Expert’s Take: To change people’s behaviour, connect with them first

Date: Thursday, February 6, 2020

About the author

Dr. Everold Hosein is a UN Women consultant
Photo courtesy of Everold Hosein

Dr. Everold Hosein is a UN Women consultant and the creator of the innovative Communication for Behavioural Impact (COMBI) approach. Dr. Hosein has more than 40 years of experience in strategic marketing communication, advocacy and public relations, and IEC (information-education-communication) related to social development issues. Dr. Hosein recently partnered with UN Women to design behavioural change initiatives for the EU-UN Women regional programme on ending violence against women in the Western Balkans and Turkey, “Implementing Norms, Changing Minds,” funded by the European Union.

The gap between what we know and what we do 

When it comes to advancing gender equality and improving the lives of women and girls, we often hope to create positive changes in people’s behaviour. This might include stopping harmful practices, such as domestic violence, or starting positive practices, like encouraging girls to attend and excel in school. 

But when it comes to achieving behavioural results, one common assumption persists – the assumption that changes in attitudes and beliefs will lead to changes in behaviour. Unfortunately, this often isn’t the case. Decades of awareness-raising initiatives have led to significant increases in people’s knowledge on certain topics, but despite high levels of awareness, people often don’t behave in a way that reflects their knowledge and awareness.

Simply put, there is a critical gap between knowing what to do and doing it. For many of us, this gap is apparent in our daily lives. We know we should exercise, go to bed earlier, and eat more fruits and vegetables, but we often find ourselves doing the opposite. As a result, while educational and awareness-raising campaigns are essential, they’re not sufficient in ensuring positive behavioural change.

Bridging the gap

The key to bridging the gap between knowing and doing is to create an emotional connection to the desired behaviour that will encourage people to adopt it. To achieve this, the first step is to identify the specific behaviours we want to influence. For organizations working on broad concepts like gender equality, identifying these behaviours can be difficult, but it’s a critical part of any effective behavioural change campaign.

Once the behavioural objectives have been identified, the second step is to listen – listen to what people want, what they value, and what motivates their behaviour. Once we understand their values and motivations, we can connect them with the desired behaviour. For example, a man may be motivated by the desire to be a good father and a good husband. If we can connect this desire with specific behaviours, such as using nonviolent communication methods or sharing in specific parental duties, then he may be encouraged to adopt this behaviour in order to fulfill his desired role as a good father and husband.

As a result, one of the mantras of the Communication for Behavioural Impact (COMBI) method is to do nothing – don’t make t-shirts, don’t print flyers, don’t design websites – until you’ve identified the specific behaviours you want to change and until you understand the motivations behind this behaviour.