What works best: involuntary or voluntary change? Like all dichotomies, a little of each is the correct answer.

Even though I’m a ‘behaviour change’ guy and I think ALL change is behavioural, I’ve come to believe that 90% of behaviour is in turn driven by physical, social and technological settings. But communication, participation and marketing are nevertheless integral because a) public participation drives political change; and b) it’s no good having great technologies if no one uses them.

This 2007 statement by 28 concerned social scientists neatly summarises a case against dismissing voluntary behaviour change in favour of an exclusive focus on policy and technology:

In part, they wrote:

“Dismissing the importance of small personal behavior choices in favor of a sole focus on policy change is a big mistake:

• Small behaviors are important not only for the direct environmental impact they have, but because they often lead to more and more pro-environmental behaviors over time.

• Numerous psychological studies have shown that people are more likely to agree to take a big action if they’ve previously agreed to smaller, similar actions.

• People reject scary messages like the danger of global warming if they don’t think there is anything feasible they can do to fix it.

• Restrictive policies engender resentment and actions to restore threatened freedoms, such as ditching the policies themselves or creative disobedience. Witness efforts to dismantle the Endangered Species Act, and the creative efforts to skirt its requirements.

“The history of racial policy and WWII demonstrate the importance of both policy and voluntary actions. Much public debate and many small individual actions transpired to make racial discrimination less and less socially acceptable in the century and a half before LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act. Try telling descendents of those rescued by the underground railroad that it didn’t matter. Even in the more urgent crisis of WWII, in addition to the mandatory policies, mass persuasion campaigns encouraged voluntary actions. Politicians realized they needed public support for the war effort, and for legislation.

“Remember the “We can do it!” poster encouraging women to join the labor force? The victory gardens? Voluntary actions provided direct physical support, strengthened the norm of supporting the war effort, and boosted morale. Both voluntary action and policy changes were crucial to winning the war.”

One reason we have this pathological separation between policy and the social sciences is that policy-bods and communications-bods hardly ever work together. I’ve said it lots of times, I’ll say it again: “scratch a supposedly insoluble real world problem and you’ll find an institutional failure.” Multi-disciplinary teams aren’t just fun, they might just save the world.

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