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What are some of the principles underpinning behaviour change?

What is ‘behaviour change’? Where do you start if you want to “move millions”? How do organisations equip themselves to effect lasting social change? This video begins the conversation with three perspectives on three fundamental questions from Joshua Gryniewicz, Cure Violence, Henry Ashworth, The Portman Group and Rob Burnet, Well Told Story.

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When it comes to changing behaviour there is no one-size fits all. No universal formula. No magic bullet. But there is a growing range of evidence-based approaches and growing interest from disparate quarters in this emerging discipline. There’s also a mainstreaming of behaviour change: through bestselling business books like Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and HappinessHerd: How to Change Behaviour by Harnessing our True Nature and The Power of Habit: Why we do what we do in Life and Business; a plethora of TV shows which show us, with varying degrees of integrity, how to change the behaviour of our children (Super Nanny), ourselves (Celebrity Fit Club), our pets (The Dog Whisperer); and increasingly through digital tools, to help do anything from lose weight to sleep better to manage our mental health.

In September 2013 as part of the Connect programme of events, Wavelength convened a conversation between three organisations engaged in societal level behaviour change: Cure Violence from in Chicago, Portman Group in the UK and Well Told Story from Kenya. What was clear was that despite different target audiences, different target behaviours and different ideological start points the approaches employed in these different organisations have principles in common.

Here are three…

1. Go with people, not against them

Well Told Story (WTS) seeks to create positive social change among young Kenyans by telling stories through a group of fictitious characters using a variety of media and social media channels. Rob Burnet, founder and MD, recounted telling a startled client who wanted help encouraging contraception use among young people, that rather than talk about family planning they needed to talk about “great sex”. “What 17 year-old is interested in family planning?” Rob and his team legitimately questioned. After persuasion the client got it, the campaign was a success and WTS won an Emmy!

WTS always starts with what matters to the young people. And both Joshua Gryniewicz, Communications Director, Cure Violence and Henry Ashworth, Chief Executive, Portman Goup echoed the importance of creating a win-win by working out how the target audience will benefit from change, rather than attempting to coerce. Rob described this as taking people on a journey they can be influenced from within, rather than using old school “punishment and consequence” approaches that, Joshua suggested, can desensitise people to messages.

For anyone with a commercial marketing background the idea of tapping into interests, aspirations and needs will seem obvious. Historically, however, many involved in social change have assumed that providing information and invoking fear is enough (think the UK government’s controversial “Don’t die of ignorance” HIV & Aids campaign of the ‘80s). In the emerging field of behaviour change, there is a blending of academic theory, commercial marketing and communication practices and learning from successes with the social sphere. For a thought-provoking example check out this startling multi-award winning behaviour change campaign to demobilise Colombian guerrillas:

Did it work? Data from the Colombian Ministry of Defence’s Programme of Humanitarian Attention indicates that ”The powerful, timely and well‐located messaging encouraged 331 FARC guerrillas to demobilise and re‐enter society ‐ a 30% uplift on the previous year.” Read more about the Operation Christmas campaign.

2. Choose your frame, carefully

During our conversations on behaviour change at the September Connect event, there was much discussion of ‘Framing’. In Nudge, Thaler & Sunstein explain Framing by saying “choices depend, in part, on the way in which problems are stated”. Framing can be employed in small ways, to nudge people unconsciously toward better choices, for example talking about savings versus losses in the context of energy bill payment. It can also operate at a more fundamental level changing the way the whole behavioural aim is viewed and acted on: Cure Violence offers a powerful example.

Epidemiologist and international public health expert, Gary Slutkin, founded Cure Violence. Gary’s insight was that violence spreads just like a contagious disease and therefore the same measures used in public health to tackle an epidemic could work to prevent violence:

  • early detection,
  • the identification of individuals involved in transmission,
  • interruption.

This total re-framing of violence permeates beyond program design at Cure Violence. Including into internal culture, where the language of public health is used over the language of crime and punishment, and where victims and aggressors are understood to be the same people at different points in time and in different contexts.

In this Ted Talk, Gary explains how this thinking around violence as an epidemic evolved from his work in international public health and the fundamentals of the Cure Violence approach:

3. Harness the power of Social Norms

All three contributors stressed the importance of tapping into our, often unconscious,  desire to do what others like us are doing and the need in many programs to correct misconceptions around what it is normal to do.  Social Norms is a school of thinking with its own theory, proponents and evidence base. Its utility was powerfully proven in the US in the mid-1980s where it helped reduce college campus binge drinking. The approach has since been applied to a wider range of behaviours. Professor Wes Perkins a leading Social Norms practitioner explains the approach in this interview:

During our Connect conversation, Henry gave examples from his current role helping encourage responsible drinking at the Portman Group and from his time in the Cabinet Office applying behavioural economics to a broad set of social issues. These included how telling self-assessment debtors that ‘95% of people in their area had already paid up’ in a standard reminder letter upped like-for-like payment by £250 million in one geography. Joshua talked about the importance of changing group norms among those most likely to be involved in violence from “You hit me, I hit you back. You pull a knife, I pull a bigger knife. You pull a gun, I shoot you dead.” so anti-social behaviours are not constantly reinforced as a norm. Rob talked about how in behaviour change programs at WTS different media play different roles in changing behaviour, including in the creation of norms.

And finally, what of measurement?

Just as there is no magic bullet for effecting change there is no magic bullet for measuring the impact of change programs. Particularly when dealing with webs of complex causality. In the video below Joshua and Henry talk about the importance of measurement in both their organisations and on being “laser focused” on what it is you need to measure, while Rob shares some of the tools used by WTS to understand changes in attitudes and behaviours of their different target groups over time.


Written by Helen Trevaskis. When she’s not helping Wavelength design Connect, Helen helps organisations design behaviour change programs for developing countries and is a visiting lecturer on behaviour change at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


The three contributors to this conversation were key speakers at the Wavelength Connect event Reconnect 2: Making Change Happen. To view more videos from this event go to Reconnect 2: Making Change Happen

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