Source: Unsplash, Credit: Clem Onojeghuo

Six common errors in approaches to behaviour change

and how to avoid them

The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don't know.” Albert Einstein

As we enter 2023, behaviour change is in the global zeitgeist and front of mind for all of us. Beginning a new year always provides an opportunity to reflect on old practices and look towards improvement. As behavioural practitioners, it’s worth stepping back to look at some of the common errors practitioners can often make when trying to solve different behavioural challenges. 

Many of these errors were recently outlined in an article by scientists Michael Kelly and Mary Barker who have analysed what they see as the six most common errors in behaviour change in a health context. However, these errors are present in many other contexts too, such as financial well-being, sustainability, travel, and retail. 

In this article, we have grouped these six errors into the three areas below, and illustrated each of them in several contexts and settings. We set out the implications of these together with the ideal mindset for behavioural change practitioners to adopt, and the design processes most likely to yield effective results.

Commons errors of initiatives to change behaviour

1.  Not taking an evidence based approach, instead relying on common sense 
•    Over-reliance on common sense and intuition
•    Failing to take time to examine reasons behind behaviour

2.   Assuming that attitudinal change will automatically lead to behavioural change
•    Over-reliance on messaging to change behaviour
•    Over-reliance on increasing understanding

3.   Assuming that people and contexts are the same everywhere 
•    Assuming people are either irrational OR rational
•    Assuming behaviour is easy to predict

1. Error: Not taking an evidence-based approach, instead relying on common sense:

a. Over-reliance on common sense and intuition: We can often feel that we intuitively know how to change someone’s behaviour i.e., that we just need to use common sense. There is usually too much desire to act, based on solely our own, or peer-related, anecdotal experience. 

Instead, adopting a science-led and evidence-based process can reap more robust success. We need to take the time to explore and decipher existing research on the behavioural problem. It’s rare that a behavioural challenge hasn’t already been tackled by someone else so there is a lot we can humbly learn from others.

b. Failing to take time to examine the reasons behind behaviour: However, going beyond what we might first assume to be the problem, and instead taking time to explore why something is happening or not happening, can reap more robust success. For example, drawing on behavioural models such as COM-B or B=MAP can help to identify the actual causes of behaviours. Without that understanding, interventions are much more likely to fail. 

For example, during the height of the pandemic, doctors recommended that people diagnosed with Covid-19 use pulse oximeters to help them know if/when they should seek urgent medical help. Yet black and Hispanic people did not seem to be acting on this given the higher rates of hospitalisation and death. A 'common sense' approach might mistakenly assume that this sector of society may not have been receiving the message to use oximeters or may not have understood it. However, recently published research has found pulse oximeters overestimate blood oxygen levels in non-white Covid-19 patients, meaning this group may have been using the devices but concluded they were coping with the illness. The oximeter technology is designed to shine an LED into a patient’s finger to see how much light is absorbed by haemoglobin in the blood, and from this a patient's oxygen saturation levels can be calculated. Yet darker skin pigmentations also absorb light which means the technology overestimates the level of oxygen in the blood. A ‘common-sense’ approach may have simply assumed this demographic needed stronger or more salient messaging to encourage them to buy and use a pulse oximeter - yet this finding shows that such interventions would have had little or no impact on outcomes. What’s ultimately needed is adapted technology capable of adjusting to different skin pigmentations.

2. Error: Assuming that attitudinal change will automatically lead to behavioural change

a. Over-reliance on messaging to change behaviour: People sometimes assume that if they design a simple and persuasive message it will be enough to change behaviours. Messages can land well and can also change attitudes, but what we see time and time again is that this is no guarantee of actual behavioural change. Whilst there have been successful messaging campaigns, it’s often only a first step in aiding behaviour change. It is important to carry out behavioural research to see how messages can connect with actual behavioural change, and to design interventions that break down real barriers to behaviour, not just attitudes.  

For example, a trial aiming to increase household payments of local taxes in a central London local authority tested two solutions: (i) including information that 95% of people are currently paying their taxes, (based on evidence that social norms messaging, describing what the majority of people are doing, has been found to change behaviour in many domains), (ii) providing key information, such as deadline for payment and fines if not paid. However, they found that the message using social norms had no impact in one trial, and actually backfired in another trial by reducing payments. In contrast, the message which clarified key information, increased the number of people paying by four percentage points. In this case, simply reducing the cognitive burden and highlighting key information upfront (essentially making the 'effort' easy) was more successful than social norms messaging.

b. An over-reliance on increasing understanding: Conventional, rational behavioural models assume that by simply giving people all the information they could possibly need, they will make rational decisions. But, of course, there are many barriers to behaviour change, even if people do change their beliefs and update their understanding. Behaviour change is driven by many factors - habits, ease of opportunity, context - not just information. 

For example, there are countless initiatives which seek to improve financial capability and financial literacy through intensive financial education. Yet a review of 200 different financial education initiatives by Daniel Fernandes and colleagues, found that none led to a lasting impact on financial capability. Financial education builds knowledge and understanding, but it does not necessarily train the skills and the habitual behaviours needed to manage money. Instead, basic numeracy skills are far more impactful: the OECD’s 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that over 60% of the variation in students’ financial capability can be explained by their maths and reading ability.

3. Error: Assuming that people and contexts are the same everywhere

a. Assuming people are either irrational OR rational: ‘Predictably Irrational’ is the title of a popular book on behavioural science, whilst rational decision-making has been a key assumption by economists until recently. Which is right? The error is thinking it is homogeneously one or the other. The answer emerging is that, infuriatingly, ‘it depends’. People are neither rational or irrational, but may respond differently depending on the context. On the one hand, people often have very clear motives for what might be seen by others to be irrational. Irrationality is individual. One person's irrationality may be another person's rationality. For example, people with low incomes and stressful lives may behave in ways which seem incomprehensible to others, such as smoking, yet researchers have found it plays a huge role in relieving stress or offering a rare moment of ‘me time’.

Sometimes it is the context that drives us to act seemingly irrationally. Everyone can think of times when they’ve acted stupidly, but in the same context another time, acted sensibly. Sometimes we’re tired, stressed, in a hurry, angry, cold, hungry. Other times we’re well-rested, well-fed, calm and focused. All of these things affect our decision-making. 

b. Assuming behaviour is easy to predict: Since many people assume behaviour change is common sense, they may also make a linked assumption that it is possible to predict the outcome of a particular behaviour change intervention. Yet it’s actually very hard, especially across different groups who may not fully understand one another’s behaviour. For example, Eveline Crone, professor of cognitive neuroscience and developmental psychology at Leiden University, has found that interventions thought up by adults to help adolescents often don’t work. 

And even if a behaviour change intervention has been effective in one context, it doesn’t mean it will be effective in other contexts. For example, whilst there have been effective interventions to encourage people to pay their taxes (UK), there have also been contexts in which the same intervention completely backfired (Guatemala) or was less effective than the original trial (Poland). Context is critical as it can determine whether an intervention has a chance of being successful.

By The Behavioural Architects
Crawford Hollingworth, Liz Barker and Katinka Duewel


Enjoy this? Get more.

Our monthly newsletter, The Edit, curates the very best of our latest content including articles, podcasts, video.

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Become a member

Not a member yet?

Now it's time for you and your team to get involved. Get access to world-class events, exclusive publications, professional development, partner discounts and the chance to grow your network.