What works? Reflections on the International Summit on Social and Behaviour Change Communication

Written by: Alexandra Cronberg

Whether you know it or not, you are probably subject to social and behaviour change interventions in daily life. If you live in South Africa, perhaps you have heard radio ads or seen ads on Twitter or Facebook, talking about the importance of wearing seatbelts in the car. If you live in India, perhaps you have seen billboards with the slogan “Drink whisky, drive risky”. In many countries in Europe, cigarette packages now display graphic pictures of cancerous organs, and smoking is banned in public places. In countries all over the world, employees who are given the choice of joining a pension scheme often have the box ticked by default.

As these examples illustrate, behaviour change interventions can take many forms, including communication campaigns, taxes, legislation, and ‘nudges’.

These types of interventions are all part of the field of Social and Behaviour Change (SBC). Sometimes it’s referred to, more or less interchangeably, as Social and Behaviour Change Communication (SBCC) or Communication for Development (C4D). Whichever term is used, social and behaviour change is an umbrella field consisting of specialists in subjects such as communications, behavioural economics, anthropology, sociology, and Human Centred Design, to mention but a few.

The evolving nature and growing popularity of the field was evident at the International Summit on Social and Behaviour Change Communication (https://sbccsummit.org/) held in Bali a couple of weeks ago. Over 1200 participants attended, indeed three times as many as that at the preceding summit in 2016.

The summit posed the pertinent question: What works?

To address it, the conference agenda offered a vast range of session on interventions, approaches, and measurements. The interventions targeted everything from use of family planning by reaching mothers-in-law, radio dramas addressing gender-based violence through challenging prevailing social norms, and television ads to normalise HIV testing among gay men. Presenters also talked more broadly about measuring and understanding social norms and networks, successfully scaling up interventions, strengthening measurements, as well as new innovative research methods.

It certainly made for interesting contents on What Works? The question of Why things work was, however, more scantily answered. Admittedly, that question was not part of the summit title. Yet it is also an important one if we want to exhibit a degree of predictability in these matters. While the complexity of human behaviour, and often non-linear nature of change, means there is no simple answer or single model for Pictureaddressing behaviour change, the very complexity of the matter means it is essential to use – and gain – insights into conscious and unconscious drivers of behaviour. Only with such insights can the design and effectiveness of this type of interventions be maximised and further advanced.

So what should be next for SBC? Arguably the challenge is how practitioners in the field – the behavioural scientists, economists, sociologists, communication experts – share knowledge and collaborate to answer not only the question of What Works, but also Why?

Offering a forum to discuss such gaps and potential future actions, the SBCC summit included a small but valuable working session on ‘What does the research agenda for social and behaviour change need to address?’. Attended by a dozen or so academics, researchers, and practitioners, the session promised a good start to bringing these groups together and enabling the sharing of knowledge and building of a joint research agenda. The conversation is currently continuing online, with actions to follow. It is also worth mentioning that other points raised were the need for a better understanding and/or sharing of innovations, ethics of interventions, sustainability, cost analysis, and a conceptual practical model of influencers.

Hopefully this collaborative initiative can help share knowledge building on existing insights to improve effectiveness and predictability of social and behaviour change interventions, and so contribute to further develop the field.

What’s more, hopefully the initiative will succeed without the need for any behaviour change intervention of its own.