Thinking about behaviour change:

an interdisciplinary dialogue

Edited by Simon Christmas, Susan Michie and Robert West

ISBN: 978-1-912141-03-6




Part 1: Models and behaviour change: a dialogue

Part 2: Responses to the dialogue

  • 1. Use and usability: are theoretical models of behaviour change practical?

    Marie Johnston, Emeritus Professor of Health Psychology, University of Aberdeen

    Theoretical models have considerable potential for reducing muddle, enhancing models and guiding ‘meddling’ in the process of behaviour change. But is there a gap between current ‘use’ and potential ‘usability’? There may be nothing quite so practical as a good theory, but only if the good theoretical model is used well in practice.

  • 2. In defence of the ‘non-model’: modelling the prevention of teenage tobacco use in Africa.

    Katherine Hardyment, Associate Director, Good Business

    Precise models may be desirable in theory. In practice, even an imprecise model can provide a solid start point for action; and action can in turn generate more knowledge, which helps to improve our models.

  • 3. Model Conduct.

    Alan Cribb, Professor of Bioethics and Education, Centre for Public Policy Research, King’s College London

    Everyone would surely agree that both the development and use of models of behaviour can be done in ways that are better or worse – and that there would be value in clarifying good practice. But would it be possible to produce the same guidance for model developers and model users? Or might these two different kinds of activity call for different conceptions of good practice?

  • 4. Industrialising behaviour change.

    Richard L. Wright, Director of Sustainable Behaviour, Unilever

    Industry can and will play an increasingly important role in behaviour change – but only if we can first ‘industrialise’ our models. That means making them accessible to non-expert employees, and also recognising the ways in which business can positively impact on behaviour – both via more traditional ‘push’ interventions, but also via interventions that are ‘pulled’ by consumers.

  • 5. Explanatory and predictive behavioural modelling.

    Nigel Shardlow, Director of Planning, Sandtable Ltd

    An abundance of behavioural data and new techniques in machine learning makes it possible to build behavioural models that predict without explaining. Such ‘purely predictive’ models have their place in behaviour change. However, when the stakes are high – as they are for strategic decision-making – explanatory models that support causal storytelling (such as simulation models) are needed.

  • 6. The common language of story.

    Robert Holtom, Freelance Consultant and Writer

    Models aren’t the only tools we use to represent and understand behaviour. Story is a fundamental means of making sense of the world: and we regularly narrate our lives as we try to make sense of our own and others’ behaviour. Model makers and storytellers have much to learn from one another, and could enhance their own work with a better understanding of the other discipline.

  • 7. Probability and normativity: reconciling the two ‘shoulds’ of modelling.

    Chris Mills, Research Fellow, UCL Faculty of Laws

    Modelling behaviour is often discussed as if it were solely a descriptive enterprise. In fact, modelling has a strong moral dimension, with action-guiding normative considerations playing important and distinct roles in the development and use of models of human behaviour.

  • 8. On epistemological and ontological incommensurability in modelling behaviour change.

    Michael P. Kelly, Honorary Senior Visiting Fellow, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge

    Psychology and sociology are often seen as offering incommensurate perspectives on human behaviour. But if you look hard enough, it is the similarities which strike you – along with the prospects for better modelling of human behaviour.

  • 9. Interdisciplinarity in the study of behaviour change: experiences, promises and challenges.

    Antonio Cabrales, Professor of Economics, Department of Economics, University College London

    Angel Sánchez, Professor of Applied Mathematics, Grupo Interdisciplinar de Sistemas Complejos, Departamento de Matemáticas and Institute of UC3M-BS of Financial Big Data, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid

    Interdisciplinary research holds enormous promise for the study of behaviour and behaviour change. In practice, it also creates challenges – both for teams that seek to cross disciplinary boundaries, and for existing disciplinary approaches to publishing, funding and career progression.

  • 10. Changing professional behaviour with cognitive engineering.

    John Fox, Professor, Department of Engineering Science, Oxford University

    The design of cognitive prostheses – tools, such as the many kinds of software that are designed to improve human performance in cognitive tasks – can be seen as a ‘straightforward engineering problem’. In fact, like so many other kinds of behaviour change tools, the design of a cognitive prosthesis requires an interdisciplinary approach, and is a key theme in the emerging discipline of cognitive engineering.

  • 11. Economic models in interdisciplinary studies of behaviour change: helpful abstractions or spurious distractions?

    Michelle Baddeley, Professor in Economics and Finance, UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London

    What contribution can economics make to our understanding of behaviour change? To answer that question, we first need to understand some of the key dilemmas that characterise the discipline of economics, and the origins of these dilemmas. By taking a more interdisciplinary perspective, behavioural economics shows potential in overcoming these dilemmas, and enhancing the contribution of economics to interdisciplinary dialogue about behaviour change.

  • 12. A social practice perspective.

    Dale Southerton, Director, Sustainable Consumption Institute and Professor of Sociology, University of Manchester (former Director, Sustainable Practices Research Group)

    Daniel Welch, Research Associate, Sustainable Consumption Institute

    Much current policy implicitly assumes a ‘portfolio’ model of behaviour, which conceptualises human activity as individualistic, voluntary, and deliberative. The social practice perspective challenges these assumptions, with significant implications for behaviour change models and interventions.

  • 13. Clearing the pathway to change: a new psychodynamic perspective.

    Peter Fonagy, Freud Memorial Professor of Psychoanalysis, Research Department of Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, University College London

    Liz Allison, Director, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit

    Chloe Campbell, Research Fellow, UCL Psychoanalysis Unit

    What can psychoanalysis bring to an interdisciplinary dialogue on behaviour change? A new direction in psychodynamic thinking shifts the focus from the dynamic unconscious to interpersonal processes and the critical role played by epistemic trust in our ability both to learn about our social world and to change our behaviour. To promote behaviour change, on this account, we may first need to reopen an individual’s ability to receive and accept social instruction.

  • 14. How can we use literature as a tool for understanding and changing behaviour in complex contexts?

    Maurice Biriotti, CEO of SHM and Professor of Medical Humanities, UCL

    Models involve a necessary simplification of reality, and while simplifying often helps us work out what to do, it can also get in the way. In many situations, changing behaviour means embracing complexity, not abstracting from it. When that is the case, literary texts can provide an alternative way of thinking about behaviour and behaviour change.

  • 15. The role of forecasting models in transport planning – an historical perspective.

  • Peter Jones, Professor of Transport and Sustainable Development, Centre for Transport Studies, UCL

    Models are neither developed nor used in a vacuum: they have a history, which shapes and constrains what we do with them. Sometimes we need to re-examine that history to understand where we have ended up.

  • 16. Explanatory models and conviction narratives.

    David Tuckett, Director, Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty, UCL

    Behaviour change is often approached as an exercise in applying models of behaviour to people we think need to change. But those people have their own models: ways of making sense of reality which in turn shape their behaviour and relationships. A model shapes the behaviour of the person who believes it as much as it does the behaviour of the person it’s supposed to be about: and changing behaviour is often about promoting dialogue between different people’s models.

  • 17. Models, stories and leaders.

    David Newkirk, Corporate advisor and educator; formerly CEO, Executive Education, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business and Senior Partner, Booz Allen Hamilton

    Leadership is, at its heart, all about changing behaviour. From a leader’s perspective, however, the value of models of behaviour lies less in their offering ‘theories of change’ than in their power as ‘instruments of change’ – thanks to the influence models can have on the people who embrace and believe them.

  • 18. Behaviour change through political influence: the case of tobacco control.

    Deborah Arnott, Chief Executive, ASH (UK)

    Population behaviour change often requires political behaviour change and this needs to be guided by a model of the political system. Even a simple model can provide an effective blueprint for action.

  • 19. Modelling as a process of describing and creating change.

    Rob Farrands, Director, Figure Ground Consulting

    Reflecting on experiences as a consultant intervening in interdisciplinary contexts raises questions about the roles played by models – including models of behaviour. On the one hand, models may be the focus of collective and individual commitments, confidently projected out into the world. On the other hand, models may be the very things that open us up to the situational possibilities of otherness and difference.

  • 20. Behave yourself: why behavioural modelling needs subjective disclosure.

    Jonathan Rowson, Director, The Social Brain Centre, RSA

    Does the personal biography and subjective experience of those working on behaviour change have any place in a scientific understanding of behaviour? Once we recognise the reflexivity of behaviour – the fact that humans do things differently as a result of knowing why they are doing them or being asked to do them – then we may conclude that they not only have a place, but that we cannot do without them.

  • 21. Becoming a force of nature: a new direction for health promotion and disease prevention.

    Victor J. Strecher, Professor and Director of Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, University of Michigan School of Public Health

    Current models of health-related behaviour have fallen short in adequately addressing a root cause of our resistance to change: ego defensiveness. Recent scientific evidence from research on self-affirmation and purpose in life, combined with technological advances in biometric monitoring, the availability of ‘big data’, and predictive modelling support a new direction that follows the two great Greek imperatives: living in accordance with one’s true self or purpose (Aristotle) and knowing thyself (Socrates).


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