Social Practice Theory, Tube Chat and relevance to Behaviour Change

Established Social Practice
Well Established Social Practice

Did you ever receive ‘guidance’ from a parent, teacher or someone ‘older and wiser’; advising you to be careful about hanging around with a new group of friends (the wrong crowd)?

Turns out they might have been right, and they knew something about Social Practice Theory.

Underpinning the theory is the way that we think about things and make decisions. Broadly this happens in two ways;

  • Reflective: a relatively slow and rational process where we ‘think things through’ and consider the consequences of our actions, and
  • Automatic: a rapid and mostly unconscious process where we choose the quickest answer (not necessarily the best), without thinking too deeply.

Influence from your Social Group. Part of Social Practice Theory is about the influence that the behaviour of a group of people (their social practice) has upon the behaviour of individuals.

Within a social group there will be things that define that group that will often be obvious when seen from outside. For example the ‘social practices’ in a group of teenagers from Wembley (North West London) will be distinctly different to a group from rural Mid Wales. The clothes they wear, the music they like, how they walk up the street and even things like attitudes to authority will be different. It will all be wrapped up in the language they use and the stories they tell each other.

Key to Social Practice Theory is the idea behaviour within the group is unconscious, something group members do automatically. Conforming with the ‘rules’, is performed unconsciously. We can choose to behave differently (reflective thinking), but it’s not that easy. Some social practices can have powerful influence on individual and group behaviours. I’ve previously touched on this idea in the Monkeys, Bananas and Complying with Daft Rules post.

img_6212-1London Tube Chat – Disrupting Social Practice. As it happens I was in Wembley last weekend. Travelling on the underground from Paddington Station I was keen to spot someone wearing a ‘Tube Chat’ badge. Basically an invitation to engage in conversation with a complete stranger on the underground – introduced by an American (I’ll say no more).

Apparently this has horrified many Londoners and has generated a backlash of ‘alternative’ Tube Chat badges you can read about in this London Evening Standard article.

It is however a great example of someone trying to disrupt a very well established social practice of NOT speaking to strangers (or anyone else) on the London Underground. I didn’t spot anyone with a ‘Tube Chat’ badge, and was perfectly compliant with the social practice of ‘No Chat’ on my trip. I’ve been there enough times to know the rules.

However, once back on the train to Cardiff I adopted a different set of social practices. This generally happens once you’ve passed Reading. The noise level increases, and you can have a lovely chat with those people from Nantymoel. Tidy! (I think they were related to my mate Colin from Ogmore Vale). Key point, I didn’t think very much about my different behaviours on the trains, I just did it, automatically.

What has this got to do with Behaviour Change? Social Practice Theory has a lot to do with Behaviour Change which you can read about in the book Beyond Behaviour Change edited by Professor Fiona Spotswood. A few of the key points I’ve picked up so far:

  • Much of the behaviour change activity carried out by governments (and other agencies) focusses upon changing the behaviour of the individual,
  • This often ignores the influence of wider ‘social practice’ on the individuals.
  • Behavioural Economics approaches to behaviour change often assume that people will make rational ‘thought through’ decisions about what they do,
  • As above, this often ignores the automatic, unconscious influence of social practice on people,
  • Manipulating the physical environment to ‘nudge’ behaviour (things like choice architecture) is only one component in the variety of approaches to changing behaviour,
  • Again, the influence of social practice can be significant.

A key learning point: you can change the behaviour of individuals and groups of people by focussing on changing their social practices. From the point of view of policy makers and people with an interest in value for money, this might be a more attractive option that just focussing on individuals?

So what can be done? There’s an interesting chapter in the book by Daniel Welch from the Sustainable Consumption Unit at University of Manchester. This references a lot work by Prof Elizabeth Shove from Lancaster University.  Within this chapter Welch explains how social practices are driven by three interlinked parts:

  • Materials – what equipment, tools, clothing etc are part of the practice?
  • Know How – what competency do you need to carry out the practice?
  • Meaning – how does this fit with your understanding of the group social practice?

The idea is that you have to change these component parts, or the links between them if you what to achieve sustained behaviour change. There are some interesting examples of this which I’ll cover in the next post.

img_6214So, Why hasn’t Tube Chat worked? If you unpick the Tube Chat experience from a social practice theory there might be some good reasons why it hasn’t worked:

  • Materials – Tube Chat badges (and a ‘counter culture’ of NOPE! badges)
  • Know How – people generally know how to talk (shouldn’t be a problem)
  • Meaning – there’s a deeply held understanding of NOT talking on the Tube. This might have been underestimated by an American who introduced the idea… it is a practice with deep meaning and no disposition towards change.

So, what’s the PONT? 

  1. Behaviour change is a complicated area informed by a wide variety of theories and practice.
  2. The behaviour of individuals is often determined by the unconscious acts of fitting in with the wider social practice of a group.
  3. Focussing on changing social practices can have an impact on changing the behaviour of individuals and groups (rather than just individuals).

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

4 Responses

  1. Tom H

    Fantastic blog, great explanation of why focussing on individuals may not generate the results we expect. Behaviour change – it’s a game of two halves, team and individual. Actually there’s probably a bit of cross over between sports psychology and behaviour change. We’ve all been in teams sporting or otherwise where a collection of talented individuals don’t perform as a group……

  2. Minor tweak: traditional economics is based on utility theory, that given enough information, people will make rational, thought through decisions and choose the outcome that has the greatest utility. Behavioural Economics on the other hand says “no they don’t” and is the study of what really happens amidst moments of decision. It’s not that we can’t make rational assessments, it’s that most of the time we shouldn’t try.

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