Behavioural economics, or behaviour change theory, explores what makes people make decisions. It argues that various influences impact the decision making process, and explores these, seeking to identify ways in which behaviour can be adapted by addressing or changing these influences.

The science behind behaviour change has been the subject of many academic papers, Government publications, and recently, popular science and economics books reaching the bestsellers list.

Looking at social interaction and what makes people make decisions is nothing new. Rather, it is using the understanding gained from this to Southerton, Chappells et al. (eds). (2004) Sustainable consumption: the implications of changing infrastructures of provision. Edward Elgar Publishing. Cheltenham.address contemporary problems that has recently taken off.

Habits are easily seen as something that people just get into the routine of doing. However, the presence of new actions in new locations demonstrates that behaviour is Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.dynamic and constantly refined around the adjustment of objects and actors in the surroundings.

Behaviour change theory suggests that if you can identify the various influences that impact decisions, you can adjust or rearrange them to affect the choices people make. For example, by making pension membership the easy option when new employees join a company, and giving employees the choice of opting out. This Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. R. & Balz, J. P. (2010) Choice Architecture. Available at SSRN:‘choice architecture’ is just one of an exciting set of behavioural economic approaches that can complement the traditional tools governments use to influence behaviour, such as introducing legislation or adjusting prices.

This report is not seeking to duplicate what is being covered around the science behind behaviour change. Rather, it is taking the theories from this field and testing vehicles that can be used to deliver them. However, it is important that we summarise what is being explored, to put the ideas and terminology used in this report into context.

While some studies have focused on specific elements of behaviour change, the Freedman, J. L. & Fraser, S. C. (1966) Compliance without pressure: the foot in the door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.‘foot in the door’ theory suggests that users who are engaged in small actions are more susceptible to future, larger actions. This suggests that engaging users should be an early focus that will provide access to a variety of behaviour change interventions over time, among increasingly large audiences.

The Cabinet Office and Institute for Government have summarised the influences on decision making through the mnemonic MINDSPACE. These influences are:

Messenger We are heavily influenced by who communicates information
Incentives Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
Norms We are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults We go with the flow of pre-set options
Salience Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
Priming Our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues
Affect Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
Commitments We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
Ego We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves


The role, or level, that these different influences might play in decisions can be explored by deconstructing actions or behaviours with people that make those decisions. This means breaking them down into the base constituent parts, looking at how they fit together and the relationships between them. These influences and component parts can then be reconstructed in a way that brings about different decisions. This can be done simply by changing how, and by whom, the options are presented.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. Thaler, R. H. (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press. New HavenRichard Thaler and Cass Sunstein give the example of Carolyn the cafeteria manager, who rearranges food options so that fruit is in the ‘impulse basket’ by the cash register, rather than cake, which is relocated to a different shelf. The options are still the same, but the order in which they are presented can bring about different choices — namely people buying more fruit and less cake.

Dolan, P. et al. (2010) MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. Institute for Government. London.The ‘messenger’ is recognised as an important influence on behaviour included in the above mnemonic, however, it is equally important at this early stage of helping in the above mentioned deconstruction of the actions and behaviours by approaching and communicating with users so that they can tell their stories in the most open way encouraging users to tell their stories.

Other influences on the actions and behaviours, whose level of importance become obvious during the deconstruction process, are also useful in processing the deconstruction itself. Finding out what makes certain people do certain things can be useful in helping them to tell their stories. This can become an ongoing iterative process — reinforcing the need to enter this process anticipating that it will be dynamic and adaptive.

The UK Government has been leading the way in applying aspects of behaviour change theory to public policy problems. The work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Unit, Defra’s Centre of Expertise on Influencing Behaviours, and most recently the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office at DECC, are well worth a look for more on this.

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