What really influences our behaviours?

Ruth Mayne Influencing, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH)

We are re-running this blog in light of the COVID-19 Pandemic. It was originally published in 2019.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the importance of individuals adopting particular behaviours for the benefit of everyone in society. Emphasis has been placed on regular handwashing, social distancing, and on wearing face masks. But what is it that really hits home and ensures people take up such practices?

We created this infographic to understand the range of factors that influence our behaviours and practices. It is based on learning from practical social norm change workshops in some of the campaigning work that Oxfam undertakes and from an Oxfam discussion paper. Here we apply the diagram to the practical example of handwashing.

Handwashing is widely considered the most effective method of preventing the spread of infectious illness, but what kind of interventions might encourage this?


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?

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 can also be 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.

Government Policy

There are also wider structural factors that can influence individuals’ behaviours. Government policy and funding for schools to provide such lessons and infrastructure help. Passing laws e.g. banning drunk driving, is only likely to be effective if there is widespread public support and they are enforceable. Public information and behaviour change campaigns might help influence widely held cultural beliefs about hand washing, but would they have a practical effect?

Social norms and role models

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 (social learning). They are also highly influenced by how they think other people will view their actions (social norms). 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 sets behavioural expectations saying that, “The only ´fees´ that the children are expected to ´pay´ are excellent behaviour, excellent performance and excellent effort”. Such messages help to set the unwritten rules, and no doubt they are continually reinforced by the teaching staff modelling the desired behaviours themselves. But will that be enough to convince the students to wash their hands?

Peer groups

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. At the same time, this may well also reflect more widely held beliefs about what is expected (or not) of women and men, and as such reinforcing the need to think about factors at all the levels that the infographic sets out.

Framing and tailoring the message

Framing and tailoring messages for specific reference groups, can help highlight and reinforce positive social norms. People, including children, are more likely to actually adopt a certain behavior if they see their close friends, family and teachers doing it. 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.

Internal influence

Individual internal influences also plays 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.

Power dynamics

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 are more likely to be successful. Something to think about, whether for public health campaigning around something as serious as a global pandemic, or simply as strategies employed at home before dinner with the kids!

Illustrations by Viridiana Montiel


Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez


Ruth Mayne

Ruth Mayne is Oxfam GB lead researcher on Influencing and Climate Justice