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Can behavioural science improve and protect public health?

Published: 10 November 2022

Why do certain polices, services or communications just seem to ‘work’, improving or protecting people’s health and wellbeing, while others fade, or worse never start to shine? This question confronts practitioners and policy makers on an almost daily basis. 

Public Health Wales in partnership with University College London’s Centre for Behaviour Change have published a new guide for policy makers and practitioners in government and public health that details how actively using behavioural science to better understand human behaviour can lead to more effective policies, services and communications.  

Ashley Gould, Programme Director, Behavioural Science Unit at Public Health Wales, said: 

“Behavioural science is increasingly being used to improve our understanding of how the mix of cognitive, psychological, social and environmental factors affect how individuals and population and professional groups behave. In fact it is rapidly being accepted as critical in designing activity that will be successful at improving and protecting health and wider wellbeing. 

“If we can better understand how and why individuals and organisations act in certain ways, rather than relying on assumptions of how they should act – we can ensure that policies, services and communications reflect real needs and behaviours.  

“This leads to greater impact through more tailored and evidence-based planning and delivery.”  

The guide details that while behavioural science teams are increasingly being set up in organisations, most decisions are still made using ‘common sense’ assumptions and this can often lead to activities with limited effectiveness.  

Spending the time up front in the planning process asking who the audience is precisely, what ‘observable action’ you’d like them to do, with a clear rationale, and then understanding what would best enable that, can help tailor interventions that are the most likely to result in the target behaviour. 

Professor Robert West, Emeritus Professor at University College London, said:

“Collaborating with the Behavioural Science Unit at Public Health Wales has created a guide that I think will be invaluable to policymakers and practitioners in Wales, and well beyond its borders too.”   

Behavioural science has been used extensively and successfully in the collective response to the Coronavirus pandemic.  Understanding what got in the way for different groups, and so how to best to encourage the widespread adoption of personal protective behaviours, like face covering use and self-isolation when symptomatic, helped reduce transmission of the virus.  

‘Improving Wellbeing: A guide to using behavioural science in policy and practice’, aims to help policymakers and practitioners in government and public health make effective use of behavioural science in their work. It does this by providing: a framework for incorporating behavioural science in decision-making, a basic understanding of the principles of behavioural science, and a step-by-step guide to developing, adapting or selecting behaviour change interventions. It also includes tools and resources to help with intervention development and pointers to appropriate sources of behavioural science expertise.