Repairing Our Broken Assumptions About Change-Making

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Much of what we believe about behaviour change is based on myth, fallacies, and some poor science and yet these beliefs flourish. It’s time to apply some change-making to itself.

It is fair to say that much of the foundation of my profession is bent out of shape.

Behavioural psychology is a mess. It’s not to say that it’s broken entirely, but suffice to say, there are many ‘truths’ about the science of behaviour that have been tested, stretched, and exploded in recent months that have shaken psychology to the core. And like many inconvenient truths, these revelations and myth-busting revelations will have little impact. That’s my rather cynical take on a lifetime working in behavioural science and psychology.

However, should I be wrong (and I hope that I am), there are some areas where my profession can focus its work to improve things.

If people are to have any trust in what academics, therapists, or consultants have to say, we need to repair this mess and take a good, long look in the mirror to examine the truths we’ve clung to for longer than useful.

Today, I point to four uncomfortable truths that are starting to be challenged.

Cognitive-Rational Behaviour Change

Most models of behaviour change that are in use today are either grounded in or draw heavily upon cognitive-rational models of behaviour change. These models are predicated on the rational actor and a largely information-driven approach to change. In short, people are exposed to new information; it changes the way we think, and we reason that what exists needs to change and take appropriate action. In the middle of this, we might learn new skills, seek affirmation from others, and come to the logical conclusion.

This model of the world underpins most theories that are described in textbooks on behaviour change. It’s witnessed in most public health campaigns around vaccinations, smoking prevention, and exercise programs (to name a few). While emotions are factored in, the core focus is on how we think. The premise is that we change our thoughts, and we change our actions. It’s predicated on the idea that we can attend, discern, process and then choose our actions.

While all true to some extent, the limits of this model are apparent when you look at the information landscape, the distraction economy, and the active campaigns of misinformation on all kinds of things, from marketing to politics to health.

Ask yourself if you see evidence-informed decision-making or decision-based evidence-making in your work and life? That is where many of these assumptions get tested.

The Independent Actor

Another myth tied to this is that we are operating independently and rationally. This underpins the neoliberal approach to markets and market-based thinking: we can rationally and independently choose to do what we need to serve our best interests and act on it.

This is where an understanding of complexity comes in and why so many people get it wrong. Complexity reveals that our behaviour is interconnected and influenced by the systems we are a part of. The nature and expression of those connections and influences are interdependent and dynamic. This means that we’re always having influence and being influenced simultaneously and that we can’t fully know to what extent.

Interconnectedness means we are a part of something. We are nature, for example. Our environment is ours, and we are a part of it, not apart from it. These are simple but powerful ways to reframe our language to reflect reality: we are interdependent actors.

The Myths of Community

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Just as independence is problematic, so is an over-reliance on the power of community. To be clear, community is a specific concept. It’s something that we invented and is based on situation, geography, and circumstance centered around identity. Thus, the idea of what makes a community and what influence it has on us is also dynamic. It means that there isn’t a single version of community and that whatever someone believes is a community is highly negotiated.

Negotiation requires an ability to hear, be heard and understood, and a pathway to an agreement (whether achieved or not). Are we set up to have these conversations? When people claim to have communities formed around brands, political beliefs, culture markers, and more, it stretches our capacity to engage in those communities. These are real, and while we can argue their importance, they all generate interest and capture our attention through engagement. But that attention is also divided because of this.

These will be fluid for some and static for others. What is clear is that these communities of various sorts are changing and that the centrality of community to our beliefs around behaviour is still problematic. We can’t simply say ‘community’ and have people understand what that means, and without a clear sense of what it means to ourselves, we risk using language and ideas that aren’t fit for purpose.

Like the other points, the community does matter to behaviour change, but its influence is different from what we’ve been led to believe. We can’t rely on some abstract term about community anymore; we need to be specific.

Control Illusions

Our last point ties up with the others, which is about control. Management theories are rife with arguments on how great leaders who bring the right motivators and strategy can make things happen. Our thinking is that we can overcome situations and complexity to shape the future as we want. It’s just having the right tools at our disposal.

We are seeing this with the return to work discussions around post-COVID working arrangements. Managers want to control things and staff and customers are having other ideas.

We have limited control. Our customers also have limited control, as do our staff and partners. The big message here is that: we aren’t in control – at least not as much as we think. Directed behaviour change in its traditional sense involves us projecting and using control to spur action. It’s when we start to imagine how we can influence things instead of controlling them that we can escape the illusion that we’re in charge.

No one is.

A Non-Linear, Complex View of Change

I’d love to say I had the answer for what we do about all of this; I don’t.

I do know that linear models of change don’t work. These ideas didn’t work well before; we just tolerated the poor science because it’s all we had. Until complexity science came around, we didn’t have the means to explain how things might be different. Now that we have it, some are seeking to use it the same way we used traditional models, which is a mistake. You can’t apply complexity theories out of the box and expect some kind of predictive model of behaviour.

As Margaret Wheatley writes about her invitation to warriorship: we have to see things as they are, not as we’ve wanted to see them.

She illustrates how the concept of emergence is frequently misunderstood; if something emerges and transforms from another thing, it’s transformed. We can’t keep going back to treating what was there before as the same thing. Yet, we do this with behaviour change. We forget that people develop, organizations develop, and systems develop, too. Calling something complex and treating it as complex are different things.

If we are developing developmental mindsets can help us. Our designs must get us beyond logic models to dynamic plans that grow as we do. It’s designing for humans and designing for the living, not for some static ideas of behaviour change that died a long time ago.

If you’re seeking some ways to incorporate complexity thinking, design, and behavioural science (the human kind), let’s grab a coffee and talk about how I can help you.

Credits: Cover photo by Dana Vollenweider on Unsplash. Change photo by Ross Findon on Unsplash

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Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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