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Unlocking the secret of behaviour change

Posted on 20 July 2011 .
Tags: behaviour change, Centre for Understanding Behaviour Change, contextual rational action theory, Health Survey for England, National Diet and Nutrition Survey, National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, The Social Animal

There’s been ongoing interest over the last few years in the area of behaviour change, piqued recently by David Brooks book, The Social Animal. Politicians are said to be considering the notion that emotional responses, rather than material, economic gain, should be factored in to a greater extent when designing policy on behaviour change - as Brooks asserts. His is a curious, entertaining and informative publication but not one without criticism. Raymond Tallis recent book, Aping Mankind, offers a direct critique of neuro-scientific explanations for human behaviour such as those offered by Brooks. ‘We are not our brain’, he contends, for if we are mired in the patterns set by the neural transmitters that underpin our emotions, we would ultimately be ‘powerless to make the world a better place’.

Clearly much of the endeavour of social scientists is to ‘make the world a better place’, through greater understanding of social problems, human behaviour, and how to address or optimise them for the greater good. Perhaps the debate on behaviour change is a manifestation itself of the complexity of the human condition that is under scrutiny. And perhaps both reason and emotion; biology, history and free will, are all at play when human behaviour is enacted.

Here at NatCen much of our research is concerned with understanding patterns of behaviour and behaviour change:


Combining a complex understanding of behaviour change with substantive research data is as much a part of our work as understanding patterns of behaviour. In a paper published in the European Journal of Housing Policy in 2009 I argued that to understand causes of homelessness and how homelessness continues among multiply-excluded individuals, the emotional as well as material landscape of individuals lives have to be taken into proper account. Contextual rational action theory, a substantive theory within a critical realist perspective, was the model used in this case to underpin the argument, asserting that we have to understand human behaviour as being influenced by reason and emotion; material circumstance and sub-consciousness.

It’s unlikely that one single theory, approach, model or publication will ever adequately address the multiplicity of human behaviour (though Brooks book offers an engaging attempt to do so). Rather as social scientists we must strive to innovate. To address the complexity of human behaviour, we have to blend different research methods and theories across a range of substantive areas and policies - and map the spaces in between.

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