How Psychology Can Help Change Behaviour

10th July 2018

Almost ten years ago I began a post-grad in psychology – spending two years learning full time. In celebration of this rich experience, I’m sharing some of the essays I wrote at the time which have resonance today. This one – regarding how social psychology can explain, predict, stop, start, modify and prevent behaviour in the real world – feels relevant simply because it gets to the heart of marketing. Written in 2010, it covers topics such as cognitive dissonance, the value of nudge psychology and the ever fascinating Easterlin paradox. I draw on many of the concepts herein in my day-to-day work in marketing, and hope you will enjoy the read – whether as practitioner, citizen or both. 


Individual behaviours are deceptive. We often ascribe them to our own volition, but John Donne’s admonition holds as much truth in our daily trivial choices as it does in how we choose to live our lives. In truth, our behaviours are deeply embedded in the social and institutional contexts around us, and we are guided as much by what others say and do, and how we perceive the ‘rules of the game’, as we are by our own decisions (Jackson, 2005). In behaviour as in life, no man is an island.

Modern social psychology was born in the late 1940s in the USA, to a world keenly concerned in explaining people’s behaviour in the aftermath of war. Such social phenomena as conformity and obedience became the object of heightened interest (Asch experiment of 1951 and the Milgram experiment of 1961, respectively), and the discipline settled into accounting for what had happened, and why so-called civilised society behaved in the manner in which it had (Passer et al., 2009). The focus was clearly on explaining behaviour rather than changing it.

And yet, Allport (1985) defines social psychology as the scientific study of how people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviours are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. This alludes to a discipline open not just to diagnosis but to persuasion and prediction. The refocus in this discipline, which Plato called the ‘crowd mind’, towards changing people’s behaviour began in earnest in the mid-1960s, with the growth of advertising. (It is notable how business interests influence the course of science – but that is quite another essay).

The apotheosis of the change in social psychology’s focus, gradual through the 1980s and 1990s, came with Butz and Boyle Torey’s (2006) candid challenge to colleagues to move from complicated (and by inference, ineffectual) correlations to useful predictions. The authors are the leading scholars today engaged in pushing the frontiers of the discipline. In this manner, social psychology attempts to exert central influence on human leadership and governance, using innovations such as longitudinal data, biosocial science and international replication to help impute causation. It is a branch of science alive with new energy.

This essay seeks to examine the extent to which social psychologists can and indeed do change people’s behaviour in the real world. It will briefly set out the theoretical framework of social psychology, and then examine its practical application – observing where it triumphs in its contribution to changing behaviour, and where it is left wanting. In conclusion, the author offers opinion regarding the future role of social psychology in respect to changing behaviour and well-being of the individuals collectively known as ‘society’.


Social psychologists identify four changes in behaviour: starting, stopping, preventing and modifying behaviour (Lund, 2009). This instantly rejuvenates a business context which seems unaccountably focused on Start and Stop only. Psychological models which explain this behaviour-change hinge on the interplay of two variables: the personal (or micro) and the social (or meso). Theory is drawn from self-efficacy, social cognition and the behavioural schools to explain the process by which behaviour is effected (Passer et al., 2009).  Lund (2009), CEO of the UK’s Central Office of Information (COI) and one of Europe’s leading practitioners in social psychology, argues that the environmental level (exo and macro) is an essential third variable, yielding a more dimensional-ised ecological approach to model how change happens in the real world.

From this rich theoretical context an empirical discipline has emerged. Social Psychology draws on a growing taxonomy of constructs to explain and predict human behaviour. Three leading constructs help illustrate its scope:

 i) Festinger’s (1957) Cognitive Dissonanceestablishes a key principle whereby people strive for consistency in their cognitions. When two or more beliefs collide, an individual experiences a state of tension which he is motivated to dissipate by either changing a previously held cognition or adding a new one. Smokers refer to their granny who smoked 30-a-day and lived until 90; they discount their own risks significantly and conclude that smoking can’t be all that bad. The Irish people look to Fianna Fail’s Cowen as an appalling leader who, at least, has the merit of not being Enda Kenny.

ii) Bounded rationality and heuristics: The way people think has long posed a conundrum to psychologists: humans are demonstrably the most successful decision-makers in the history of the planet, and yet there is abundant prima facieevidence that we lack logical thinking in everyday decisions (Hardman, 2009). This paradox was described by Simon (1956) as the consequence of ‘bounded rationality’ – the idea that people are as rational as their context and processing limitations permit. Daniel Kahneman (2003) elaborated, characterising the mind as a system of jumps to conclusions, facilitated by heuristics (i.e. rules of thumb). Much of his research has been in the exposure of the biases, fallacies and errors which can attend their usage (Tversky & Kahneman, 1983; Kahneman, 2003). The Irish banking system was trusted by dint of being one of the most recognised institutions of state. It turns out that it is human nature to ‘trust the best’, based on this simple recognition heuristic. Such an approach can often lead to a kind of societal myopia – equally well illustrated in the Catholic Church’s fall from grace in many societies.

iii) Thesocial norms’ construct posits that an individual’s beliefs about common and accepted behaviour in a specific situation asserts a powerful influence on behaviour. Norms can be either injunctive (behaviour seen as socially approved, such as reading ‘The God Delusion’ despite its pandering populism) or descriptive (behaviour socially observed, irrespective of how it is judged, such as a propensity to litter in a place already littered). Schultz et al. (2007) conducted a longitudinal study measuring energy consumption (N=300 households) in California where participants were given information on their consumption versus neighbours (the mean). Those with consumption greater than the mean reduced, whilst those below the mean were seen to increase energy usage over time. In an effort to arrest the lower energy users’ regression to mean, researchers issued them with a ‘Smiley Face’ once consumption remained below mean. The result was an elimination of the boomerang effect described, and evidence that normative beliefs can indeed influence behaviour. After all, who doesn’t want to wear a badge of approval?


i) Choice Architecture and ‘Libertarian Paternalism’

Thaler and Sunstein (2008, 2003) are the creators of “choice architecture,” which uses behavioural data to improve decision-making. As Kahneman’s (2003) enquiry into the fallibility of heuristics noted, more successful choices can be achieved by understanding unseen risks and benefits ahead of time. The authors build on his work, taking it as a given that humans will be erroneous. The eponymous “nudge” of the authors’ book (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008) seeks to bring people towards better – coherent with their self-interest – choices, thereby improving well-being, ceteris paribus. At the nub of ‘nudge’ is the proposition that it is the confusing situation, not the confused person, which justifies intervention. Without a clean, thought-through architecture of choice laid in front of an individual, a faulty or sub-optimal choice is deemed more likely. This kind of intervention is termed ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ (LP), the act of guiding people’s ill-formed and ill-judged choices. Audaciously, the authors assert that the term LP is not an oxymoron, and that such intervention cannot be avoided by government (Thaler & Sunstein, 2003).

Thaler and Sunstein’s approach, articulated from the University of Chicago, is considered highly attractive by the psychological cognoscenti, perhaps fuelled by the authors’ proximity to Obama and power. Notwithstanding, evidence such as organ donor opt-out programmes (rather than opt-in) shows the power of choice architecture: Spain, operating an opt-out system, records 34 donors per million whilst Greece, operating an opt-in system, with 5 donors per million records (Council of Europe, 2008).

The current author is somewhat sceptical of the ‘nudge’ approach, and finds growing company in the literature. Firstly, the term LP strikes one as condescending and, after eight years of ‘compassionate conservatism’ from G. W. Bush resulting in two wars and a devastated American economy, rather difficult to accept at face value. Thaler and Sunstein argue that nudgesmust be both simple and transparent. Although this has intuitive appeal, it is unlikely to be the case in reality, one suspects. Perhaps the term ‘soft paternalism’ is more intellectually honest for this type of intervention.

Stevenson (2006), in a fascinating evaluation of the Thaler & Sunstein model in the context of a vaccine against cocaine (such a thing indeed exists), concludes that there are some missing pieces of the LP model: there is no consideration for biases of the decision-makers themselves (e.g. moral judgmentalism); further, the conflict in balancing libertarian values, paternalistic concerns about bad decisions, and public safety is not addressed. Either way, LP is the application of social psychological principles which effects change in behaviour and has certainly gained traction and the listening ear of the governing classes.

ii) The Easterlin Paradox and resulting skirmishes

Bradburn (1969) posits that an increased understanding of how people judge their own happiness would lead directly to the formulation and execution of superior social policy. The challenge to social psychology has been to characterise this relationship and thus effect change in behaviour.

In a famous, and now disputed, analysis, Richard Easterlin (1974) sought to discover whether economic growth improved the human lot. His evidence yielded two main findings. Firstly, within a given nation, people with higher incomes report a higher level of happiness. This emanates from a now well-established principle of relativism in human nature, or the rank-income hypothesis (Boyce, Brown & Moore, 2010). Secondly, and more controversially, Easterlin found that once nations had surpassed their basic Maslowian requirements, there was little correlation between income size and happiness. A corollary was even more contentious – between 1960 and 1970, when USA income rose substantially, that nation did not improve its levels of happiness concurrently. This scenario, since referred to by Eysenck as the ‘hedonic treadmill’ and by Bono as ‘Running to stand still’ touched an intuitive nerve with many (Eysenck & Keane, 2010; U2, 1987). The implication was profound – once economic basics are achieved, policy should focus away from GDP to Gross National Happiness (GNH). In short, it challenged whether economic growth was in the best interests of society.

This controversy recalls Pigou’s (1932) clear assumption that changes in ‘economic welfare’ indicate changes in ‘social welfare’ in the same direction, albeit not by the same degree. Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) contend that Easterlin’s core assumption is fallacious – in their analyses of GDP across a broader number of countries, they establish a clear positive link between well-being and economic progress. Although the increase in well-being tapers, no saturation level is reached as Easterlin predicts. Easterlin’s methodology is also questioned, as the measure for happiness in the author’s Japanese data altered across time and used disputed, equivocal language. In short, Stevenson and Wolfers (2008) concluded that happiness is a function of both relative and absolute income. Graham, Chattopadhyay & Picon(2010) bring some nuance to the debate, suggesting that while people can be happy at low levels of income, they are far less happy when there is uncertainty over their future wealth, thus giving rise to the paradox of happy peasants and its corollary – the paradox of unhappy growth.

Perhaps the evolution of this debate is subject, in part, to one of the vagaries of the scientific method as highlighted by Lehrer (2010): that significant effects tend to decline in any discipline over time, in a process characterised as ‘cosmic habituation’. This counter-intuitive phenomenon is caused by publication bias (publishing significant over non-significant findings) and selective reporting by the scientific community itself. The result of both is that random results (namely Type II errors) can present as breakthrough, leading to a wild goose chase of sorts. Perhaps in social psychology, as in love, nothing is forever.

The Easterlin debate is significant as it gets to the heart of how social psychology can contribute to changing behaviours and lives. One of its key roles is to bring insight and understanding into the grand themes of society, always seeking to improve the lot of the individual. This ability to characterise a problem and offer solutions is, as Marx scholars will attest, a powerful thing. The Easterlin Paradox and ensuing debate demonstrates how social psychologists can lead policy changes by spearheading the debate. A similar case of leadership in public debate is evidenced by Ivarsflaten (2005) in a seminal study which found that immigration in Europe was seen as a threat not on economic grounds but, rather, on grounds of a diminished sense of national unity and uniqueness. Ivarsflaten’s insight helped identify the conflation between the overt characteristics of a nation (its pursuit of growth) and its essence (its valuing of national identity), and the European debate (jobs versus culture) was thereby strengthened through clarity.

iii)  Social psychology, climate change debate

It is a remarkable thing to sit through An Inconvenient Truth(Guggenheim, 2006) – Al Gore’s film treatise on global warming which transformed the climate change debate – and realise that neither social psychology nor psychologists is mentioned once. The most compelling global debate of the last twenty years appears to leave social psychology on the sidelines.

Du Nann Winter (2003) argues that psychologists have tended to stay in their labs or consulting rooms and deal with trauma as if it all played out in people’s heads, rather than seeking to apply insights to real-world crises. The APA has recognised this failure, recently commissioning a taskforce challenged to articulate the contribution of psychology to remedying a global catastrophe (Kurtzman & Singer, 2010). Concepts such as discounting, cognitive dissonance, cognitive distancing and risk evaluation are seen to help in explaining and responding to global warming; concepts such as stress and coping responses are seen to moderate and mediate the psychosocial impacts of climate change. Indeed, the report enumerates nine specific contributions psychology could make in the debate.

And yet, the reality is relative silence from social psychology. This author is wont to believe that sometimes the real issue is not social psychology’s ability to change behaviour directly or indirectly, but rather its ability to engage in the marketing of its ideas to a non-scientific audience. The disposition of psychology may indeed be that it does not readily involve itself in affairs of State (McKenzie, 2010), but this is hardly a reasonable attitude in times of crisis. Indeed, if psychology is about improving the lot of human beings, it must have the courage of its own convictions and speak up.

Perhaps the issue is more complex and for philosophical reasons social psychologists have not been as loud or influential as perhaps they might. In the early 1980s, Ronald Reagan enunciated the Republican agenda thus: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem” (Reagan, 1981). Margaret Thatcher (1987) declared in Britain, in the same decade, that “There is no such thing as society”. De Gournay (1750) in 18thcentury France was the first to popularise the extreme of non-intervention – ‘laissez faire et laissez passer’– or ‘do as you will and let things be’. All of these may act as a brake to the discipline’s propensity to engage. And yet, some argue vociferously that psychologists have a responsibility to contribute to efforts to address pressing social issues e.g. climate change (Clayton & Brook, 2005). Social Psychology is a science of ideas, not politics, and yet its core justification is its ability to improve the well-being of society through understanding. Perhaps bringing change is a natural outcome, rather than the core purpose of its charter, which aims towards greater insight into people when in the presence of others (Allport, 1985).


In conclusion, it is considered that social psychology indeed can and could exert a significant role in changing behaviour and well-being among people. Its primary means of doing so is by becoming a source of substantiated insight and an honest broker of substantiated understanding. Ours is a discipline that has many tools at its disposal to rock, if not lead, some of the most important debates in our society. Much more the issue, it would seem, is social psychology’s willingness to take up this challenge and assert its role. Perhaps Thaler and Sunstein offer a new model of approach. Their ‘nudge’ approach and paradoxical ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ smack of a new and accessible psychological language, from the Gladwellian school. In truth, stirring debate is no mean achievement, as thinking and governing are honed through engagement.























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