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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Timing Behaviour Change

By Rhys Jones

It strikes me that there is some academic effort being put into understanding the history or, alternatively, the timing of Behaviour Change. An effort has been made to trace the beginnings of behavioural economics during the 1950s and 1960s, in many ways the academic underpinning of Behaviour Change theory. Similarly, the growing emphasis placed on using behavioural economics as an academic rationale for devising new forms of public policy has been connected to a crisis of neoliberalism taking place during the late 1990s and early 2000s. It is this broader context, of course, that enables us to discuss Behaviour Change as a form of neuroliberalism.

In more conceptual contexts, much has been made of the apparent emphasis within many forms of Behaviour Change intervention on manipulating those milliseconds within which individuals make day-to-day decisions. This is the temporal frame of reference of the choice architect, as she seeks to work with intuitive, affective sub-conscious registers of human life.

And yet, it is instructive to think about another, more long-term vision for Behaviour Change. As is noted in the foreword of the Australian Public Service’s Commission document, Changing Behaviour: a Public Policy Perspective, there is a great potential benefit to Behaviour Change interventions, “particularly if a longer-term time frame is taken to evaluate the costs and benefits” (2007: page iii). The document does not provide much detail – for that, read any detail – on this longer term time frame and how it plays out in relation to Behaviour Change and, yet, a number of interesting questions arise here.

First, how does this longer-term time frame map onto much shorter electoral cycles, where public policy interventions need to be seen to be working for political ends? Second, how easy is it to demonstrate or evaluate, in a practical sense, the longer-term impacts of particular Behaviour Change interventions? In other words, how can one trace back an improved set of behaviours to particular interventions that were made five, ten or twenty years ago? Third, does a focus on the longer-term impacts of Behaviour Change interventions encourage us to concentrate on particular kinds of intervention more than others? We are not in the world of the small-scale yet pervasive environmental cues that seek to manipulate decisions on a recurring basis here. We are occupying, perhaps, the longer-term timeframes of social and cultural norms, which take time to influence and change. It is here, too, that notions of Behaviour Change begin to stray over into potentially more transformative attempts to change values, as well as behaviours, ones which are challenging both to measure and to achieve.


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