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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Behaviour Change and Public Debate

By Professor Rhys Jones

I was recently invited to partake in a public debate on behaviour change and nudging, organised by the Sheffield Salon.  A series of academics and social commentators presented their general views on behaviour change before being quizzed, in a Question Time format, on different themes that were of concern to the large audience that had assembled there.  What was heartening was the varied nature of the audience.  There was the odd academic there, admittedly, but there was also a range of other, more ‘lay’ individuals inluding public health professionals, civil servants and trainee teachers.  The intelligent and challenging nature of these questions demostrated the real appetite that is out there to understand the character of behaviour change interventions and the way in which these are being increasingly used in the UK, and other states, to influence the kinds of decisions that citizens make.


The use of term ‘salon’ to describe this kind of event – and it is important that these kinds of evenings are being replicated in many cities across the north of England, not only to discuss behaviour change but other burning issues of the day – is, of course, significant.  It harks back to Jurgen Habermas’ discussion of the role of a public sphere in articulating key ideas and the contribution of coffee houses and other salons in enabling these important debates to take place.  More importantly, these debates highlight the importance of a vibrant civil society in holding the state to account.  As those who attended the Sheffield salon showed, this is not merely a case of drawing attention to the many problematic aspects of the behaviour change agenda, important though that is.  It is also a case of actively seeking to shape a more progressive version of behaviour change, one that is attuned to the needs of citizens, as well as that of the states that seek to control us.


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