In the context of Scotland’s recently announced commitments to reducing emissions and the uncertainty surrounding environmental legislation and enforcement post-Brexit, the need for organisations to deliver robust, effective interventions for improving environmental behaviours is more paramount than ever. In recent years, behavioural science has become very much in vogue for all things behaviour related. As more and more behavioural science interventions are piloted, introduced and shared within the environmental sector, the body of learning from which to draw from and build continues to grow. The organisational and environmental benefits of developing a collaborative culture, sharing successes and challenges and enabling the replicability of interventions using behavioural science techniques need to be recognised.

A steadily growing field which is often described as the meeting point of psychology, sociology and behavioural economics, the principles of behavioural science (behavioural insights) have been applied to understand, evaluate and change behaviour across a range of domains. Examples include reducing missed appointments in healthcare settings, tackling antisocial behaviour and improving individuals’ tax compliance. The potential for behavioural insights to shift behaviours have been embraced by UK and European government departments and enshrined in policy and strategy.

As can be the case with any emerging field of practice, there seems to be a tendency amongst industry and organisations that view this as merely a fad, the next big thing that is practiced by sleek multinational organisations that have money to throw at the something which is marketable and novel but fails to achieve real traction. Many commercial organisations accept the potential for positive change that the principles linked to nudging can have, but adapt a ‘yes, but’ attitude to justify why it is not applicable to their circumstances, industry or unique challenges. Certainly, the complexity of factors which can influence behaviour is difficult to comprehend, let alone change and sustain in the long-term! The Green Deal initiative, which failed to achieve the behavioural targets it set out, is testament to the need to understand the cognitive factors which can shape behaviour. As it relied on householders taking action, and experiencing the inconvenience linked with installation for future savings, it overlooked people’s tendencies to discount future positives and focus solely on the immediate negatives.

Proponents and practitioners of behavioural science theory and its associated practices do not claim that it is a ‘one size fits all’ or silver bullet approach to changing behaviours. However, there is an ever-growing body of literature highlighting successful applications of this approach to understanding behaviour. Some promising work has been completed within the environmental sector to date, ranging from supporting householders to choose ‘Green’ energy providers, to reducing litter within the UK. A number of interventions and research projects within a Scottish context highlight some of the local innovation and support for advancing our competence at changing sustainability behaviours.

The wide scope of behavioural science to be applied to different fields is further supported by the availability of robust and freely available tools which offer a framework to guide thinking around specific challenges. The chances of changing a behaviour are slim unless that behaviour can first be clearly identified and measured!

bicycle or carOne such tool, and the preferred approach to behaviour change employed by Changeworks, is the Individual Social Material (ISM) model. This model identifies key considerations across individual (eg habits), social (eg norms) and broader (eg infrastructure) level which could enable or inhibit change. This simplicity means it is a highly accessible tool which can be applied to any number of issues. The ISM tool was developed by the Scottish Government following an international review of behaviour change interventions. It has been adopted on projects ranging from increasing householder recycling rates, evaluating interventions and training policy advisors in developing policy that is actionable and acceptable to the public. The ISM model also goes some way to demystifying the ‘black art’ of behavioural science so that organisations can appreciate its usefulness and ease of application. The tool has seen wide spread application and support to date from the Scottish Government. Changeworks has become established one of the main agents for delivering training in the application of the tool on their behalf.

The intrinsic links that psychology has on how behaviour is evaluated and quantified seems at odds with the pragmatic language employed by those seeking to achieve sustainable change. However, achieving positive and long-lasting change need not get too hung up on concepts like cognitive dissonance, availability biases and selective perception. Focusing solely on some of the theories, definitions and tools linked to behaviour change can obscure the main reason for any intervention – the problem behaviour! The ISM model, by its design strips away the complexity of issues which can shape environmental behaviours to provide a clear framework for evaluation and intervention. A recent example was an applied research collaboration between Changeworks, the Energy Saving Trust and Home Energy Scotland which explored the effects of advice to householders in managing their heating controls. Drawing on elements covered within the ISM tool, including norms, costs and benefits, materials and individual agency for acting, the intervention was found to enhance home-owners’ confidence and control. In addition, comfort scores increased, with savings in energy costs also noted.

Applying the learning and opportunities offered by the growing evidence base of behaviour science is not a one-off event but a process, which involves considering the interactional and potential ripple effects of events and peoples’ reactions to them. Unintended consequences and the rebound effect are all too common in the fields of working with sustainable behaviours. More often than not, these tend to be recognised retrospectively. The whole-systems approach to the ISM can provide opportunity to identify some such issues before they occur, so that any programme can be designed with them in mind. The Behavioural Insights Team notes three areas in particular which behavioural science can be harnessed for increasing energy efficiency:

  • Drawing on social norms through comparative energy consumption figures, to increase community-wide usage
  • Navigating consumer’s tendency to underestimate future consequences in favour of more immediate outcomes through peak rate tariffs
  • Applying the potential power of default settings to encourage more efficient behaviours – as with the oft-cited examples of sensor lighting and double-sided printing.

The ISM tool is openly available. If you would like to know more about how you can adapt behaviour science to practice and evaluation, or just to find out more, get in touch


Shane Donnellan





Shane Donnellan is Changeworks’ Senior Behaviour Change Specialist