The potential of behaviour change at scale

Abram El-Sabagh
3 min readJul 26, 2020

The Coronavirus pandemic has placed a spotlight on an important topic — behaviour change. All of a sudden, we were asked to stay at home, keep our distances, and wash our hands about 20 times a day. And whether or not your community undertook these behaviours, you know the impact. It has meant the difference between life and death.

So, how might we use behaviour change as a tool to create better futures?

In this post, we will cover:

  • The definition and characteristics of effective behaviour change
  • What we have used behaviour change to achieve, and
  • The complex problems we could be applying behaviour change to

What is behaviour change? What characteristics make it useful?

Behaviour change can be defined as efforts put in place to change people’s personal habits and attitudes to achieve better outcomes. It has been applied extensively in public health to improve health outcomes and reduce costs. More recently, organisations and academics are using behaviour change to reduce gambling harm, improve economic growth, and increase social capital.

Behaviour change is underpinned by academic foundations in psychology, sociology and behavioural economics. The underpinning assumption is that behaviour can be influenced. Theories vary, however, in how they map out how behaviour can be affected, and the degree to which behaviour is shaped by one’s environment.[1]

The most effective behavioural change initiatives I have seen have demonstrated a few lessons on how to apply behaviour change:

  • Design it with the community: effective behaviour change initiatives need to be co-designed with the people who will need to change their behaviours. Other than being the ethical thing to do, it also means that people have buy-in into the new behaviour and want the change to be successful. The outcome we’re seeking needs to align with the community’s values.
  • Focus on the outcome: initiatives need to define what success looks like, before tracing back to the behaviours that need to change, and what the new behaviours need to be.
  • Make it sustainable: behaviour change is not a silver bullet. It needs to be undertaken long-term to make a tangible difference.

What have we used behaviour change to achieve?

Successful behaviour change campaigns are few and far between, but the potential is massive. A case in point is demonstrated by Coronavirus. The countries that have flattened the curve have been where people changed their behaviour. Admittedly, some of this is likely down to enforcement (such as closing schools, workplaces and shopping areas). However, much of the effort was targeted at changing behaviours that could not be easily enforced, like quarantining at home, washing hands, and using masks. Here’s what Dr Jagadish Thaker, a lecturer at the school of communication, journalism & marketing at Massey University, said about New Zealand’s approach:

“Simple, clear health messages, communicated with kindness and empathy, resonate with people, even when they are demanding tough changes.” [2]

Here are some other examples of the impact of behaviour change:

  • The lucky iron fish is helping reduce the level of iron deficiency around the world [3]
  • Reducing missed hospital appointments [4]
  • Helping doctors reduce overprescription of antibiotics (which contributes to antimicrobial resistance) [5]

The future

How might we use behaviour to solve current and upcoming challenges? Behaviour change has been applied extensively in public health. Still, there is no reason why we can’t apply it to complex problems like inequality, injustice and climate change.

What other ways can you think of to apply behaviour change?

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Abram El-Sabagh

Human-centred designer. ThinkPlace. Designing for positive outcomes.