Critical Thriving

7 basic terms for talking about behaviour change

As part of the work we do on behaviour change in the Isooko project, we use some language that we find helpful in our conversations. This language is largely based on work done by people in the Centre for Behaviour Change at University College London and other people in their network.

7 basic terms for talking about Behaviour Change

1. Behavioural outcomes:

Often, thinking about behaviour change starts here. We perceive a problem in our society or in our communities. Or, we perceive an opportunity to make something better than it already is. We realise that whatever we identified is actually the result of a behaviour. Behaviours always have results; they have an effect. We call those effects (behavioural) outcomes.

2. Behavioural patterns:

‘Behaviour pattern’s we use to talk about our target populations (target audiences of our work). The groups we work with seem to repeatedly behave in certain ways in certain situations. In the context of peace buildling changing behaviour is a social process. Thus, behaviour patterns are an important element of dynamics present in a peaceful society. However, we also use the term behavioural patterns when referring to, for example, destructive behaviours shown by groups of people.

3. (Digital) Behaviour change intervention:

An intervention is a project, programme, activity, campaign, enterprise, or else that aims at changing behaviour(s). It has target audience(s), overall aims  (e.g. problems it tries to address), and a range of other resources, opportunities, and constraints. It can be aimed at single individuals or groups, can be ongoing or time limited, and can include digital elements or not.

4. Target behaviour:

This is the behaviour we like to change. It is at the core of many interventions; it is certainly at the core of our (the intervener’s) intentions. Those intentions may include modifying the behaviour, stopping it from occuring, or bringing it about. We do a significant amount of work on this as it helps being very specific here. The better our understanding of the behaviour, the better we will be able to intervene.

5. Behavioural determinants: 

Behavioural determinants are the factors that cause/bring about certain behaviours in individuals and/or groups. Determining these is part of understanding the target behaviour(s) of the target populations. If we can change something about the behavioural determinants then this will have an effect on the target behaviours we like to see (or stop seeing). There are many different ways of speaking about behavioural determinants until you start thinking about specific behaviours you like to change. In most cases you will have to familiarise yourself a lot with the target population to be able to understanding the complex dynamics between determinants and behaviours.

6. Behaviour change techniques:

Besides the target behaviour the Behaviour Change Technique (BCT) is the second big focus of the work you do in a behaviour change intervention. The technique is what you do to change the target behaviour; it describes HOW you will bring about the behaviour change. Often the technique will aim at changing some of the behavioural determinants (instead of changing the target behaviour itself). Things get quite sophisticated quite quickly here.

We found that in many areas of society (many of the domains in which you may be considering running behaviour change interventions) there is little established evidence on what works and what does not. And even when there is, context and situation in which you work is so important that the good practices you may have found need substantial adaptation. Doing a thorough job in understanding the particularities of your intervention context is always essential.

7. Mechanisms of Action:

The above behaviour change techniques have an effect on people, that is their purpose. The mechanism of action describes how they have that effect. How does a certain activity you are running (as part of your intervention) influence a certain behavioural determinant (or a set of determinants) and how does that lead to certain target behaviours changing.

Behaviour change terms in use

Let us use a simple hypothetical intervention to illustrate the use of thes above terms:

We want to reduce the amount of CO2 produced by our employees commuting to work (target behaviour). We have a thorough understanding of the CO2 currently being produced (behavioural outcome); we know how much CO2 is produced by which behaviours by our staff (behaviour patterns). We also know why our employees behave in the ways they do; for example, we know why so many are choosing to commute by car (behavioural determinants).

It turns out that, when we review everything we know, that the biggest opportunity to lower CO2 production is by offering a ‘cycle to work scheme’ (behaviour change intervention). Our knowledge of behavioural determinants indicates that there are a significant number of staff members already considering cycling to work. However, due to a lack of changing facilitaties at our offices, insecurity about cycling on roads, and many having company cars as part of their employment contracts they have never taken up the habit of cycling to work.

Therefore, our behaviour change intervention will include a range of behaviour change techniques: 1. We will change the physical environment of our employees (install changing facilities in a prominent location at our offices). 2. Cycle training (behavioural practice) and protective gear will be offered for free to our employees. 3. After reviewing employment contracts we decided to reduce the use of company cars as an incentive in the recruitment process and incentivise cycling more (financial contribution to bicycle purchase and free servicing at company offices if they commit to using it for more than 15% of their commutes).

We have chosen these behaviour change techniques because we believe that they will effect the behavioural determinants in certain ways (mechanisms of action). Our intervention will make environmental resources available to people (the changing rooms and protective gear) that were not available to them previously, it develops their skills and knowledge (the cycle training), it increases their confidence (the cycle training), it motivates them to start using their bicycle (incentive scheme that enables them to set a minimum goal for themselves and monitors their progress towards that goal).

What about evaluation?

This is a simple intervention description. Depending on what we are talking about things get much more complex. Additionally, it will be important to monitor and evaluate whether the mechanisms of action actually influence the behavioural determinants to then actually lead to the intended changes in the target behaviour. And ultimately, you need to know if a change to the behaviour patterns leads to the different behavioural outcomes you have been aiming for all along.

Ultimately, you want to know if investing X resources in cycle training leads to X amount of reduction in CO2 production, right?

Photo by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash

This work is funded through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under the grant agreement: No 779793

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