Behaviour Change. Expecting the unexpected.

This content was written by Mat Crompton, The Strategy Director at Icon Agency

Changing human behaviour is crucial to meeting the challenges facing society today. The climate emergency, ongoing and re-emerging pandemics and epidemics, the rise in addictive behaviours (something close to my heart) and political polarisation are just a few of the broad and complex issues we face. It is therefore no surprise that the term ‘Behaviour Change’ is now ubiquitous both in government and social change circles. 

Many brilliant practitioners operate in this space – BehaviourWorks and Behavioural Insights Team to name just two – and there are now very advanced models for analysing why we behave the way we do and developing interventions. However, when it comes to Behaviour Change Communications, far more work needs to be done in anticipating and mitigating potential unintended consequences. With such nuanced and personal topics, what is a helpful message for one person might have a negative effect on another – or even exacerbate the very issue they are trying to address. 

Around twenty years ago a government broadcast campaign led with the line ‘Think about what you’re really gambling with’. It was meant to encourage individuals with severe gambling issues to seek help by highlighting the fact that, by gambling to excess, they ‘risk losing the love and support of family and friends and, in the end, your own sense of self-worth – that is an actual line from their case study. This language, and the campaign it underpinned, has always stuck with me as an example of good intentions that led to unintended consequences.

Many of the social issues we deal with at Icon have a clinical or therapeutic overlay to them, and as such, we are putting more and more emphasis on incorporating psychotherapeutic and counselling techniques into our thinking. CBT, NLP, Motivational Interviewing and some Positive Psychology practices can complement Behaviour Change models very well. But doing so is a healthy reminder of the importance of context in any communication – where, and from whom, a message is being received. 

These psychotherapeutic disciplines are often practised in trusted, personal and principally one-on-one interactions. In that environment, the line of engagement with a problem gambler about what they are ‘really gambling with’ could prove very beneficial. However, in a broadcast environment, to millions of homes or on the side of buses, where anyone can see the message, I have little doubt that it would have inadvertently increased stigma and perpetuated the narrative that gambling addiction is somehow the fault of the individual. 

As part of our process, we look to anticipate and help mitigate, these unintended consequences – often this means dismissing ideas that initially feel right. We consider potential triggers, we analyse biases, we assess the broader political and social contextual environments, we talk to subject matter experts, and when it comes to implementation we consider utilising all the hyper-targeted media options that are now available. 

Our workaround Stillbirth was a great example of this: initial ideas were rejected and reworked before they got to the client because of their potential to trigger individuals with lived experience of the issue. Other programs of work around Alcohol and Other Drugs or Countering Violent Extremism are testament to this approach too. 

In today’s increasingly polarised, post-truth world, every action seems to have a disproportionate reaction and so it is simply not good enough to just plan for the change you want: you need to consider the very real possibility that your ideas may lead to a negative outcome that you had not initially anticipated. 

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