What really influences our behaviours?


Influencing, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

How can civil society curb negative behaviours and practices, such as violence against women and girls, or promote positive ones such as regular handwashing habits? Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez and Ruth Mayne introduce a new infographic for understanding and influencing the range of factors that can influence our behaviours and practices. The infographic is based on learning from practical social norm influencing workshops with young people designing campaigns to end sexist violence in LAC, and from an Oxfam discussion paper. Here we apply the diagram to a practical example of handwashing.

Credit: Viridiana Montiel

Handwashing is widely considered the most effective method of preventing the spread of infectious illness, yet we’re sure all parents or guardians are tired of asking their children to wash their hands before a meal.  The photo below shows a headteacher in a school for orphans in Sierra Leone. Some of the students lost relatives to Ebola, and the school provides lessons in hygiene promotion. If you were a child at a school like this, what would make you adopt certain practices, like regular handwashing?

Oxfam is providing clean water, toilets and hygiene classes to children in Port Loko's Educaid primary school. The facilities include a solar powered water pump, tap stands and toilet blocks for both male and female students. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/ Oxfam
Oxfam is providing clean water, toilets and hygiene classes to children in Port Loko’s Educaid primary school. The facilities include a solar powered water pump, tap stands and toilet blocks for both male and female students. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/ Oxfam

No doubt the awareness-raising and information provided in the lessons are important, but what use are they if there’s no water and soap? The availability of necessary infrastructure, products and services is vital to change behaviours.  This school has built new toilet blocks with tap stands powered by solar pumps. They are now seen to be much safer and less exposed than the old ones.

There are also structural level factors that can influence individuals’ behaviours. Government policy and funding for schools to provide such lessons and infrastructure helps. Widely held cultural beliefs relating to cleanliness may also influence handwashing behaviours.  Wider information and behaviour change campaigns in the media might help influence these beliefs, but would they have a practical effect? More innovative and effective behaviour-change campaigns don’t just provide information or infrastructure, they also tap into group relationships and social norms.

People learn behaviours from others in social settings. They are also highly influenced by how they think other people will view their actions. The power of the people directly around you is therefore significant. For instance, the influence of role models like your teacher can have an impact.

In this school, the headteacher explains that, “The only ´fees´ that the children are expected to ´pay´ are excellent behaviour, excellent performance and excellent effort”. These messages help to set the unwritten rules, and no doubt they are continually reinforced by the teaching staff, but will that be enough to convince the students? The influence of your direct peers and interpersonal relationships are also vital. Do your friends wash their hands? How often? What do they expect you to do? If you don´t follow the unwritten rules set by your friends, what will their reactions be towards you?

As an example of the power of social norms, there is some evidence that gender is a significant determinant of handwashing frequency. Females reported washing their hands significantly more often than males. So if most girls around me are washing their hands regularly, they will probably influence me positively if I identify as a girl. In the same way, a perception that most boys around me don´t bother washing their hands may impact me negatively if I identify as a boy.

Creating specific messages for specific reference groups, and highlighting the positive social norm that we want to create is vital. People, including children, are more likely to adopt a certain behavior if they see their close friends, family and teachers adopting the behaviour. So getting people together in social learning groups where they can learn new behaviours from role models to get feedback and positive reinforcement can help.

Individual internal influences also play a role. It has been shown that part of the brain responds to unconscious cues which drives habitual behaviours rather than conscious decision making. Using environmental cues, nudges and reminders, can help break old habits and turn handwashing into a long-term behavior. In this school, the tap stands are visible and accessible, so they encourage handwashing by influencing the children´s environment

Similarly, our actions may be influenced by largely unconscious values and emotions, rather than rational decision making. The school encourages each child to adopt a certain attitude to handwashing, to see it as a core part of “good behaviour”, appealing to certain values at a personal level.  Successful behaviour-change can work by appealing at an emotional level. Generating emotions at an individual level, like disgust, nurture or desire to behave in a certain way, can be a powerful motivator. However, strategies that tap into certain negative emotions, like disgust, need to be carefully thought through. They could, unintentionally, lead to shaming or worse.

It is also important to consider the interaction between individual, group and structural influences, and the role power plays at each of these levels. We created this infographic to show the interconnected levels and influences which need to be considered when developing strategies that seek to influence behaviours. A lot of recent attention  has focused on the power of social norms, and these are vital, but they are not the only influence on behaviours. A social norm change strategy that recognizes that connections with changes in societal-level structures and institutions, as well as with habit-forming factors at the individual level is more likely to be successful.  Food for thought, whether for influencing and campaigning strategies or strategies employed at home with kids!!

Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez the Global Adviser: Influencing & Active Citizenship at Oxfam. He supports country teams and partners to strengthen their influencing work. Most recently, his work has focused on developing country-level strategies on social norm change and the Enough campaign in Bolivia, Cuba, Honduras, Guatemala and Colombia.

Ruth Mayne

Ruth Mayne

Ruth is Oxfam’s Senior Researcher on Influencing and its Effectiveness. She has an interdisciplinary background as a researcher, policy adviser and practitioner on humanitarian, development and environmental issues. Ruth previously worked at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford where she is now an honorary research associate. She has also worked in the past as a Policy Advisor on some of Oxfam's major global campaigns, an independent consultant, as a country programme manager in Colombia, a socio-economist, and as a university lecturer. She is also active at local level as co-founder of Low Carbon West Oxford, an award winning charity and recent local councillor.