Why does theory matter?

Published: 11 October 2018

We answer a common question on using behavioural science in communications and behaviour change campaigns.

Is it important that practitioners understand the underlying theory? In short, yes.

In this new segment we will aim to address some of the big questions we hear from clients and prospects. Think of it as a Linstock Agony Uncle or Aunt, answering your burning queries. Below is one we’ve encountered a few times before. Providing the response this time is Linstock Associate John Maule, Emeritus Professor for Human Decision Making at Leeds University Business School.

If you have a question you’d like us to answer, please send it through to info@linstockcommunications.com.

I’ve heard a lot about the value of behavioural science in designing communications campaigns. But I don’t have the time to study the discipline and all the theories underpinning it. Won’t a few practical tips suffice?

Behavioural Science has become an influential guide for communications and behaviour change programmes. Policymakers use nudge techniques such as automatic opt-in to boost uptake of work-based pensions and organ donation. Meanwhile, financial institutions use their understanding of loss aversion and social norms to help consumers make more effective financial decisions.

Is it important that practitioners understand the underlying theory? In short, yes. It is easy to dismiss theory as being the concern of academics and not relevant to the real world. However, understanding the underlying theory is critical:

  1. Theory provides a basis for understanding how and why things work

It provides vital insight into how interventions should be finessed to take account of changes in circumstances. Simply repeating what worked last time often fails, since no two situations are identical. For example, understanding the basic research on framing has shown that people often choose differently depending on whether a communication emphasises gains or losses. Public health professionals have used this information to increase the uptake of breast self-examination in women, by emphasising the cost of inaction.

But the theory suggests a reversed effect when the underlying events are judged to occur very rarely (e.g. likelihoods of serious earthquakes). In this instance, emphasising gains rather than losses or costs is more likely to increase the uptake of protective action (e.g. insurance). This distinction can only be appreciated with a good understanding of the underlying theory (Prospect Theory).

  1. Underlying theory gives you a good basis to develop robust evaluation methods

Organisations are often poor at evaluating communications or change programmes. Even when they are implementing a behaviour change initiative, they often simply evaluate the campaign in terms of public awareness. An understanding of the underlying theory helps to focus the evaluation on to actual actions and behaviours.

Theory can also guide ways of evaluating the effectiveness of interventions. In other words, proving causation between the intervention and the results. For example, a breast examination health campaign based on emphasising the costs of not examining should not just measure behaviour change. It should also assess how people describe and make sense of the campaign. If people recognise the campaign is highlighting the costs of not self-examining, and this behaviour increases, then the campaign and the theory are both validated. However, if there is either behaviour change or an understanding of the campaign but not both, there is insufficient evidence that it was the campaign that led to the results. Maybe the results were actually a consequence of something else which happened at the same time, such as a celebrity speaking out about breast cancer? In this sort of scenario, caution should be exercised in applying the theory to future campaigns.

Understanding theory is critical for developing and evaluating behaviour change programmes and communication strategies. Without this understanding, programmes and campaigns are often developed piecemeal and evaluated so poorly that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know whether or not they have worked.

In the words of Kurt Lewin, one of the modern pioneers of social, organisational, and applied psychology: “…there is nothing as practical as a good theory”.

Please contact us if you’d like to hear more about how behavioural science can improve your communications and change programmes.

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