleague. It also means changes in the actions we do as part of the decision-making process. This is about implementation – we might need to comply with a new guideline, or use a new technology.

For our Evidence Champions, a network of individuals who are passionate about better evidence use in their own organisations, one of the main challenges is knowing how best to encourage colleagues – and external players, like funders or partners – to learn new behaviours, and stop old ones. This goes hand-in-hand with communicating the enormous value of evidence, and how it can work with – not against – professional judgement and experience.

So what’s in our toolkit?

Researchers at UCL found 19 different frameworks for designing behaviour change interventions, from across fields like health, environmental studies, cultural studies, and the social sciences. Through systematic work, they brought these together to create one framework that aims to translate academic expertise into practical tools to address social problems.

Starting a new behaviour, stopping an old one, or changing the way that we do something, involves capability, opportunity and motivation. This is the COM-B model, a tool for diagnosing and understanding a behaviour change problem. If we want a teacher, for example, to sit down at a computer to find out what’s most effective when setting homework, they need to know where and how to access that evidence, and why it’s important. They also need the time and resources to do it, as well as role models and social support. They’ve got to want to do it, believe it’s worthwhile, and feel rewarded.

Behaviour doesn’t occur in a vacuum. To work to change it, we need to pay attention to context. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. When designing an intervention to create change, we need to work systematically to define target behaviours in context, and identify what changes are needed for people get there. To help here, Susan Michie and colleagues at UCL have created the behaviour change wheel. It’s a systematic guide to the range of factors to consider when designing behaviour change interventions across many policy areas. For our Evidence Champions, these tools can provide a practical way of breaking down real-world problems to identify opportunities for change.

These guides are just one source of information. The Behavioural Insights Team, for example, publish a range of free practitioner guides on many aspects of social policy and practice, such as this recent report on how charities can use insights from behavioural science to secure better infrastructure investment from their funders.

Taking evidence into account, more often

Trying to create behaviour change in an organisation, or even a team, can be a daunting task. At the Alliance, changing behaviour around evidence use is at the core of our work, and a central part of our Theory of Change.

We’ve published our own research, as part of the Science of Using Science project, drawing on the COM-B model and based on a systematic review of over 150 possible interventions aiming to increase decision-makers use of evidence by UCL EPPI-Centre. Our Using Evidence: What Works discussion paper outlines the range of interventions available to us, and the valuable research evidence from disciplines as different as political studies and adult learning theory. In fact, our Evidence Champions network is itself the product of research that highlights the importance of social networks and peer learning in changing attitudes and creating new professional norms.

Whatever area of social policy or practice we’re working in, changing attitudes and behaviours around evidence use can be fraught with challenges. It’s easy to become frustrated and get stuck in the same old debates, or reactive positions. Useful research, that helps us to know what works, is our friend. If we’re aiming to create meaningful change in our organisations or sectors, ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ just isn’t going to be good enough.

Anna Hopkins is a researcher for the Alliance for Useful Evidence at Nesta. She’s online at @anna_nhopkins