Making sure employees switch off the lights before they leave the office, convincing all youngsters to only have safe sex, and making people choose the healthiest products. Organisations and governments regularly feel that they should change the behaviour of a group. “They often approach this rather optimistically,” says Phil Brüll, applied social psychologist. “They reason: we’ve set up a nice programme to inform people, they will realise this is better and then do it. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as that.”
The key to a good campaign is to know the people whose behaviour you want to change. “In the end, it’s not you who makes the change; it’s the individual who makes that decision. You can alter the circumstances to make it easier, you can explain why you would want them to change, but they are the ones who have to do it.” This means that you will have to identify the different variables at an early stage. “What do you want to change? Who constitute the target group? What are the determinants for not behaving in the desired way now? Who are the people around them that might influence them? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you will have to conduct a study. You may find that you have more than one target group and that you need to develop different interventions. Say you want people to wear their seatbelts. When you do your research, you may find that they have different reasons for not putting them on. Some may feel a seatbelt is uncomfortable and are not convinced of its benefits. Others do know it’s important but forget to wear them.” Informing the latter group about the importance of wearing a seatbelt won’t have much effect – they need a different approach from the first group.
Researching these questions takes a lot of time. “And to people who are eager to start designing the interventions, this part may seem boring.” A comfort to them: it pays off later on. “When you have a systematic approach, it’s easy to adjust as you go on. If your campaign doesn’t work the way you want it to, you can look back and see what may be the cause of the problem and adjust accordingly. You have set up a structure. If you don’t have any idea why it’s not working, you’ll have to start all over again.” As a behavioural change specialist, Brüll sometimes finds himself in a position where he has to tell a company or an organization just that. “They’ll ask for my advice when the campaign is almost ready to be launched – thinking it only needs some minor adjustments. Telling them major changes are required is heart-breaking, because people have good intentions and have invested a lot of time and money.”
That doesn’t mean it always goes wrong. “Take Lang leve de liefde – a Dutch sex education campaign aimed at teenagers. They have carefully looked at the target group, used a systematic approach and get really good feedback on their programme.”