Most science communication projects broadly have ‘behaviour change’ as an ideal goal.

Like achieving most goals, there isn’t one set way or formula to get there – but Communicating for behaviour change can be more elusive than others.

No matter what area of science or communication you’re in, you’ll likely work on documents or activities that aim to persuade, to change.

So what advice can we offer you? Read on…

As usual, we welcome your feedback about this (or any) topic.

Regards from the @EconnectTeam:
Jenni MetcalfeSarah ColeJane Ilsley, Toss GascoigneClaire Heath and guest contributor Dr Angela Dean



Encouraging change: meet people where they are

By Jenni Metcalfe
The most rewarding part of my job as a science communicator is when I see someone’s behaviour change as a result, at least in part, of how we have communicated.This is true whether it’s a:

  • scientist gaining skills through our communication skills workshops
  • farmer choosing to do something differently on their property
  • fisher who now has better access to information (perhaps through a website) to make decisions about their fishing practices.

7 principles jumped out at me in pondering recently what sort of science communication encourages behaviour change:

  • Understand the people whose behaviour you want to change – find out why they act the way they currently do, and what stops or encourages them from using recommended new behaviours.
  • Value their knowledge along with scientific knowledge – people are more likely to listen to scientific ideas if you listen to and value their knowledge.
  • Build relationships of trust – people are more likely to listen to you if they trust you, but trust only happens when you take time to build real relationships.
  • Use trusted influencers – for example, if you want to change farmers’ behaviours most farmers trust other farmers and their local advisers (government extension advisers, agribusiness agents, consultants).
  • Engage people with stories that use their language – well-told stories can create change.
  • Provide access and support for behaviour change – make it simple for people to act differently.
  • Be visual, concrete and direct about the actions you want people to take – don’t mire ideas for action in technical and bureaucratic jargon.

Discussion over a coffee beanImage: © Nana Kofi Acquah /Nestlé



Awareness is just one requirement for change

By Dr Angela Dean, Research Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland
When communicating for behaviour change, the rules of ‘good communication’ still apply.Sometimes we all fall into the trap of wishing people were more aware of an issue, in the hope that behaviour change might follow.

But awareness is only one element of what influences behaviours; factors such as emotions, status, difficulties, habits, and the context also influence behaviours.

Because of these issues, there are extra things we need to consider when communicating for behaviour change—using social norms and being specific:

  1. Social norms are our perceptions of what others do, and they have a strong influence on behaviours. Watching people queuing for coffee with their own cups sends a signal that influences the behaviour of others. The challenge is how to communicate a problem without activating a ‘negative’ norm. For example, showing images of extensive litter can inadvertently send the message that most people litter, which can counteract any written message asking people to litter less. It’s better to highlight the positive behaviour of others to promote change, using statements such as “Join 80% of residents in your area reducing their plastic use”.
  2. Identify a specific goal for change. Often we encourage people to ‘care for the environment’ or ‘act on climate change’. However, these may be too vague to be meaningful for most people. Behaviour-change campaigns are most effective when a specific behaviour is promoted, such as ‘make sure your showers are no longer than 4 minutes’.

Timer for showering - 5 minutes is good

Image: Balázs Suhajda shower timer


Patience and time in behaviour change

By Toss Gascoigne

‘New opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common.’ (John Locke)

If you want people to change their approach or behaviour, give them time. Recognise the pressures working against you.

It takes time for people to listen to an idea, roll it round in their heads, and then absorb its implications. Bear in mind that most people are conformists at heart. They want practical answers, they want to maintain and build social relationships, and they want to believe in themselves.

They enjoy the security of the herd, and don’t want to stand out.

So what affects the way your message may be received by people? It is likely to fail if the messenger is not liked or trusted. It won’t work if people do not see themselves winning social approval for making the change you suggest, and it won’t work if your message clashes with established patterns of behaviour.

‘To change society’s opinion, we must bring options that don’t go against what the ‘tribe’ want. Options that run in parallel to pre-existing ideas, that people can take on without standing out, are most likely to cause changes in society’s behaviours.’ (Communication Strategies for Change, post by students of the Science Communication program at the University of Western Australia)

Woman at train station waiting for someone

Image: C Lars Elmo Waiting for someone #2


Advocating changes without making any?

By Claire Heath

I often take more notice of people who advocate change if they have also made the change that they propose is good for others.

No matter how articulate someone is communicating the need to change, if their words don’t translate into their own behaviour, they soon lose credibility in my eyes.

Part of the difficulty of changing behaviour involves unlearning established habits and learning new ones—and usually disheartening stumbles along the way.

Two psychologists have described 5 stages in the complex process of changing behaviour. Some changes may take a lifetime to achieve; some may happen quite quickly. Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts!

Every time we want to change the way we do something, we have to start at the beginning and move through each stage in sequence:

  • pre-contemplation, when we’re happy with our behaviour or haven’t thought seriously about changing it
  • contemplation, when we change an idea into a concrete belief—for example, move from understanding the need for a good night’s sleep to believing ‘To sleep better, I need to stop watching horror movies just before I go to bed’
  • determination, when we prepare ourselves to change our behaviour
  • action, when we start the change
  • maintenance, continuing the change, so that it becomes an entrenched part of our daily lives.

butterfly - monarch hatching from chrysalis

Image: Chad Norman Monarch hatching from Chrysalis