Creating change for animals starts with changing humans


Have you ever tried to change your behaviour? Most of us at some time have wanted to eat less, exercise more or stop smoking. Did you have the knowledge needed to make the change? Did you know what to eat or how to exercise, for example? Did you have the motivation to change? Did you understand the benefits of making the change? Most of us know that if we maintain a healthy weight we might avoid certain health issues, for example. However, do most make the change and maintain it? If so, is it easy? If not, then why not?

We know from campaigns such as those recommending five portions of fruit or vegetables a day that it is very easy for people to have a high awareness of a “rule,” but not actually live by it. We often understand the benefits of changing, but despite having the desire, knowledge, and motivation, actually changing our behaviour is difficult. And yet, when it comes to animal welfare, we often assume that if we explain to people why change is needed they will instantly change the way they behave towards and manage their animals.

The root cause of much animal suffering is human behaviour; the things that people do, or don’t do, often leads to animal suffering. However, traditional approaches to improving animal welfare have focused either on providing a service, such as accessible veterinary treatment, or on campaigning for people to change their consumer habits. Understanding why people do what they do, don’t do what you’d like them to, and more often than not, do not change their behaviour at all, is the holy grail of anyone with something to sell, a campaign to promote or a desire to improve the world.

For this reason human behaviour change has been studied by experts in marketing, psychology, development, and health and education programmes. Understanding human behaviour is important for anyone with an interest in helping the world to be a better place for humans or animals. This article explores the different elements of human behaviour change and why we believe that we can all benefit from learning about human, as well as animal, behaviour.

The output of this huge body of work can be roughly summarized into four principles:

Principle one: change is a process

What causes people to change their behaviour has been studied from many different angles, and the answer is different depending on which aspect has been studied. There are many useful theories to explore; for example, theory of change identifies what is needed for change to occur by finding the causes underlying each change milestone. It is a process used to create a strategy, and can also be done retrospectively to understand how change happened. This approach is becoming increasingly common in strategic planning of animal welfare projects.

The transtheoretical model outlines five ‘stages of change’ in individuals: pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Other models may depict change as less linear with feedback loops and cycles. This concept is useful for people working with individual clients such as vets and behaviourists.

The main elements to consider in the overall process of change are the triggers for behaviour change, the connections between the points, and whether they can be mapped to better facilitate change. These elements can be studied at all levels from individuals to mass behaviour change.

Principle two: understanding psychology is key in driving change

This principle helps us answer questions such as how much change is due to autonomous decision and how much is as a result of influence by others, how the mind works in processing new information, what factors affect our motivation for change, how barriers for change are often very deep-seated beliefs and values and how to best address this, and many more. If we have a better understanding of what motivates and influences people, we can apply that knowledge directly to our work.

Understanding motivations for change and why new behaviours are deserted or maintained is necessary in planning effective projects. An understanding of the relationship between behaviour change in individuals and change throughout a community is vital in planning and adapting projects that rely on the spread of best practices.

Principle three: the environment influences change

How do you facilitate change, break down barriers, create social trends, and encourage new dialogue to become the norm? Social marketing is the main discipline to look to for the answers. Well-used in the health and environmental sectors, social marketing works to enable change by providing a suitable environment. It identifies barriers to change, proposes solutions, and uses concepts from group psychology to drive social change. Social marketing is mostly relevant for ‘mass’ change but can also be used on a smaller scale to encourage take up and spread of ideas in communities.

Principle four: change must be “owned”

There is a saying that goes, “Tell me and I forget, show me and I remember, involve me and I truly understand.” This perfectly illustrates this principle of change. People need to truly appreciate the relevance of the desired behaviour change to them personally for it to happen. If we understand that people learn and change if they are not told what to do through typical top-down educational outreach, and not just shown what to do through demonstration, but are truly involved in the process of change, then we can help facilitate that change. This process involves enabling people and communities to explore issues and come up with solutions themselves rather than ‘training’ them to implement a preconceived solution.

There are differences in preferred strategies of how to best introduce participatory approaches into projects, and to what level the preliminary research should be done in a participatory manner. The extent to which communities are given autonomy in a given project varies, given that the organisations managing the project generally have their own goals to meet, such as improving animal welfare.

An important piece of this principle is the concept of positive deviance, which describes the fact that even though many individuals or groups in a community usually have access to similar resources or face similar challenges, some find better solutions than others. The community-driven approach enables people to discover these successful behaviours in their communities and develop their own plan of action for their dissemination.

These principles reflect my personal understanding of the foundational concepts in the study of human behaviour change. There are many alternative ways they could be categorised, as well as considerable overlap between them.

The First International Conference on Human Behaviour Change for Animal Welfare took place in the UK in September 2016. From that conference, the Human Behaviour Change for Animals Community Interest Company was born, with the vision of providing resources, services and products to help those working in animal welfare to develop an understanding of the key principles of human behaviour change and how to apply them.

If we do not understand why humans do the things they do, and what drives them to change, we will never be effective at making the world a better place for animals.

Note: this article has been modified from a page on our website.

Featured image: a man feeds dogs at the Kenya SPCA. Image credit Kim Bartlett – Animal People, Inc.

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About Author

Suzanne Rogers is a co-director of Human Behaviour Change for Animals (HBCA), an organization that works to build the capacity of those working in animal welfare by developing their understanding of the key principles of human behaviour change and how to apply them. Click to see author's profile.

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