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Institute of Applied Data Science



What can we learn from failed attempts to change people's behaviour?

29 October 2020

Professor Magda Osman
Professor Magda Osman
Professor Norman Fenton
Professor Norman Fenton

Why nudges fail: Unsuccessful attempts to change people's behaviour have common features we can learn from the latest study led by our members: Dr Magda Osman, Professor Norman Fenton, Professor Martin Neil and colleagues, and published in Trends in Cognitive Science.

The behavioural change enterprise disproportionately focuses on promoting successes at the expense of examining the failures of behavioural change interventions. The literature across different fields through a causal explanatory approach was reviewed to identify structural relations that impede (or promote) the success of interventions.

Based on this analysis researchers present a taxonomy of failures of behavioural change that catalogues different types of failures and backfiring effects. Analyses and classification offer guidance for practitioners and researchers alike, and provide critical insights for establishing a more robust foundation for evidence-based policy.

Behavioural change techniques are currently used by many global organisations and public institutions. The amassing evidence base is used to answer practical and scientific questions regarding what cognitive, affective, and environment factors lead to successful behavioural change in the laboratory and in the field. In this piece researchers show that there is also value to examining interventions that inadvertently fail in achieving their desired behavioural change (e.g., backfiring effects). The underlying causal pathways are identified that characterise different types of failure, and academics show how a taxonomy of causal interactions that result in failure exposes new insights that can advance theory and practice.

The publication can be accessed here: Trends in Cognitive Sciences, DOI: 10.1016/j.tics.2020.09.009


Updated by: Michal Filus