Our Director of Behavioural Insights, Dr Grainne Dickerson, discusses the rise of Behavioural Science and how Magpie uses it to create happier and healthier communities.
What is behavioural science?
Behavioural science refers to the disciplines of psychology, behavioural economics, sociology and anthropology to understand, explain and predict behaviour. These fields of science are driven by academia and the rigorous research produced by behavioural scientists who are trained to the highest standards in research methods in their fields. Whilst the research conducted has potential to improve health outcomes for the population, there have been many missed opportunities to apply the findings of robust research in real world settings, however, this is changing.
What is the history of behavioural science?
Behavioural science started gaining popularity when the Cameron-Clegg coalition government in 2010 set up a nudge unit, inspired by the book Nudge by Thaler and Sustein (2009).
It was in the same year that I achieved my dream of becoming a behavioural scientist when I qualified as a Health Psychologist. Reading the book, Nudge and hearing about the nudge unit I realised I had been trained in all the same stuff! I then found myself determined to utilise my learning and skills within Public Health where I had been working.
“My mantra at the time was … if they can have a nudge unit in the government, they could and should have something similar in the NHS and local authorities, for they are also in the business of changing public behaviour.”
For several years after that I was actively championing behavioural science within Public Health in order to meld together the science and art of protecting the health of the public via Public Health work with the psychological processes in health, illness and healthcare through Health Psychology work. I had fantastic support at times in the various behavioural science and public health roles I worked in, and at other times I faced challenges, and this was because behavioural science wasn’t as widely valued back then. Fast forward to now, 12 years later in a world blighted by COVID-19, there’s been a proliferation in behavioural science…
Where is behavioural science now?
There has been a steady increase in the number of behavioural science teams and roles within the public sector who can apply rigorous scientific approaches to real world settings. This development reflects the recognition that behavioural sciences provide the opportunity to improve outcomes in the many areas of the public sector that are seeking to influence and change behaviour. Organisations with behavioural science teams include the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, the UK Health Security Agency, the NHS, the Department for Transport and some local authorities such as Hertfordshire County Council.
There is a collective moving away from using ‘good ideas’ and a reliance on assumptions to utilising science based approaches to understanding target audiences, target behaviours and barriers and enablers that interventions need to address in order to enhance the health and wellbeing of population groups.
Here is a selection of highlights that have contributed to the growth of behavioural science during the last 12 years:
- The British Psychological Society’s Division of Health Psychology has worked behind the scenes to try and join up Health Psychology with policy and practice, enabling research to be translated into practice, alongside other social sciences making similar moves.
- The publication of the Behaviour Change Wheel in 2011 has made previously inaccessible theories more accessible, followed by the publication of the taxonomy of behaviour change techniques in 2013.
- More recently in 2019 an updated and practical version of the behaviour change wheel and the taxonomy of behaviour change techniques was published for local authorities in Achieving Behaviour Change: A guide for local government.
- The Behavioural Science and Public Health Network have been bringing together behavioural scientists with the Public Health workforce to develop capacity and capability for behavioural science and developing regional behavioural science hubs.
- An important strategy was published in 2018: Improving people’s health: Applying behavioural and social sciences to improve population health and wellbeing in England which marked a coming together of key national organisations to articulate what the behavioural and social sciences can offer Public Health and the theories and frameworks that can be described under the banner of behavioural science. A key message was the importance of transdisciplinary approaches, and they visualised this with a re-invigorated version of the Dalgren and Whitehead Model (1991) of the social determinants of health.
- The biggest factor has been the pandemic which has further amplified and highlighted the importance of behavioural sciences for changing public behaviour and essentially reducing health inequalities.
Behavioural science at Magpie:
At Magpie we also adopt a transdisciplinary approach to bring our behaviour change campaigns and interventions to fruition whilst championing unheard voices. We bring together a combination of different skills and perspectives that combine to add the value that no single approach would achieve on its own. Working in this way creates more impact, but is also more rewarding and fun! We combine subject matter expertise from our clients and our team with behavioural sciences, community engagement and creativity.
What next for behavioural science?
You could say there is a democratisation of behavioural science; moving away from the mysterious ‘nudge unit’ in central government and the purely academic field to a more accessible and transparent approach.
Behavioural science is now a respected part of many teams, however there is more that could be done to further enhance the contribution of behavioural science across the country, including:
- Sharing learning: Behavioural scientists working in applied settings share their learnings, and specifically their scientific approaches and impacts made. This will enable the continued learning about what does and doesn’t work for different issues within different populations and communities. Conferences like the Behavioural Science and Public Health Network annual conference and the regional behavioural science hub events are great avenues for this.
- Developing behavioural science skills: People working in practice can develop the understanding and skills they need to apply a behavioural science lens to thinking about problems and how to solve them. There are now podcasts and several books to dive into that make the learning more accessible to people in applied settings. For anyone wanting to make a start with a behavioural science podcast, I can recommend the real world behavioural science podcast for the perspectives of real experts in the field and the Behaviour Change Marketing Bootcamp podcast aimed at marketing and communications professionals. Happy listening! (Watch this space for learning opportunities from Magpie later this year…)
- Developing capacity for behavioural science work: For organisations who would like to recruit behavioural scientists to do in depth behavioural science work, my top tip is to use these recently published good practice guidelines for employers who wish to employ appropriately qualified and experienced people.
Written by Dr Grainne Dickerson
(Director of Behavioural Insights and Chair Elect Behavioural Science and Public Health Network)