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Understanding human behaviour: a more complex approach

Large-scale surveys are useful but if we are serious about changing behaviours, we must use every tool to understand human complexity.

Recent advances in behavioural economics, cognitive neuroscience, network theory and social psychology more generally have overturned our common sense understanding of human behaviour. The rational, autonomous, self-aware agent acting in his own self-interest according to static preferences has faded as we realise that behaviour is largely irrational, unconscious and driven by external contexts. Ladies and gentleman, Homo economicus has left the building.

Theory-in-theory vs theory-in-practice

Despite the volume and accessibility of this new theoretical knowledge, behaviour change practice has been struggling to keep pace. The debate has fixated on behavioural economics (rather than the wider evolving behavioural science landscape) and a handful of flagship examples as proof of concept: the towels in the hotel rooms, the organ donation opt outs, the perverse incentives for parents who pick their kids up late etc.

As a result, we have seen a plethora of conferences, white papers and “units” emerge as both public and private sector organisations scramble to work out how this new knowledge can be ethically and effectively applied.

This rush to work out how our new understanding should be used to influence behaviour is understandable, but the furore is masking the more fundamental implications it has for how we understand human behaviour. That is, how we generate the reliable, actionable insights that are the cornerstone of any effective behaviour change intervention.

Our obsession with surveys

The primary indication that we are failing to address this question in the sustainability space is the persistent obsession with large-scale quantitative surveys as the source insight into sustainable lifestyles. We are bombarded on a daily basis with sweeping extrapolations about the abstract “consumer”: their attitudes towards climate change, their expectations of brands and businesses and their purchasing intentions.

One of the key takeaways from the new science is how woefully ill-equipped people are when it comes to reliably reporting our attitudes, values and behaviours. The ease with which we deceive ourselves and others to protect external perceptions and internal consistency is well documented in recent books by (among others) Daniel Kahneman, David Eagleman and Robert Trivers.

In light of the above, we must question why the majority of consumer research is still built on basic self-reporting methodologies, such as surveys? Bite-sized headlines drawn from sweeping surveys are great for column inches, white papers and conference plenaries, but are they advancing our understanding of consumer behaviour in the context of sustainability?

A shift towards ethnography and co-creation

If we are to deliver on our ambitions to empower new consumer behaviours, it is essential that we listen to the science and go beyond the limitations of traditional self-reporting research methodologies as a source of insight. As I have worked to incorporate these new perspectives into my own work over recent years, the emphasis has shifted towards bespoke approaches based on ethnographic and co-creation principles.

Ethnographic approaches allow us to observe consumer behaviour as it happens in its natural social and cultural context, rather than retrospectively discussing it in a contrived research setting. This emphasis on observation of natural behaviour-in-context affords insight into behavioural influences without the distorting influence of memory and psychological defense mechanisms.

Insight approaches based on co-creation principles empower consumers to understand and articulate their values and needs in ways that don’t rely on conceptual thought and linguistic communication. By engaging collaborative “teams” of consumers in creative problem-solving processes, you allow participants to “think with their hands” and unlock insight often left untouched by traditional methodologies. Not only do the outputs of these processes contain rich and specific insights, but they also provide early prototypes for behaviour change solutions in themselves.

There are some interesting examples of brands that are starting to adopt these approaches, but the outputs are as yet unclear. Coca Cola recently launched its Recycle for the Future project – an ethnographic study of consumer recycling behaviour in France and England over a 6-month period in collaboration with Exeter University. Given that the sample size is 10 families in each country, the researchers will need to be cautious in how they report and extrapolate their findings.

Similarly, Unilever is engaging with 12 families over the course of a year as part of its Sustain Ability challenge to understand the lifestyles that surround use of its products. It has also been involved in focused research to understand the cultural norms surrounding laundry among women in emerging economies.

Localised, targeted insight

Through all this there is an overarching need to become much more localised and specific in our behaviour change efforts. The rich diversity of personal, social and structural factors determining the behaviours of different demographic and psychographic segments is the foundation for targeted, localised, effective behaviour change interventions in other sectors.

However, this level of granularity is rarely reached within a sustainable brands community focused on broad-brush insight and mass-market approaches. For those brands and businesses willing to grasp this nettle properly, there is a real opportunity for shared value creation and differentiation.

In following this argument, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The point is to select the tool most appropriate to the task at hand, not to rule out surveys (or any other methodology) on principle. Quantitative surveys will always have a large and important role as a research tool, especially when it comes to defining an issue, segmenting communities and establishing baselines for evaluation.

However, relying on quant surveys to understand the complexity of human behaviour is like relying on the dipstick to understand the complexity of the internal combustion engine. If we are to rise effectively to our behaviour change challenges, we must get our hands dirty amid the messy, complexity that is human behaviour. And we must use every tool at our disposal to understand this complexity and design responses to it.


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