Jeff French writes: Two Brains are not just for Politicians

Last time I wrote about our bounded rationality. In just a few weeks, somewhere between three or four out of every five people are likely to take the trouble to cast their vote the forthcoming General Election. Both rationality and emotions are likely to feature in the landscape of that election. Fear, hope, rumours and facts will fight it out in influencing people to vote.

Politicians may at this election, much more than before, talk a lot of about behaviour and how government can take action on it or argue over the limits to what it can achieve and what should be done. James Purnell has recently talked about inequality and capability and David “two brains” Willetts showed a lot of interest in behavioural economics and Nudges.

And its about our brains I want to talk about this time.

Perhaps we should all be described as “two brains”?

Sometimes this is described as left and right hand brain. But the reality is actually more complex than that. Whilst brain hemispheres may show differences of operation in what they process, the more important two brains we all have are what are described as our automatic and reflective brains. How do they differ?

Automatic Brain







Reflective Brain






Rule based

There is not space here to go into the detailed neuroscience, but our automatic brain will often overestimate the advantage of immediate gains and discount later gains. It also does not understanding things such as fixed term interest rates, units of alcohol or the number of calories we consume.

Broadly understanding these two types of brain function is important to targeting actions. In the end we cannot simply appeal to reason. We need to take both types of brain along with us.

Behaviour change is very often therefore a process not an event.

We may require several attempts before we change, and we often don’t change for ever.. We can slip back into a previous behaviours very easily. Good examples of this are giving up smoking or weight loss. Usually this requires a pre-existing desire to change. However a desire to change is often not enough, especially when there might be many countervailing influences; for example close friends or others in the household still smoking.

What actions might support that process I describe?

1. Understand people not just the problem. This includes existing behaviours, values and attitudes. We need to know as much as possible about the potential how and why of any change?

2. Focus attention on the need for a change and why it is important. Awareness raising is a key starting point.

3. Design change programmes, based on what has been learned. They need to be a clear pathway to a change with steps and milestones so progress can be measured.

4. Anticipate that people will slip back into old behaviour. Have mechanisms that catch the ones that fall bring them back, rather than allow them to simply stop and fall.

These are some of the core elements of behaviour change. In future postings I will examine the process in more detail.

Professor Jeff French is a non-executive Director of The Campaign Company, a professor at Brunel University and a Fellow at Kings College University of London. He founded and established the National Social Marketing Centre in England and currently is chief executive of Strategic Social Marketing Ltd. He will be a keynote speaker at the 2nd World Social Marketing Conference in 2011 in Dublin

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