When I first drafted the opening paragraph of this blog entry, it read as follows:

I was out with a group of friends on Saturday night when a number of supposed non-smokers lit up cigarettes. ‘Social smokers’ – they called themselves. This has always baffled me (not in the least because I believe smoking is particularly anti-social). What makes these non-addicted smokers smoke? I know they all read ‘smoking kills’ on the packet and understand the health risks. What’s more I know they are well-educated, socially oriented individuals and, as the World Health Organization has put it, “the tobacco industry and corporate responsibility are an inherent contradiction”. So, if awareness and knowledge are not enough to prevent this behaviour, what would successfully bring about this change?

Thinking about this, I’m pretty sure that asserting my personal bias is not going to bring about a change in their smoking habits. And knowledge of the risks hasn’t done the trick. So what might work? If I were to make it my mission, what questions should I ask to better understand what it is about social smoking that people enjoy in the first place and what, if anything, might change this behaviour? How do I think people change? If I thought that knowledge changed people’s behaviour, then this smoking case is one that challenges my theory.

“What is your theory of change?” asked Steve Waddell, founder of GAN-Net (a learning network of Global Action Networks), visiting our organization on Friday. Whether or not we’ve studied theories of change at an academic level, we often have a pretty embedded change theory influencing the way we approach the world. For example, I might have assumed that informing people about the serious hazards of smoking (or of damaging the environment for that matter) would be enough to change behaviour. The question is, do we subscribe to one change theory in a no-questions-asked fashion? For example, do we believe it’s as simple as knowledge → behaviour change? Or do we give due attention to diverse change theories and the multitude of other factors influencing change, ranging from beliefs to new technologies?

As seen in the case of the social smokers, the knowledge → behaviour change theory is clearly not a universal truth (those who are working on climate change these days would have noticed this as well). Other theories of change are needed. In what ways could learning about our own, embedded theories of change as well as the diversity of other theories help us change the way we approach the world for greater, positive impact?

1 reply
  1. Cecilia
    Cecilia says:

    As an ex-smoker, you’ve made me reflect on what made me change behaviour/stop smoking 30 years ago. I had also heard or read often that smoking kills but I was always surprised to see that the warning was not enough to make me change. I truly enjoyed it at the time and I did not want anyone to interfere with my pleasure. Therefore, knowledge – change of behaviour was not enough for me. What made me change? I think that there are a multitude of other factors influencing change. In my case, I think it was a sudden deep and personal awareness of several things at the same time. This came about with inner introspection at various levels and trying to be coherent with my inner self. I think though that this was my own personal path and not necessarily a recipe for others. What could be of interest, is the fact that once you make the effort to change, if you do see/feel the benefits of it this reassures you on your choice and keeps you going.

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