Disadvantage and the process of behaviour change.

“Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being. Poverty is the deprivation of opportunity.”
-Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

At it’s most functional level, social and economic disadvantage reduces access to critical services, goods and opportunities, for individuals and groups of people. But the effect is deeper than access. Disadvantage often leads to secondary effects, like disempowerment, an internalisation of negative public narratives, and reduced self-efficacy, which is essentially the belief in your own ability to succeed or accomplish a task that will improve your situation.

These effects compound. People can disengage from social or community programs because they don’t believe they are capable of change. People can remain passive among injustice because they haven’t internalised their personal authority or power to act, or can’t see a clear pathway forward. People can feel like they don’t deserve a certain  life path, because society has in some way told them so.

It’s worth noting that some of the secondary effects are constructive, like increased personal resilience and innovation to solve pressing issues, but the negative tends to hold greater long term weight.

In the field of sociology, this compounding effect underlies a concept called cumulative advantage or disadvantage. This describes how social inequality is not a static outcome, but is produced, maintained, and transmitted from one generation to another. If you think of a disadvantaged group you’re aware of in Australian society, you’ll note that race, gender, class, religion and age are often contributing factors.

This understanding of the nuance of disadvantage has some clear implications for the design of social impact and behaviour change strategies,  initiatives and campaigns seeking to reduce it.

Measure intermediary outcomes: respect the process. 

When designing for social impact or behaviour change, it’s easy to focus on the end state. You seek to move people from ‘state a’ to an improved ‘state b’. You’ll hypothesise a theory of change to affect this movement, and establish an evaluation framework to measure how successful you’ve been: how many people reach ‘state b’, what type of people, how long did it take, how they feel etc.

All valid and important information, but a more integrated approach is required, given the knowledge that some intermediary outcomes are instrumental to achieve others. The process is as important as the end state.

For an individual, the process of first coming into contact with  and engaging with a program or campaign is critical. The first hurdle is to help a particular audience understand that this initiative is for them. They need to connect to its purpose, feel inspired and motivated, and have their legitimacy confirmed. As their engagement continues, they will need to move through stages of being informed, supported and re-engaged, depending on the particular tasks and the audience’s unique context and psychology.

To succeed in reaching the end state, blockers to access or rights must be removed in the process. Understanding must be established, trust must be built. These intermediary outcomes must be designed for and measured.

Give power and empower.

“Empowerment”  has well and truly cemented itself in mainstream language. With roots in feminism, Freudian psychology and the Black Power movement (an etymology feast!), empowerment broadly encompasses autonomy, freedom, knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence, and control over life.

Particularly in health promotion, a focus on empowerment has been shown to improve health outcomes, and be a positive outcome in and of itself. Empowered people seek information about better health, adopt better health behaviours, manage their conditions better (both physically and emotionally), and have increased participation and compliance with any program of treatment (WHO report). This finding is particularly pronounced with disadvantaged groups, for all the reasons already discussed.

Empowerment is not a  standardised experience; it’s shape is highly dependent on the audience and the overall context. Empowerment is likely to mean something entirely different for an older Caucasian woman who lived through the Second World War, compared to a younger man who fled his deeply religious, war torn country for a better life in Australia.

Because of this, building empowerment into the design of any initiative or campaign requires open engagement with the intended audience. As a rule however, the target audience should always be seen as active agents of change, rather than as passive recipients of dispensed benefits.

At Ellis Jones, we build empowerment into the design process through co-design methods. We involve our audience in problem formulation, decision making and action. We increase the capacity of the audience to communicate their needs and explore solutions. We transfer power away from us, the designers, and toward the audience.

This empowerment is often a pre-condition to change, especially with particularly disadvantaged groups. Linking to the first point, empowerment is a key intermediary outcome.

The Ellis Jones approach to behaviour change is adaptive to the nuance of disadvantage, having worked specifically with older Australians, people with disabilities, recent refugees and diverse people from lower socio-economic backgrounds.

Talk to us about designing a social impact or behaviour change initiative.

Image by Nikko Macaspac.