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How can we change public behaviour? It starts with research

08 May 2024

Public choice is essential to net zero – but it’s difficult to influence. George Smyth describes how research can help policymakers.

How can we change public behaviour? It starts with research
Before you can encourage people go make greener choices, for example using electric vehicles, you need to find out what motivates them. Image credit: Shutterstock

Most carbon emission reductions must involve some form of personal choice.

But measuring and influencing how the public behaves is a significant challenge for policymakers.

To support the ICE’s recent policy paper on the changes the public needs to make for net zero, Thinks, an insight and strategy consultancy, explored how research can identify opportunities for policy interventions among the UK public.

Successful interventions can include financial incentives, advice, and information campaigns (such as the five-year digital switchover campaign or the government’s Covid-19 vaccination programme campaign).

Why is public behaviour important?

The UK’s progress towards its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is slowing.

Two-thirds of the carbon emissions that cause global warming come from economic infrastructure – services such as transport, energy, and heating.

While government investment and direction are important, the way the public uses this infrastructure is critical.

How can research help?

Public opinion research can assess readiness to change and identify opportunities for policy intervention.

This can be difficult, however.

Social desirability bias can affect how the public answers questions – for example, research participants may say they are likelier to change their behaviour than they really are.

Even when participants do intend to change, assessing likelihood and timescale can also be hard, especially when considering evolving policy and the cost-of-living crisis.

To account for this, Thinks used a behavioural change model and a mixed methodology approach.

The mixed methodology approach

First, we conducted four public focus groups.

These helped us accurately understand our different target audiences, especially those who had already made a lifestyle change to cut carbon emissions or were about to.

We wanted to identify ‘trigger moments’ – points when consideration turns into action.

Then, using the insight from the focus groups, we designed a survey to measure attitudes to change.

The survey tested four specific behaviour changes:

  • Improving home insulation
  • Getting a heat pump
  • Replacing at least some car journeys with public transport
  • Getting an electric vehicle

The behavioural change model

The behavioural change model we selected was the Theory of Planned Behaviour (TPB).

A psychological model for understanding and predicting human behaviour, TPB suggests that a person’s intent to adopt a behaviour depends on three factors:

  1. Behavioural attitudes and beliefs. What do I think will happen if I adopt this behaviour? How likely is a good outcome versus a bad one?

    For this project, we asked respondents how effective they thought each change would be and whether they would have a positive or negative effect on their lives.

  2. Subjective norms. What do others think about this behaviour? Do others expect me to adopt it? How much do I care about their opinions? 

    Norms involve perceptions of social pressure or influence from significant others, such as family, friends, or peers.

    Here, we asked whether each change would appeal to friends and family and the number of people respondents knew who had made each change.

  3. Perceived behavioural control. Can I realistically do this? What will make it easier or harder?

    We asked respondents how feasible each change was for them to make in the next 12 months.

    Behavioural models don’t often measure feasibility.

    TPB’s suitability here reflects the nature of the changes – they aren’t made on a whim, but rather are often months or years in the making.

By assessing these factors, we can make informed predictions about whether individuals are likely to engage in a particular behaviour.

We can also identify blockers to change. For example, some people want to adopt behaviours but currently consider doing so unfeasible.

Others consider changes feasible but unappealing to their peers or unlikely to benefit their lives.

What did the results show?

Results from our research identified home insulation and public transport as the changes the UK public is most likely to make.

Home insulation sits apart from the others, as it was the only one that respondents felt would have a positive impact on their lives as well as the environment.

But the major sticking point for all four is that most people don’t feel they can make any of the changes tested.

Testing changes within a behavioural change framework: improving home insulation and using more public transport perform best. Image credit: Thinks
Testing changes within a behavioural change framework: improving home insulation and using more public transport perform best. Image credit: Thinks

This model allowed us to recommend specific interventions that relate to the relevant area of behaviour change.

For example, public engagement on home insulation should simplify and de-mystify the process. It should focus less on promoting the benefits of insulation, as many people already accept these.

Using research to identify the challenges and the policy opportunities. Image credit: Thinks
Using research to identify the challenges and the policy opportunities. Image credit: Thinks

This research worked at a small scale to demonstrate the usefulness of this approach. Increasing its scope and audience size could unlock more important policy interventions.

For example, a longitudinal (long-term) approach could track people we’ve identified as ready and willing to change over time and assess trigger points for action.

Identifying these moments could inform policy interventions that encourage behaviour change on an even greater scale.

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  • George Smyth, research lead at Thinks Insight