Methods and approaches for understanding behaviour change


Describe the scope of approaches and methods for understanding behaviour in international development. Describe the scope of the use of research-driven processes towards addressing behaviour change in development (with a focus on health, education, social protection and livelihood development). Review the current initiatives to understand and respond to behaviour change in Uganda and Karamoja.


There are many theories about, and approaches to, behavioural change derived from disciplines such as psychology, sociology, communication and political science. These theories focus on a number of different levels: the enabling environment; the community; the interpersonal; or the individual. What matters is not only which behaviour change intervention or policy is implemented, but how.

Key findings include the following:

  • Evidence suggests that behaviour and behaviour change can be best understood when an open theory approach is adopted. This approach acknowledges that the translation of theoretical methods to specific contexts, populations, and cultures is complex.
  • Information alone is insufficient to support behaviour change. Influencing healthy behaviours and creating a supportive social environment requires the stimulation of learning and participation through regular dialogue with, and within, the target community. An individual’s relationships (with partners, families, the wider community and society) can substantially affect how that person behaves.
  • Behaviour change interventions need to take into account the specific psychological and social influences that guide decision-making and behaviour in a particular setting. That means that  designing and implementing interventions needs to become a more iterative process of discovery, learning and adaptation.
  • Examples of  behaviour change approaches in international development are drawn from UNICEF, ActionAid and FHI360.
  • Efforts to change behaviour in Karamoja have focused on nutrition, health and hygiene interventions.


Suggested citation

Avis, W. (2016). Methods and approaches to understanding behaviour change (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 1,389). Birmingham, UK: GSDRC, University of Birmingham.