Influencing Public Behaviour to Improve Health and Wellbeing

Organisation: Department of Health
Date uploaded: 7th July 2010
Date published/launched: February 2010

This independent report commissioned by the Department of Health contains information that may prove useful to road safety professionals when planning interventions.

The report builds on current approaches, using the latest evidence from areas such as behavioural economics and psychology, to suggest ways in which the government could become more effective in this area, to help people to make healthier choices where they wish to do so.

Persuading people to adopt healthier behaviours has become a central theme of modern public health policy. Yet it is rarely easy. Most of us do things that damage our health. And most of us have habits that we would like to change.

The question this report was asked to address was what is known about what works in changing behaviour? To answer the question the report looked at insights coming from the many fields concerned with behaviour – from commercial advertising to the latest academic insights from behavioural psychology.

It was soon clear that this is as much an art or craft as it is a science. There are many promising ideas, and there are some success stories. However the evidence base is thin.

Behaviours can change in fundamental ways – but usually through the interaction of incentives, information, peer pressures and changes to the environment, rather than because of any one set of measures.

Some of the lessons suggest the need to shift direction. For example, we are increasingly learning about the importance of networks in shaping how people behave, and how behaviour can be changed. Who you know shapes how you act. This suggests the potential for much more targeted action rather than mass advertising.

Other lessons are about the tone that communications should adopt. Sometimes very stark messages are unavoidable. But against a backdrop of huge volumes of communication, it’s important to be economical, and often more can be achieved by positive messages, that emphasise personal wellbeing rather than just stoking fears.

For more information contact:
Department of Health

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