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Can dialogue change behaviour?

Last month, the House of Lords issued a report challenging the idea that the ‘nudge’ theory should take centre stage in Government initiatives to change people’s behaviour. Nudge is the idea that small changes, such as a traffic light system on food packaging, can encourage people to make decisions that will benefit their health or their environment. The report suggested that this is not enough to change lifestyles and that legislation is also needed.

While the conversation revolves around whether to nudge or shove people in the right direction, there is less discussion on the role of a more participatory, dialogue-based approach to behaviour change – often referred to as ‘Think’.  For example, Sciencewise-ERC’s Low Carbon Community Challenge is working with communities that are seeking to cut carbon emissions. By offering support and funds, initiatives such as these enable individuals to take joint ownership of the problem, which could have a much longer-term impact on behaviour more widely. For example, an evaluation of a similar project found that a multiplier effect had occurred (i.e. there was a significant impact on attitudes towards installing energy efficiency measures from those people living in the area, but who had not been directly involved in the project). One briefing on the role of dialogue in behaviour change more widely suggested that “‘Think’ is effective at building support and legitimacy for the big, transformational changes that we need in society... 'Think’ can be particularly powerful in building people’s ability and motivation to participate in and drive those transformational changes.” Research conducted by Southampton and Manchester universities last year also considered deliberation alongside nudge, though with mixed results using both strategies.

Nevertheless, compared with the work around nudge and shove, relatively little research has been conducted about the role of dialogue and deliberation in the process of behaviour change. While more work should be done in this area, it’s important to be wary of confused motivations for public dialogue. Whereas most dialogues aim to be open to a wide range of opinions and avoid bias towards certain policy options, , can this be true when there is a clear agenda of behaviour change? If society is to benefit from the potential of dialogue and participation in behaviour change, the aims of dialogue must be transparent.

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