Behaviour, ‘The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others’

In other words, everything we do. The decisions we make, the way we act, the things that show people who we are.

There is so much talk about behaviour change, it’s become a buzz word. But how often do we really aim to understand behaviour, or are we really just tying to manipulate, influence and persuade someone to do something differently? Isn’t that what marketing and advertising are all about? Actually, I don’t think so.

Understanding someone’s behaviour isn’t about using it against them to hoodwink them into doing what we want them to do. It’s not about covert, subconscious ways of brainwashing people into buying what we have to sell, nor is about selling to people without them realising they are being sold to. It’s about understanding who people are and what makes them tick, so we know who we can be most relevant and meaningful for. Genuinely.

People aren’t defined by a set of demographics – I am not a a clone of every other woman in her 40s living in the London commuter belt. It is my behaviour that defines me as being me, not the facts and data about my age, where I live or what I had for dinner last night. That is equally true for an oncologist looking after people with cancer, an NHS commissioner trying to make the most out of limited resources, or a person coming to terms with a Type 2 diabetes diagnosis.

There are so many cases of behaviour impacting real-life situations in health. GPs are more likely to prescribe antibiotics just before lunch and at the end of the day, when they are weary from patients persistently demanding them. A break over lunch and they re-set their energy and resilience. People with asthma might take their inhaler diligently to start with, but gradually get complacent and feel they no longer need it, until the day they wake up finding they are struggling to breathe. I know, I am one of them, and I have given myself a stern talking to (as has the asthma nurse, who remained patient and supportive despite seeing people harming themselves like this through non-compliance every single day).

We are all people, and labels like ‘HCP’, ‘payer’ or ‘patient’ don’t help to give any understanding of who we really are. So we shouldn’t feel the need to label people like this, instead we should get to know people. Talk to them, understand what drives them, what scares them, why they do what they do. Treat them like human beings, not boxes in a survey. Then we can understand what makes them tick, what they are looking for and how we can help them with whatever it is they are looking to achieve.

Understanding people makes so much more sense than bucketing people. It’s better for them, and it’s better for us as we’re more likely to be heard. Understand people and we can talk to them in a way that suits what they need.

Behavioural insights are still largely considered to be unnecessary – not a core part of what we need to do. Why on earth not? The upfront investment can reap rewards and make everything else more efficient and effective, with proven ROI. Maybe people prefer to keep doing things the same old way, crossing their fingers that they’ll get something different and more effective out of the other end.

If we want communications to be more effective, and genuinely make a difference, we should stop thinking about how to convince and persuade, and instead start thinking about how we can listen and understand. It’s a win-win.