Changing behaviour: by attitudes, or by design?

A different version of this article first appeared on Mumbrella.

“When you are trying to change patterns of behaviour, should you be trying to change the culture and attitudes that can warrant behaviours, or trying to change the structures of design that can instruct behaviours?”

This question came to me during a recent workshop, when challenged with improving mental health outcomes for various groups of people. It was a complex challenge that raised complex questions, requiring a resourceful approach to finding a solution.

You don’t have to be Einstein to appreciate that behaviour is influenced by a mosaic of visible and invisible forces. Is it nature or nurture? Head or heart? Peer pressure or independent will?

At the base level, as communications professionals, we want to influence a person to ‘do something’ through ‘thinking something’. It is Inception in action: Smoke less (it’s bad), read more (you’ll like it), buy a ticket (it’s worthwhile), talk about this (it’s interesting)… And we want to make it as easy as possible for that person to adopt that particular behaviour or way of thinking.

At Ellis Jones, this sits alongside our social impact approach; we want to create positive behaviour change that allows the end user to live a happier, healthier life.

This, of course, presents a challenge. How can you change a person’s behaviour (let alone change it positively) when the forces that change behaviour are so complex to begin with? Achieving a final outcome requires us to think about the entire system that propels or inhibits behaviour change in a specific context.

“When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which the flower grows, not the flower.”


As Australians, as Westerners, as men or women, as humans, we behave in ways that are deemed socially acceptable within our wider cultural context. Creating change at this macro level is difficult: with so many sheep involved, the pace can be glacial.

As communicators, our goal here is to scale a message across a wide audience. To do this, we need to find the common threads that tie the herd together and tap into the cultural psyche of society. Nonetheless, as this is part of a macro culture, it’s difficult to quantify causation.

Think of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign. Each message in the campaign can translate to women around the world by tapping into the common experience of self-judgement with a simple mandate to love yourself as you are.

After over ten years of ‘Real Beauty’, feminism has certainly found its renaissance in society. Causation? Correlation? A touch of both, perhaps?


Your spheres of influence set up the norms and ‘micro-cultures’ that influence you on a daily basis, depending on what you do and where you go: your workplace, your home, that cafe you love, the train you always take.. .

The tactic for communicating on this level is to look at the informal norms present in each environment, for instance, how the music in your office allows a regular swear word through. By identifying these norms, you can find a way to speak to a common experience or united values within the environment.

For an example of effective communications that has changed behaviours within an environment, take a look at Lieutenant-General David Morrison’s approach to breaking the glass ceiling in the Australian Defence Forces using YouTube and social media, amongst other tools.


We have all been warned of peer pressure since we made our first friend. Peers of influence – friends, heroes, leaders, teachers, parents – set patterns of behaviour that others may follow. It’s your team of influencers.

Marketers tend to target peers as an infinite source of behavioural influence, for example through product placements (all of The Bachelorettes chew Extra gum), through sponsorship (your sports idols wear Adidas), through influencer promotion (Sarah Wilson prefers Pepe Sayer butter), and so on – the list is long. Effective communicators can look at the personal interactions and transactions that occur between people at this level: who’s leading who? What defines a member compared to an outsider? What are the unsaid agreements of this team?


And then there is you. Your genes, your hormones, your personality, your eye colour, your brain… Without the individual, there’s no behaviour to begin with.

In systems, the individual is the smallest unit, and understanding individual differences is an increasingly harder task in the face of big data and digital interconnectedness. Nonetheless, being able to understand individual quirks can help communicators to identify unique or counter-intuitive patterns within the broader scheme.


In systems thinking, all of the above can be referred to as the “shadow system”.

It’s where all of the non-rational influences reside; the hopes and ambitions, the fears and joys, the often-intangibles. This is the heartland for marketing, where needs and wants reign supreme.

But if we really want to change patterns of behaviour, we have to move beyond the cultural and attitudinal, and into the structures of design that can dictate behaviours.


Structures are a kind of behaviour themselves, a product of humans putting their heads together and designing something for use by other humans.

As such, structures can be thought of as “programs” for behaviour: they are the legitimate, official or consciously-designed elements, the rational. Think of laws and policies: you must get a license before you can drive. Structures create order.

When it comes to influencing behaviour, structures are instruction manuals. They’re the work rosters and parental leave policies, the train timetable and the rate for overtime, the calendars and constitutions. These structures all sanction particular patterns of behaviour.


So what happens when structures need to change for behaviour to change? What role do communicators play?

After seeing and understanding the complex influences on society, environments, peers and individuals, communicators aren’t always given a seat at the table for this final step of behaviour change. Where communications edges into management consultancy, there’s the potential for magic as insights become action and new norms are validated. But if you’re not consulted about structural change, the goal to truly change behaviour is compromised.

This is the territory where social impact consultancy can truly shine. The challenges that our society faces today are incredibly complex and are composed of multiple systems, structures and influences. To effectively create patterns of behaviour that make a tangible difference to society, a multidisciplinary approach is required. This also requires seeing multidisciplinary professionals for their unique advantage: holistic, human-centred skills that identify abstract interactions between multiple systems.

We’re a team of multidisciplinary professionals. Talk to us about behaviour change for social impact.