From exercise habits to recycling more: how psychologists are helping us make positive changes

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Bertlmann/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bertlmann/Getty Images

From encouraging vaccine uptake to supporting people to walk or cycle to work, health psychologist Prof Maddy Arden’s research has shown that understanding why we do certain things, or don’t do them, could be crucial in driving positive change within our society.

“Behaviour is relevant to so many different challenges that we face, but it’s often underestimated,” says Arden, director of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology. “Whether we’re trying to promote organisational or societal change, it’s about how we support people to do things differently.” Arden’s research has seen her work with local authorities and NHS trusts to encourage behaviour change.

Working alongside her is health psychologist Dr Jenny Porritt, a senior lecturer on the MSc in health psychology at Sheffield Hallam. She studies how best to promote behaviours such as attending cancer screening, taking exercise or eating healthy diets. “We’re studying the complexities of human behaviour in order to find ways to encourage, enable and support people to engage with positive changes,” she says.

Porritt teaches a range of frameworks that can be applied to different behaviours, including what’s known as the COM-B model (representing the capability, opportunity and motivation required for any behaviour). Increasingly used by local governments, councils, public health departments and universities, Porritt describes it as “a simplistic, holistic and accessible way of understanding what the facilitators and barriers might be for people engaging in a particular behaviour”.

“This approach stops us from jumping the gun and developing interventions before really understanding the complexities,” says Porritt, who brings real-world problems into her workshops. In the case of active travel, for example, the goal is to encourage more people to choose walking or cycling rather than the car or public transport, so they can get fit and reduce carbon emissions. “Capability” includes the knowledge and physical skills required to carry out a behaviour, such as memory, attention or ability to ride a bike. “Opportunity” represents access to the necessary resources, such as availability of cycle lanes. “Motivation” considers the personal beliefs and emotional aspects of engaging with that behaviour.

Applied research is at the heart of all teaching at Sheffield Hallam University, and the COM-B model is one that nurse Danielle Hannan is learning to apply in her assignments as a part-time health psychology master’s student. For her, these frameworks provide structure: “Having this insight supports you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and helps you try to understand what that person is going through and why they may be exhibiting certain behaviours or making certain decisions,” says Hannan, who likes the face-to-face nature of this master’s. “At Sheffield Hallam, I enjoy attending lectures with some fantastic tutors who are really engaging.” She also feels this course has made her more empathic and taught her the art of critical reflection.

This approach can be applied to other environmental behaviours, such as recycling, retrofitting homes or creating green spaces, says Arden, who flags up that the COM-B framework might reveal hidden conflicts. Heat pumps, for example, might be good for the environment and reduce energy bills but be considered an eyesore in someone’s garden.

In the case of active travel, infrastructure often becomes the primary focus, but that’s not enough, says Arden. “Someone might be influenced by what other people are doing, or their own skills and awareness … if we miss any one of those things, we might miss the crucial piece of the puzzle which means people don’t actually make a change,” she says.

While working with local authorities in the Yorkshire and the Humber region to develop ways to encourage active travel for short journeys, Arden carried out focus groups with car users and discovered huge variety in their motivations and perceptions. Some people wanted to get fit or worried about air pollution, while others were concerned about the time it took to walk the equivalent distance or, perhaps, didn’t own a bike.

Co-designing solutions with the relevant people – including them in the process – can be gamechanging. Although many participants in a trial wanted to engage with active travel, they only actually did so when asked to commit to swapping one specific journey from A to B on a given day from driving to walking or cycling. “Just giving people the knowledge isn’t enough to change behaviour,” says Arden. “That planning was a crucial step.”

Behaviour change and psychology play a vital role in tackling societal challenges and devising solutions that are both impactful and feasible. “We need to embed this behavioural science and psychology into decision-making at an early stage in order to design policies that are much more likely to work,” concludes Arden.

Find out more about the range of psychology courses on offer at Sheffield Hallam University and the impact of the work led by experts in the Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology.