An oblique approach to behaviour change?

Behaviour change will continue to rise up the public policy agenda in the coming months. The publication of the Public Health White Paper in December is likely to lead a significant debate as to how government led behaviour change strategies should develop.

An important issue will be examining the effectiveness of different types of interventions.Often when we are considering behavioural interventions we are referring to targeting a segment of the population with a particular behaviour/challenge you want to influence e.g. anti obesity or smoking campaign. This, in many ways, is the ‘traditional’ way of delivering a behaviour change initiative. In this posting I’m contrasting this with another broad approach that will be explored in those debates: where a specific behavioural outcome is a corollary of the intervention. An example might be an intervention that aims to make a community more cohesive. This may achieve specific targets set for it such as improved local survey results on attitudes to migrants, but also may lead to a decline in crime and anti-social behaviour. Shades of the Big Society here perhaps?

The concept of Obliquity states that in a complex system, the factors involved are too numerous and too intricately connected to be easily understood. Therefore, just as we cannot be sure that long-range weather forecasts won’t be affected by some unforeseen influence, we cannot be sure that single-mindedly striving for a single behavioural change is most likely to lead to desired outcome. This approach has many similarities to the more formal discipline of Systems Thinking which seeks to understand how things influence each other within a whole.

For instance, if you are running a large IT department and your goal is to help your company be profitable, the best way to achieve that goal is to think holistically and consider both the business and the technical needs of your company’s employees. By concentrating on a goal that involves providing quality services — and not just focusing attention on narrow financial metrics like unit costs and return on investment your IT department will help employees work more efficiently and be more productive This in turn, will make the company more profitable.

This concept has been argued recently by the Economist John Kay for business management, but can also apply to behavioural interventions too. Indeed it may well be the experience of businesses, willing to experiment and take risks, that may point the way here. Indeed, those with some existing experience in Systems Thinking approaches will understand the approach very well.

Social Networks are at the heart of Obliquity.If we are to take a whole systems approach then perhaps the most crucial thing is to build the quality and quantity of social networks and their relationships rather than necessarily conduct a direct behavioural campaign. Both Nicholas Christakis and Mark Earls have written some of best descriptions of the importance of  these social networks and the wider impact they have.

Research I have previously blogged about  shows that simply building relationships is a positive factor in improving wellbeing as a report on recent research by Brigham Young University in the Guardian on 27 July explained. Targeting specific behaviours is of course still important, but in effect “immunising” communities from the worst outcomes of damaging behaviours might also prove effective.

We will explore how this approach might fit in with existing behaviour change strategies in a subsequent posting. Have a good bank holiday!

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company


  • Jonathan Upton says:

    Charlie-have a look at the Paul Ormerod essay on the power of networks-

    “This essay argues that to be effective, the policy framework for the 21st century must not only draw on the new insights that behavioural economics gives us, but also needs to be underpinned by an understanding between this and how networks influence our choices and how these change over time. Indeed, the impact of networks is potentially considerably greater than that of ‘nudge’. This makes creating good policy harder while offering huge potential for change.”

    The behaviour change debate is obviously heading in this direction!

  • Jonathan says:

    And another interesting angle- Recent research shows that employees who regularly volunteer improve both their physical health and their mental state of well being.

  • David says:

    Very interesting article! Most research into what makes people happy does show that more and better quality relationships are a key factor but in terms of undesireable behaviour such as smoking these networks are just as likely to reproduce and reinforce negative behaviour as they are positive.

  • […] the above illustrate how one might take theoretical approaches such as Obliquity which I recently blogged about here and apply it a small-scale local […]

  • […] of social networks in building resilience and encouraging change, including behaviour change, as an oblique offshoot of those conversations and relationships. I should at this stage point out that this alternative […]

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