Does “theory” help to change behaviour? Ideas from Les Robinson’s Changeology

Les Robinson, author of “Changeology” joined us at DMU via the web on Monday 20th April, as part of the Spring 2017 Green Bridge events programme, to share his insights on designing projects and programmes to change behaviour to promote sustainability.

I’m a big fan of Les’s approach – it draws on academic research evidence, but is equally based upon what Les and others have found working in practice in a range of real-world projects.

Les’s slides and a recording of his talk can be accessed below – there’s an excellent mix of ideas to help understand behaviour, and practical ideas on how to influence it.

What I’ll mention here is one of the main ideas that he raised that people took away – how to work well with “theory”.

We talk a lot about theory in a university setting. In the social sciences, a theory is our way of offering an explanation or account of what seems to be going on in a situation. Les is with Kurt Lewin in thinking that “there’s nothing as practical as a good theory” – and a key part of the Changeology approach to designing initiatives is coming up with an understanding of what’s going on (by talking to and involving the people who the project affects/involves) and articulating a theory of change – that is, how the initiative will actually lead to the desired behavioural changes (see quote).

This sounds obvious and useful, yet it’s surprising how often these two steps don’t take place – I’ve certainly been guilty of it in the past, and many projects or research studies skip this step of clearly developing a theory.

“Theories of change are useful. How we think matters a lot. Failed projects usually fail because their thinking was wrong, not because their execution had mistakes. It’s good to be exposed to a lot of concepts and theories, so we have alternative ways of seeing and thinking. p.s. All theories are wrong.”

Many participants in the workshop that followed (see picture) noted Les’s counterpoint to this as their takeaway learning – that “all theories are wrong!”.

For an environmental behaviour change project, a theory might be any general understanding that we take into a situation (e.g. “people care about saving money on their fuel bills”; “people trust information from similar peers”) or academic models such as “The Theory of Planned Behaviour”. Les’s point is that theories such as these will never capture the full complexity of what’s going on in a particular situation. Therefore, the theories with most explanatory power are those developed through actively engaging with a specific situation over time to develop an understanding of what’s going on, what works and why.

Now, there is always a trade-off between parsimony (that is, being brief – helpful for theories we can remember and apply) and validity (actually capturing what’s happening in a situation). The reminder here is to treat our theories as provisional and open to be challenged, and as we develop a specific project, to develop a more detailed and nuanced understanding of what’s going on and how our intervention could work over time.

I recommend Les’s book and blog for anyone interested in exploring these ideas further.

Further Resources:

Slides of Les Robinson’s presentation on 20th March 2017 (PDF)

Recording (audio, video, slides) of Les Robinson’s presentation on 20th March 2017 (55 mins)