The emperor wants a new set of clothes

  • August 10, 2020

Is covid-19 really a justification for more funding for behavioural science?

Behavioural science (essentially health psychology) came to applied health research with a big promise – that the application of psychological theory would lead to effective interventions for changing important health-related behaviours. In its strongest form the claim was that it was only such theory-based interventions that could be effective.

This promise was taken up enthusiastically by the UK’s main research funders, the MRC and NIHR, so that in recent years it has become a default expectation that all interventions aimed at changing any aspect of the behaviour of patients or populations should be informed by behavioural science. Their committees started to include behavioural scientists along with statisticians and economists – experts whose knowledge was required to make a decision regardless of the specific topic being considered for funding.

There have always been straws in the wind that this idea might have been a tad oversold.  Initially it was individual evaluations of theory-based interventions that failed to deliver as expected. A discussion paper in 2013 found no evidence that the approach had generated  cost-effective interventions for common behaviour-related health problems like obesity and smoking.  And then a major review of the evidence for the so-called theory-effectiveness hypothesis, published in 2019 in the British Journal of Health Psychology, concluded “Theory-based interventions as currently operationalized in systematic reviews were not found to be more effective than non-theory-based-interventions.”

Still, the idea has taken root. As everybody knows, even that great thinker the former Prime Minister David Cameron was convinced. So when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived it was no surprise that one of the SAGE subcommittees, SPI-B, was charged with applying behavioural science to the problems posed by a need for widespread adoption of changes in lifestyle and day-to-day activities. What has come as a surprise is how little we hear about that committee compared with, for example, SPI-M the committee which is concerned with measuring and modelling the progress of the pandemic. A March statement about the role of behavioural science in the coronavirus outbreak consisted mainly of platitudes and an appeal for urgent research, and since then we have heard hardly anything.

In the past week that relative silence has been broken twice. First has been a vehement denial that the idea of behavioural fatigue comes in any way from the behavioural science stable – an intriguing entry into public debate coming just as it’s clear that whole sections of the public are no longer taking any notice of pleas to maintain social distancing or wear face masks.

Second, an article has appeared in this week’s British Medical Journal with the rather belated acknowledgement that “there is almost no relevant evidence on how to promote adherence to behaviours such as distancing from other people and households, hand cleansing, effective use of face coverings, and avoiding touching one’s eyes nose or mouth with contaminated hands.” They might have added “or willingness to collaborate with contact tracing agencies”.

Why has behavioural science ended up in this position? Michie and West suggest that it’s because they haven’t had enough research funding. More to the point are two features inherent to the whole enterprise. Modern health psychology has taken a robustly individualistic approach – privileging psychological characteristics (such as self-efficacy) and psychological processes (such as the forming of action intentions) to the neglect of interpersonal, social and cultural influences on behaviour. And in its incarnation in health, behavioural science has privileged theory as the foundation of its claims to truth, neglecting the sorts of research approaches that would test those theories in real world settings.

Where next?  “…we urgently need a major coordinated programme of research to develop and evaluate behavioural, environmental, social and systems interventions that will be effective and viable in tackling the covid-19 and future pandemics.” Well maybe, but it isn’t at all clear, given the history, that “behavioural” should be at the front of that list – except that it makes the acronym snappier. There are other ways to think about the rationale for population-level interventions and we should be conducting a wider search for answers – for example through the social and political sciences and humanities.  And adding “political” to the list of interventions would help: any applied health researcher will vouch for the ineffectiveness of the cleverest interventions if they aren’t implemented competently, consistently and comprehensively.

There’s plenty of time to consider the options here. The UK’s pandemic response is in the hands of a government that is influenced by many factors, and high on its list of priorities is not attention to the complexities of science as it applies to population health behaviours. I’m sure they won’t be pressing for answers before Christmas, although they might be looking for people to blame when it’s clear they don’t have those answers…

Allan House

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