With all the best intentions in the world; creating behaviour change in populations is hard. Even after years of informational campaigns, problems such as high alcohol consumption, obesity rates and cigarette smoking are still having a significant impact on our health.

So is education really the solution – or are people just biased towards it?

Car Crash

At our recent Behavioural Meetup we discussed this problem with Professor Alan Tapp, an academic with a background in marketing. His talk explored the specific difficulties in improving driver behaviour on roads, with most people fooling themselves about their abilities, convinced their own driving is good while everyone else needs to get better. We asked Alan a few questions after the talk:

What’s your take on the influence of advertising?

Well it’s a long story, but in short: You start with the hypothesis that advertising as a whole has an effect on our culture. Advertising normalizes and legitimizes purchases and, crucially, behaviours. If you see something on the telly repeated and repeated, you subconsciously think ‘that’s the normal way to behave’.

The recent huge rise in gambling is a classic case in point. You then take that effect and drill down to individual brands: what you get then are brands like BMW subliminally telling their customers that they are superior beings: the BMW message is about power and control. So, there appears to be evidence that BMWs are disproportionately involved in crashes. This is something I am interested in looking at further.

What’s the role of education for behaviour change?

I’m an academic so of course I’m a fan of education: but not for rapid behaviour change.

To change behaviours you typically need motive, opportunity, capability – and education only addresses capability.
Why do so many people insist that education provides the answers? It’s because:

  1. They don’t really understand the mechanisms of change properly
  2. They are also ideologically opposed to societal interventions

People want life to revolve around ‘individual freedoms’. Imposing societal change, such as enforcing speed limits, is seen as an imposition on freedom. In contrast, education ticks their boxes because it puts the onus on the individual. None of this works, but it fits their belief system.

It’s interesting to think that our own biases and misconceptions about behaviour will in turn influence the methods we use as communications professionals and social marketers. If we had a better understanding of our own behaviour, it seems unlikely that we’d spend such a high proportion of resources on info leaflets, surveys and educational campaigns!

Check out the deck from the talk:

Interested in attending our next Behavioural Meetup? Find details here.