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How change happens- latest thoughts from behavioural science

October 21st, 2019

Heather Johnston

purple dot_behavioural change and transitions

Cass Sunstein brought the concept of a nudge to the world and is a key thought leader in behavioural economics which is ‘a method of economic analysis that applies psychological insights into human behaviour to explain economic decision-making’. Working in the area of change i am fascinated between the crossover of economics (my first degree) into applied psychology (my profession) and vice versa to inform behavioural change. 

I’ve been doing a deep dive into some of the recent presentations from the 2019 behavioural exchange conference hosted by the Behavioural Insights Team who are a leader in applying behavioural insights for the benefit of people and communities…I found the presentation by Cass Sunstein thought provoking and made me reflect around how we go about organisational development, change and business transformation. 

While it is often the case that we work in and with groups to create change momentum, it is useful to reflect on the 4 points that Cass raises such as whether these interventions could lead to polarisation of extremes, what social image people are choosing to project so as to align with a preferred (cultural?) social image, whether bringing people together is enough to catalyse change at all or whether it will falter anyway and what each individual’s thresholds are to motivate action outside of the cultural norm which then can create others to follow. Who are the courageous?

The latter point for me makes me think about individual differences and whether this trait of being courageous and taking a stand is something that is context specific for the individual or can be seen to be more generalisable. Either way his talk really highlights the fact that we may never really truly know what is ‘real’ for the individuals and it may well be that the individuals don’t know either as behaviour is an intertwined mesh between individual preferences, context, social norms and wider cultural movements. It makes, therefore implementing organisational change initiatives and individual change initiatives both complex and rewarding as one size does not definitely fit all!

The implications for me in implementing change and capturing data and analytics are about the importance of allowing opportunities for people to express what they want to say in private, outside of the pressures to save face or project the ‘right’ image and to those that have less to gain – the advantage of using external consultants and coaches. Although again no one is ever really out of the ‘system’ and people will still want to project an image in these relationships too. However, with a solid foundation of trust, self awareness, reflection and supervision by the consultant, change leader or coach this can be worked with.

If you are interested in this topic and how our wider social context influences our behaviours (and how this might not always be to our advantage) I would also recommend looking at the work of Robert Cialdini and Paul Dolan as well as the extensive body of knowledge of social psychology.

It is also worthwhile reflecting on the fact that wider nudges and initiatives may well be affected by our own personal individual differences and it is good to see that this is beginning to be recognised in behavioural science initiatives

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