New paper strengthens evidence for why intervening on the environment is so important

June 18, 2024

This blog post was created through the joined efforts of Beth Smith and Anna Panagiotou.

If you are following our work and social media, you have probably heard about Estuarine Mapping. Estuarine Mapping explores what our current environment does and doesn’t allow us to do. The ultimate purpose is to change the environment so that the things you want to achieve take less time or energy. You might even have come across Dave Snowden’s phrase, “We want the energy cost of virtue to be less than that of sin”.

A recent review paper published in “Nature Reviews Psychology” considers the evidence for behaviour change interventions across several meta-analyses and comes to the conclusion that “policymakers should focus on interventions that enable individuals to circumvent obstacles to enacting desirable behaviours rather than targeting salient but ineffective determinants of behaviour such as knowledge and beliefs”. In other words, don’t try to change people directly; change the environment in which they operate so that desirable behaviours become easier.  We often discuss how our approach is built on the constraints of what natural science teaches us. Featuring new research, such as this one, becomes a way to show and discuss the how.

The review paper aimed to help decision-makers identify appropriate and effective targets for behavioural change. The authors first explored different models of behaviour prediction and change (and highlighted that these often neglect social and structural aspects), supplementing that from the scientific literature. The result was a classification of things that might drive behaviour (called “determinants of behaviour”) that goes far beyond so-called “nudges”. Having identified a range of individual determinants of behaviour (such as knowledge and skills) as well as social-structural determinants (such as sanctions and different types of norms), the authors also reviewed the evidence on change interventions that are based on those determinants, considering the difference between simple correlation and targeted intervention.

The authors warn that no meta-analysis will predict the result of a complex, contextual intervention. Still, a consistent picture emerges that highlights certain aspects of behaviour, such as habits, access, and social support, as more likely productive targets of intervention than, say, providing knowledge or punishing undesirable behaviours. As the paper says, this doesn’t mean that variables like knowledge are unimportant – just that they are likely not the most productive as a direct and exclusive target.

This brings us back to the point and our methods: change the environment, change what it allows and drives towards, and other changes will emerge. None of those changes are reductionist, and none are mechanistic – but in complex processes, where the outcomes result from rich interactions between elements, targeting the end result itself (the outcome) is often simply not going to work or to be enough – it’s the interactions that need to change. Estuarine Mapping emphasises the idea of the substrate: what does the ground you are on naturally enable to grow? And if you want it to grow something else, how can you make it more appropriate to that?

As  Alexander Den Heijer said, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” Estuarine Mapping works to develop the substrate of a system (the soil) in order to best promote desirable outcomes and reduce undesirable ones, rather than attempting to fix individual actors or issues (the flowers).


Banner image credits: Composite of two photos. Climbing photo by Sylvain Mauroux on Unsplash. Slide photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh.

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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