Are your objectives really about behaviour change? Or are they really about Knowledge & Attitudes?
Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011
Programs to change behaviour often include information to improve people’s knowledge about an environmental problem or its solutions in the hope that it will motivate them to make a change. But there are decades of research to show that on its own information is very unlikely to lead to a measurable change in behaviour.
Information may change improve people’s knowledge of a problem or contribute to a change in their attitude towards it, but there is a vast gulf between knowing about a problem and doing something about it, as anyone who’s tried to give up smoking or lose weight knows. The only time where information is likely to lead directly to a change in behaviour is when lack of knowledge is the only barrier to change. For example if I’m asked to change my usual driving route to work, then a message informing me of road closures next week will almost certainly see me finding another way to get there.
Despite the fact that simply understanding the problem won’t necessarily lead to behaviour change, trying to improve people’s understanding of a problem like climate change and its impacts has intrinsic value. The more members of our community that understand a problem the greater the momentum to solve it and the more likely that we will support changes, even the hard ones foisted upon us, particularly at those times when we become distracted or complacent. Knowledge or information based programs shouldn’t mourn the fact that the link between understanding and behaviour change may be a distant one. If the aim is to improve knowledge for its own sake, then that should be the clear and unapologetic objective against which the program measures its success.
If you have strong evidence that a knowledge change is likely to lead to a change in behaviour, then ensure that your prograrn objectives and outcome measures include both knowledge and behavioural components. You will need to monitor each of these separately in case outcomes for one are different from the other. For example, as a result of your program people may be much more likely to understand that climate change will have significant impacts on people & nature (knowledge improvement) but show little or no measureable improvement in their household energy use (no behaviour change). Conversely people may use less energy (behavioural improvement) but still have a hazy understanding of the reasons for climate change (no knowledge change). You can explore these differences to modify your program and get the results you are looking for.
Typically though, changes in knowledge alone are not likely to generate measurable changes in behaviour. If this is likely to be the case for your program, make sure your objectives and outcome measures clearly articulate the specific pieces of knowledge you want people to acquire, rather than changes in behaviour.
EXAMPLES OF KNOWLEDGE BASED OBJECTIVES
The program will result in improved understanding of:
Causes of water shortage – drought, population growth, climate change
Where most water is used in the home
3 ways to save the most water
The program will result in a decrease in community household water use
The program will result in improved understanding that:
Climate change is caused by CO2 released from burning coal, oil & natural gas
Climate change is not the same as changes in the weather
Climate change will have significant impacts on people & nature
The program will result in a decrease in community energy use
Of course a knowledge based program might well be a direct precursor to other more behaviourally focused initiatives. For example, education to promote the community’s understanding of why we need to save water, coordinated carefully with projects focused on single behaviours like fixing household water leaks or installing low flow shower heads, can work together to boost the likelihood of positive behavioural change.
As well as trying to improve knowledge about a problem, many programs include ways of changing people’s attitudes, also in the hope that change will naturally follow. When doing simple actions like buying a brand of fast food or shopping at a particular shopping outlet, your instant feeling of like or dislike may actually be a crucial factor in your buying behaviour rather than simply whether the product best meets your needs. Similarly, we are all familiar with political party ads during election time designed to engender feelings that will create like or dislike of a candidate or party rather than focusing on the merits of a particular policy issue.
When the behaviour is more complex though, like changing your driving behaviour to cut emissions or reducing your shower time to save water, there are many more influences on behaviour than whether the idea simply appeals to you or not and how you feel or think about it. Similar to knowledge based programs, programs based on attitude change may not lead directly to the behavioural change you were looking for.
If there is compelling evidence that a change in attitude is highly likely to lead to a change in behaviour, then ensure that your program objectives and outcome measures include both attitudinal and behavioural components. You need to create objectives and outcome measures for both the attitude and the behaviour as you will want to monitor each of these separately in case outcomes for one are different from the other.
For example, as a result of your program people may be much more likely to agree that it is important not to litter (attitude improvement) but show little or no improvement in their actual behaviour (no behaviour change). Conversely people may now be far more likely to put their rubbish in the bin (behavioural improvement) but less likely to agree that littering is a problem (no attitude change). You will want to try and find the reasons for these differences to modify your program to get the results you want.
EXAMPLES OF ATTITUDES BASED OBJECTIVES
As a result of the program, public place users will be more likely to show an improvement in positive attitudes toward:
The need for everyone to do their bit and keep public places clean
The need for the area to be environmentally friendly
Feeling a sense of pride and ownership about the area
The program will result in a decrease in littering behaviour (UNLESS there is compelling evidence to suggest this is likely to happen)
As a result of the program, people will be more likely to show an improvement in positive attitudes toward:
The need for households to reduce their energy use
The importance of their own household’s efforts in reducing energy use
The importance of turning off appliances at the wall when not in use
The program will result in a decrease in community energy use (UNLESS there is compelling evidence to suggest this is likely to happen)
Like programs designed to improve knowledge about an issue, programs designed to change attitudes have their own intrinsic value whether or not they lead directly to a change in behaviour. When enough people shift their attitudes towards something it creates a powerful social norm about what the expected behaviour in the community is, or at the very least, what the community’s espoused views are, even if some members privately do not agree.
For instance as droughts in Australia have continued, attempts to shift community attitudes about water saving have created a strong social expectation that saving water is the responsible thing to do. While there is huge variation in what different sections of the community are prepared to do to save water, even the small minority who think they have a right to use as much water as they like are less likely to voice their opinion in the face of such a strong social sanction against water waste.
As well as trying to change attitudes and behaviour, your program might also be trying to change a particular belief, community expectation or impart a specific skill. For example, helping people to become fire ready may involve establishing a belief that this will minimise risk to their family’s wellbeing, or a community norm that being fire ready is the responsible thing to do, or developing the skills to create a fire plan or do activities to prepare for the fire season. Whatever the objectives of your program may be, they need to be firmly anchored to a change in behaviour. There’s no reason to help people develop a fire plan if you can’t get them to implement it.