Communicating for change

What is behavioural science and what is its role in public communications?

A man holding a paper on the street with an image of a human head symbolising behavioural change.

Following GCS’s successful Comms Exchange on behaviour change (comms exchanges are live sessions GCS delivers regularly and online, on different topics), Dr Moira Nicolson, Behavioural Science Lead at Cabinet Office, shares her insight on smarter government comms. 

We all know what it’s like to look back on an event or experience and think: “why did I – or why did they – say or do that?” Other people’s behaviour, even our own, seems mysterious. 

Consider a person who drives the short distance from their home to the shops and back most days. It’s easy to assume that this person isn’t aware of the environmental impact of driving or doesn’t care much about it, and conclude that people need more education about the environmental impact of short car journeys. 

However, their behaviour could be a perfectly rational response to their situation and past life experiences. They may have recently had their phone stolen on a similar trip, for example. For this person, or other people like them, no amount of convincing will motivate them to walk to the shops.

As communication experts, that’s why we must first understand our audience, and the drivers of behaviour; that’s where behavioural science can help. 

Behavioural science is, at its core, a lesson in empathy and understanding. It shows that decisions, which appear irrational, can be perfectly reasonable responses to personal circumstances, complexity, or anxiety and stress. 

By applying behavioural science to our campaigns, we can make sure that we identify the true drivers of the behaviours we care about, whether that’s promoting active travel in line with our Net Zero objectives, getting people back into jobs to support Build Back Better or encouraging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

As a member of the GCS Behavioural Science team, the most inspiring part of my role is transforming academic theory into practical recommendations to help communicators support the public in navigating some of the greatest challenges of our time.

How could behavioural science help your team?

For more information about how behavioural science could help you craft a comms campaign that will change your audience’s behaviour in the way you need:

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