The emphasis of the Government is towards the 'nudge', persuading rather than telling people to change their behaviour. A report published by the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee in July 2011 concludes that nudge alone is less likely to work. This points the way towards a broader approach encompassing a range of regulatory and non-regulatory approaches.

While parallels can be drawn with the business world, commercial marketing is aimed at changing consumer behaviour by building on expectations and desires - pushing against an open door. However, often the desired changes in social behaviour are shifts that are against engrained perceptions, attitudes and current behaviour patterns, therefore any behavioural changes can only be expected over a longer time period.

Behavioural change through regulation, from a research perspective, essentially distils down to measurement of attitude, behaviour and communication effectiveness - the driver of change is pre-determined.

The principles of 'nudging' behaviour are logical and deceptively simple, however it's subtlety and nuances present particular research challenges. Don't be fooled by simplistic solutions. The Select Committee's report points out that while there is much basic research that informs understanding of human behaviour, there was little evidence of understanding how this can be applied in practice to change the behaviour of populations and that a lot more could and should be done to improve the evaluation of interventions. There are two very pertinent research issues:

Correct understanding of the behaviour in question and by that I mean the causal effects that determine that behaviour;

Ascertaining causal effects of behaviour, requires imagination, vision and creativity - as much an art as a science. There is no off-the-shelf solution. While lessons can be learnt from looking at other examples of behaviour types care needs to taken not to impose the same models - behaviour types and the environment in which they occur each require a fresh look.

Accurate and reliable means to measure the behaviour and its associated causal effects;

It all starts with the data collection and presents one of the basic challenges for any research, that is the act of measurement itself can affect the result. Great care and skill needs to be exercised to minimise this. Secondly, given that the type of behavioural change we are trying to measure is likely to be over long periods of time the changes we are trying to measure can be very small - the challenge is finding predictor variables that may give shorter term change of such a scale that is measurable.