3 April 2014

Screw the Attitudes! Go (directly) for Behavior

Too many behavioral change related endeavors focus excessively on goals such as “raising awareness”, “changing (improving) attitudes” and, of course, “informing the public”… yes, I have in mind non-profit endeavors, but this situation (shortcoming) concerns not only such projects.

The reality is that almost all such endeavors are destined to fail at achieving actual behavior change. So, why is there so much emphasis on attitudes? Here are some possible answers:

The people behind these endeavors still hold the erroneous belief that behavior is driven by attitudes, thus changing attitudes will lead to a change in behavior. Even if, most of the time, this is wrong, I think that it is an honest mistake. If one (still) believes that human behavior is the result of one’s personality combined with deliberate thinking, it is only natural to think that attitudes precede behavior. Now, if you read this blog, you know that human behavior is influenced by a huge array of factors and that much of what we do is not necessarily the result of deliberate thinking.

When it comes to attitudes, the reality is almost the other way around than the general (naïve) belief.

The naïve belief is that when attitudes change, behavior, too, changes.

Reality is that when behavior changes, attitudes, subsequently change.

The psychological process behind this is a mix of self-identification theory and confirmation bias. (Note that I didn’t mention the outdated cognitive dissonance). For example, let’s just assume that as a result of randomness, Samantha ends up making a donation for a (random) charity. After the fact (behavior) she will try to make sense of her actions. In this process, Samantha will find all sorts of reasons for why her action is not only justifiable, but even a very good (wise) one. She will think better of the cause the charity is promoting. Moreover, Samantha will see herself as a “good person who supports worthy causes”.

Another not so innocent answer, is that attitudes are relatively easy to measure (who doesn’t know of the famous 7-point Likert-scale…). In contrast, behavior change is a lot more difficult to measure, assess and, quite often, takes a lot of time.

The least innocent answer is that some NGOs and even governments simply have some money to spend (waste) and they do anything that can be done within the budget. In order to show that they have done something useful (or at least pretend), these organizations show up with some data on how attitudes have changed…

The essence is: if the issue one wants to tackle is behavioral, then focus on behavior! The attitude change will follow the change in behavior.  

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