Watching the evening news on any given night should assure you that applied social psychologists have much to do. Societal problems abound. Epidemics such as obesity and game addiction, increasing levels of consumer debt, bullying and drugs in schools, vehicle collisions in traffic, and environmental degradation pose significant economic problems, as well as devastating costs in terms of human suffering and loss of life. Because human behaviour contributes to each of these societal problems, human behaviour can also be a critical part of the solution. As experts in the development and evaluation of behaviour-focused interventions, behavioural scientists and social psychologists are uniquely equipped to tackle these problems and make a difference in improving the quality of life in our societies.
This chapter provides an overview of techniques used for large-scale behaviour-based intervention. When it comes to applying psychological principles to change behaviour on a large scale, behavioural scientists have been at the forefront. We therefore begin by describing some of the fundamental assumptions of a behavioural-science approach to intervention design and evaluation. Next, we outline six intervention techniques, which have been successfully used by behavioural scientists to improve behaviour in various domains. Finally, we outline six social-psychological principles that can enhance the beneficial impact of these interventions. When you finish reading this chapter, you will understand the principles and procedures of a variety of interventions which can be used to address problem-relevant behaviour.
A behavioural-science approach to intervention
The applied behavioural-science approach to intervention is based on the scientific philosophy of B. F. Skinner. Instead of targeting internal events such as thoughts and attitudes – as is often the focus of contemporary awareness campaigns – Skinner believed psychologists should focus on behaviour because, unlike thoughts and feelings, behaviours can be reliably observed and measured. Thus, the behavioural-science approach to intervention seeks to measure and influence observable behaviour.
A second principle of Skinner's approach is ‘selection by consequences’. In other words, we do what we do because of the consequences that follow our behaviour. More specifically, we do what we do in order to gain positive consequences or to avoid or escape negative consequences.