While working in the complex field of behaviour change studies we have encountered a lot of misunderstanding about apparently shared terms (including the notion of behaviour change itself). We believe that it is useful, where possible, to develop a transparent language for behaviour change studies. In this spirit we have decided to build  a (wiki) glossary of what we feel are key terms in the field. This wiki-glossary is by no means meant to be definitive: it is merely a reflection of our own, imperfect, understanding of these terms.  We also hope, in the spirit of wiki-based knowledge, that as this glossary grows it can be changed and adapted on the basis of the comments that we receive from the people who read this blog. So please feel free to tell us what you like and dislike about our emerging glossary and assortment of definitions.

Material from this Wiki-Glossary can be citied using the following reference: Howell, R. Jones. R. Lilley, R. Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M. (year of citation) ‘Name of Glossary entry, i.e. Neuroliberalism’ WikiGlossary []

Behaviour Change (US Behavior Change) phrase. A phrase used to refer to the transformation of human action. When used in general parlance the nature of the behaviour, how it could be changed, and the duration/extent of the change remain unspecified. Since the late 1980s this term has developed a more specific meaning within the field of public policy. In the design and implementation of public policy, behaviour-changing policies are generally understood to be those policies that recognize that transforming the actions of individuals is crucial to the success of any form of government intervention. Since the late 1990s behaviour change policies have become synonymous within more sophisticated understandings of the nature human behaviour. These policies are particularly concerned with the unconscious, automatic, and emotionally oriented drivers of human action. Related policies suggest that the changing of behaviour should not only be pursued through incentives, education, and prohibition, but through the use of more emotionally-oriented interventions, including subconscious nudges, peer-to-peer persuasion, and social marketing inter alia.

Neuroliberalism /nyoo-roh-lib-er-al-ism/ noun & neologism. A term first coined by Engin Isin in 2004 to describe the ways in which anxiety (in the form of neuroses) can be used to govern people’s behaviour. The term has now developed a broader meaning. Although there is no agreed upon definition of the term, it is used within the social sciences to denote the ways in which the sciences of the mind (such as behavioural psychology) and brain (neuroscience) are informing systems of government in neoliberal societies. In many ways the term is best understood as a play on the word neoliberalism. Neuroliberalism is thus suggestive of a type of approach to government that still adheres to the neoliberal priorities of a market-oriented society that values freedom in personal affairs (its liberalism component). It does, however, also indicate a vision of society within which the government of free individuals is based upon much more complex, psychologically grounded, understanding of the motivators of human behaviour than has traditionally been promoted under neoliberlism (its neuro component).

Psychological Capital phrase (sometimes referred to through the abbreviation PsyCap). The idea of psychological capital is a relatively new term. The term is most closely associated with the theory of ‘positive psychological capital’. Theories of positive psychological capital first emerged towards the end of the twentieth century and sought to extend the traditional focus of psychology from a concern with mental illness to one of mental wellness. It was the management specialist Fred Luthans who first codified the principles of positive psychological capital. In a management context psychological capital is associated with the development of key personal attributes including confidence, optimism, perseverance, and resilience, which collectively contribute to improved workplace performance. In broader terms, psychological capital can be understood as a form of enhanced psychological understanding of self and others. Understood on these terms, psychological capital occupies a space between human capital (a set of capacities that are associated with a person) and social capital (a set of capacities that are generated through the formation of inter-personal networks and alliances). At an individual level, the development of psychological capital is associated with a better understanding of, and control over, the thoughts and emotions that shape behaviours. At a broader social level, the development of psychological capital is related to: 1) a better understanding of the role of others in shaping our feelings and actions, and 2) a renewed sense of appreciation of, and compassion towards, the psychological drivers behind the actions of others. The development of psychological capital has been associated with a range of techniques including psychotherapy and Mindfulness training. Psychological capital appears to have much in common with emerging notions of spiritual capital.

Rational adjective. Pertaining to the application of reason. In general parlance, the term rational is used to denote a normative (moral) position (compared to “morally dubious” irrational actions), and also to specify a more specific set of behavioural practices. In terms of behavioural practices, the rational has come to be associated with processes of measured deliberation and reflection on the likely outcomes of certain courses of actions. In more narrow economic terms, rational actions are associated with those in which personal utility and self-interest are prioritised. In moral terms, rational action is often deemed as good because it militates against emotional responses to situations (expressed in terms of fear, anger, pleasure and joy), and the associated forms of arbitrary, and the potentially damaging, actions that can ensue.
Putting these conventional, and quite specific, understandings of the rational to one side, it is perhaps best to think of rational actions as forms of behaviour for which we can give a reason (the “application of reason” is then understood not as a set of logical procedures, but as the ability to actually give a reason for action). Understood on these terms, rational decision-making is disconnected from its moral association with deliberative self-interest, and can be seen as any form of action that is connected to a conscious prompt. Conscious prompts can, of course be the product of reflection, calculation, and attempts to secure personal interests, but they can also be the result of emotional responses (including empathy, care for others, and a felt sense of the situation). Understanding the rational in this way has two primary advantages. First, it means that the rational need not be associated with a narrow, and potentially divisive, economic understanding of human motivation. Second, it enables us to recognize that humans have the capacity for great emotional intelligence, which is often produced at the interface of deliberation, gut reactions, and the negotiation of a variety of everyday situations.

Spiritual capital is a newish term and mirrors the growing prevalence of social capital theory within sociological and public policy discourses. It was influenced in the States by Robert Putnam’s identification of faith groups as important ‘bulwarks’ against the decline of social capital in the West, and as important ‘incubators’ for volunteering and other forms of civic engagement (2000, 2010)[1]. Early work in the US defines spiritual capital ‘as the resources that are created, or people have access to, when they invest in religion as religion’ (Metanexus, 2003: 2)[2]. However, influential research in the UK (William Temple Foundation/Leverhulme Trust) suggests a more generic application, identifying it as the prime motivational link for civic engagement by faith-based citizens and making a distinction between the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. The ‘what’ of religious social capital is identified as material resources such as buildings, volunteers, credit unions, youth workers etc: ‘namely the practical contribution to local and national life by faith groups’ (Baker and Skinner, 2006: 9).[3] The ‘why’ however, is defined as spiritual capital, which ‘energises religious capital by providing a theological identity and a worshipping tradition, but also a value system, moral vision and a basis of faith’ (Baker and Skinner, 2006:9).[4] It is therefore the mutually reinforcing nature of spiritual capital upon religious capital and vice versa, that, it is suggested, gives religious social capital its particular resilience and effectiveness. However, if the more generic aspects of this definition are taken, i.e.‘a value system and moral vision’, then anyone who reflects on these and seeks to act upon them is deploying their spiritual capital. It is possible therefore talk of the importance and contribution of secular spiritual capital to social capital (Baker and Miles-Watson, 2008: 449).[5] The spiritual capital concept thus engages with two other significant areas of the changing behaviours debate. The first is within popular psychology and concerns the relative merits of hedonic and eudaimonic forms of happiness and flourishing. The hedonic happiness tradition engages with popular (i.e. self-reported) definitions of what happiness is (so-called SWB – or subjective well-being) and tends to focus on promoting positive affective episodes in one’s life: life satisfaction, the presence of positive mood, the absence of negative mood. Eudemonic views of happiness are rooted in more ancient religious and philosophical perspectives, and prefer instead to link true happiness to the practice of virtue; i.e. doing what is worth doing. Eudemonia is linked to the Greek word daimon or true self. The eudemonic tradition thus posits six aspects relating of human actualisation (also referred to as Self-determination Theory (SDT) and Psychological Wellbeing (PWB): autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, life purpose, mastery and positive relatedness (Ryff and Keyes (1995))[6]. Spiritual capital, with its stress on the importance of engaging one’s value systems and visions for transformation, is clearly congruent with more eudemonic understandings but would critique some of the more individualistic interpretations just offered.The second discourse is the post-political, a critique which emerges from Marxist and post-Marxist traditions. It suggests that the post-cold war hegemony of neo-liberal economics, and its emphasis on citizens as autonomous and rational consumers has de-politicised the public square. This de-politicisation is currently reinforced by the policy focus on localism and governance; deliberately vague terms suggesting an uncritical inclusion and a false agenda of consensus that ignores issues of structural power and social exclusion.[7] In this way, spiritual capital becomes one such resource for motivating citizens, both religious or of no-religion, to become engaged in public life and to shape civil society towards more inclusive, non-material and sustainable outcomes. Emerging debates from human geography and public policy suggest this is already happening. Ideas of postsecular rapprochement and progressive localism, reinforce the importance of, in Latour’s terms, creating multi-epistemological spaces in which matters of concern rather than matters of fact can be uncovered.[8] These dialogues travel across both religious and religious/secular divides. These divides, once essentialised under the rubrics of 20th modernity, are increasingly becoming blurred and fluid within the 21st century.

3 Comments on “Wiki-Glossary”

  1. Rachel Howell November 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    It’s important to note that the way ‘behaviour change’ is being used on this blog and in this project is quite specific. As used here it’s about a particular set of *processes* that are used, advocated, or taken into account in public policy, as mentioned in the definition of behaviour change above. But in academic (and other) literature, ‘behaviour change’ is often an (expected, desired, or observed) *outcome* of many processes, including those mentioned here but also others.

  2. Jessica Pykett November 29, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

    Educational theorist, Ivor Goodson’s concept of ‘narrative capital’ may also be useful in considering the interplay between psychological and social capital. It seems to refer to a kind of rhetorical skill which is part biographical and part inventive. Goodson states that: “Narrative capital will be an important element of social reproduction in future decades and may well sit alongside, or even potentially replace, symbolic and cultural capital as guarantors of social standing”, and more info can be found at

    • Mark J Whitehead November 30, 2013 at 7:52 am #

      Thanks for raising this interesting link Jessica – this perspective is very interesting particularly given the important role of narrative in behaviour change.

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