Focusing on behaviour itself is not sufficient for long term change. Short term effects can be seen from supervision and enforcement, but really sustained change has to come from within and be a personal choice people make time and again.

To change someone’s behaviour you must understand the attitude they hold that drives them to act in a specific way. Underlying this attitude are their values and beliefs about that subject and these have been built up from their experience of life and the influence of family and wider society expectations.

Education has an influence on our values and beliefs because it raises our awareness of issues we may not have considered before. However, it’s often not sufficient in itself to promote behaviour change because people need to know how to apply their new knowledge to their own environment. And they also need to be motivated to make the right choices time and again.

Carrot on a stick

Take obesity as an example; we still have a major problem with this as a nation despite major campaigns on healthy eating like 5 a day. Learning that fruit and veg are good for you and that you should eat them everyday doesn’t equate to a person eating a piece of fruit with their lunch instead of a chocolate bar. Some people may just need this information to begin to eat healthily, others will need to be motivated internally to act in that way and they must feel the consequence is a positive one for them.

Our attitude towards something will have been built up from our experience of it and the views we hold may be very ingrained or quite flexible depending on how important they are to us. Understanding this is important in getting people to think differently.

If you have little knowledge and opinion of an issue you’ll be more open to education than someone with a much more ingrained view, who may feel a strong desire to hold on to their original view regardless of the new knowledge you give them.

Smoking is a powerful example of this. People who started smoking at a time when it was the social thing to do and was not felt to be a concern for health, will hold on to this view regardless of the health campaigns because it does not fit with their ingrained belief about it. Coupled with this they probably know people who smoked all their life and lived to be 90yrs which upholds their view.

When you get them to look at the rest of their friends and family, they know far more people who’ve had health issues exacerbated by smoking but they feel happy to deny the significance of this evidence! These people often do give up but due to the price increases and other factors not connected to health, because the hit in their pocket is immediate and death by lung cancer isn’t.

Consequence is a complex area

A positive consequence to one person may not be to another. The behaviour of driving at the speed limit, for example, may be felt to have a clear positive consequence of being safer. But for some there will be a negative consequence of not looking cool or getting there slower, which may be higher up the scale of importance for them, so they speed to obtain their desired output.

And for those who do manage to make a change, and to sustain it, we all need to feel some reward for our efforts and be reminded of the benefits so to prevent us slipping back to poor habits.

Lack of visible results for many people is one of the reasons they do not continue with their new behaviours, so feedback on success is a really important part of the cycle of behaviour change. It’s often difficult to see, long term benefits to health for example are hard to promote with people because they don’t see any direct link to their healthy eating behaviour.

Likewise in the workplace, feedback is often lacking on near misses or incidents reported  so people give up looking as they can’t see the bigger picture without some timely feedback about the issue they raised.

So for those on the journey of behaviour change whether personally or organisationally, positive feedback on success is vital. It must be as close in time to the original behaviour as possible to have the right impact.

The quickest most timely reinforcement comes from each other, whether it’s congratulating someone on their weight loss or success in giving up smoking, or praising them for safe behaviour.