Dear delegates and friends of the ESRC seminar series on ‘behaviour change’,
With the first seminar in the series just around the corner, we thought it about time we give you a sneak preview of what’s in store. The speakers’ position papers are in and delegates should gear themselves up for an afternoon of excitement! (And note - there are a few places left so if you know anyone who might like to come, please get them to book in asap).
The collection of highly experienced speakers at this first seminar are those who helped identify the initial concept for the series. As a way of introducing the series, we have invited them to stand on their soapbox and spend 15 minutes exploring their position on the challenges and critical issues in the‘behaviour change’ phenomenon. There has been absolutely no nudging and given our speakers’ variety of backgrounds, their approaches are refreshingly different. Sharp, energetic debate is a given, so make sure you come wide-eyed and caffeinated!
What will you hear?
Dr Rayner has chosen to present an overview of the behaviour change phenomenon by tackling many of the core issues the field currently faces. The range of issues he will examine include the ecological tradition of public health, as one would expect, but will also cover the problems with public health research and the importance of theoretical innovation. He will introduce the social-behavioural model, which “is the main rival to the bio-medical model” and question the historical emphasis on personal responsibility that has infiltrated policy and rhetoric around behaviour change. He will explore the role of personal habit, but emphasise the importance of education, policy and regulation in shaping it; and also the role of big business, which has stimulated demand for unhealthy products through aggressive marketing. Not stopping there, Dr Rayner will also tackle the recent interest in behavioural economics as well as celebrities and the interplay between research academics and the policy agenda.
Other speakers have a different starting point. Professor Griffin, for instance, paying tribute to the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall, will suggest that behaviour change has become the new ‘commonsense’ discourse in public health. She will suggest that rather than a close focus on which interventions work best, we should turn our attention to the political, economic and socio-cultural changes in our time which are the foundation for this new ‘commonsense’. She will take a critical perspective of the behaviour change agenda, led by Hall’s own thinking, and instigate a challenging debate about the balance to be played between the need for ‘behaviour change’ practice and the damage some of these initiatives in fact cause to individuals and families.
In stark contrast, Professor Abraham will take the need for ‘behaviour change’ research and intervention as read, choosing to explore how to maximise the effectiveness of our evidence and our action. He will argue that Translational Research is needed to ensure that evidence-based models of ‘behaviour change’ are adopted and applied in health services, thereby initiating the sensitive but highly important debate about how best to communicate between practitioners or policy makers and academics - one of the core aims of this series. Professor Abraham will specifically focus on the Intervention Mapping approach, which he will explain in relation to co-creation interventions.
Chris Holmes will also take a less critical perspective, rather choosing to examine the harsh economics of population-level intervention management. He will draw on his experiences as a practitioner to present the ‘inconvenient truths’ of funding ‘behaviour change’ in practice - and will ask what the implications of these might be. For example, Mr Holmes will explore the role of behaviour change interventions that cross between public health and private industry. Based on his assertion that the “single most successful public health intervention in the last 10 years has been the reformulation of products to reduce salt content”, Holmes will ask how we might work with business to accelerate the reformulation of products to reduce sugar and fat content, for example. He will argue that we should pay more attention to influencing the real influencers (businesses and policy makers) rather than the populations doing the unhealthy behaviours.
Professor Joinson also takes an applied approach to behaviour change, but infuses it with a fresh look at behaviour change theory. He will explore his interest in the use of technology to support individual healthy choices, and the concept of ‘technological determinism’ (the concept of ‘outsourcing’ our wellbeing to gadgets and ‘apps’). Professor Joinson will also examine this socio-technical perspective from a theoretical perspective, through an analysis of the mutually reliant importance of tool and psychological motivation or need. Professor Joinson will also explore the delicate balance between the potential that technology can offer and the dangers of technological determinism, such as the shift in our cultural interpretation towards a preference for the ‘quick fix’.
Other speakers, such as Professors Warde and Kelly, will also use their slot to tackle some of the theoretical foundations of ‘behaviour change’. They both will put forward strong arguments that the application of alternative, innovative theories such as Social Practice Theory become more widespread. As Professor Kelly will point out, Social Practice theories are an important area in sociology and yet underused in public health. He will present some results from work of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit to explore their importance. Similarly, Professor Warde is also concerned with looking at behaviour in terms of population level practice rather than individual or collective decisions. He will explore Behavioural Economics as one response to an acknowledgement that “consumption is less a matter of individual expression and choice, and more a corollary of the conventions of the range of the specific, socially-organized practices felt to be necessary to live a good life”. In both cases, these speakers will present ideas around the argument that “new modes of intervention are required”.
Laura Haynes’ contribution crosses the theoretical, the pragmatic and the political. Her perspective comes from her years as Deputy Director of the government’s Behavioural Insights Unit. She will present her ideas on the ebb and flow of behaviour change ‘fads’; on the need for solid evidence and the desperate need for the field to innovate. She will explain that “we are now at another crossroads. We need to push the boundaries again”. Dr Haynes will call for innovation in research; improved communication between researchers and policy makers; improved application of research findings and research design. Above all, her talk will tackle the big questions around the practicality of government’s delivery of behaviour change interventions.
Given this incredible variety of perspective and the exceptional expertise of our speakers, this first seminar will form a solid and impressive foundation for the remaining seminars in the series. We are certain you will enjoy the afternoon and look forward to hearing your comments. Anyone can comment on the position papers on this blog, simply by writing a comment. These will be collated and synthesised as part of our reporting from the seminars.
Dr Fiona SpotswoodPrincipal Investigator of the ESRC ‘behaviour change’ seminar series