Paul Lincoln, chair of the behaviour change network talks about progress to date

Paul LincolnThe Behaviour Change network is one of the five networks, along with alcohol, food, health at work and physical activity established as part of the Responsibility Deal.

But while these other networks develop specific pledges, the Behaviour Change network’s  purpose is to be an expert resource – providing evidence of what works, stimulating innovation and formulating experimental trials on behaviour change – with a view to improving public health.

As said before, we are different from the other networks, but work closely with them, organising workshops to stimulate practical and innovative ideas for experimentation and, where possible, proper research trials.

Behaviour change is the central idea underpinning a new approach to Government policy which has found traction in the US and UK around what is called ‘nudge theory’. This is about finding new ways to positively change behaviour at low or no cost to the taxpayer. There has been an explosion of interest around behavioural science and behavioural economics. Indeed the Government set up a Behavioural Insights Unit in the Cabinet Office to develop this thinking and encourage experimentation across Government departments.

Social psychologists now know that much of our behaviour is automatic or unconscious and it is important for those wanting to improve the public’s health to understand the drivers that influence our health and related behaviours.   When so much of our behaviour is shaped by the choice architecture (the shopping environment, out of home food establishments, access to outdoor spaces/activity & sports venues etc) and unconscious environmental cues (eg. most obviously marketing and advertising), it raises important questions about the degree to which we make free and informed choices.

Retailers and producers are experts in nudging purchasing behaviour, and increasing consumption using promotions, in store placement of products, branding, price and marketing. Part of the public health agenda is to reduce the impact of nudges that tend towards unhealthy patterns of consumption. This is a new and under-developed area for public health work and one that raises significant challenges for the retail sector, which strives to increase sales. The key to progress will be to find potentially high impact interventions which will shape the retail environment and its supply chain to encourage and support healthier choices and behaviour, which are likely to be adopted voluntarily by industry.

The strategic approach of the Behaviour Change Network is to start with the evidence base and support the NICE review of behaviour change guidance last reviewed in 2007. New guidance will be published in late 2013, which will update the evidence base and be useful to all sectors. I am currently chairing the NICE behaviour change program development group – set up to systematically review the evidence base and produce guidance. In particular, the review will look at physical activity, food and alcohol behaviours in terms of individual behaviour and the impact of choice architecture.

We are also seeking to add to the evidence base by encouraging the major research funders to invest in intervention studies and develop natural experiments as part of the work of the Responsibility Deal and beyond. In particular, we are interested in ideas and experiments around food and alcohol that can be developed in retail settings. If you have suggestions for novel experiments, please let us know. We are also keen to engage academic interest in this area of research as any such investigations should be researcher-led and should adhere to established research protocols. The Cabinet Office has adopted a similar evidence-based trials approach to inform the scaling up of proven interventions.

This work is just beginning and I will keep you updated.

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