Focusing on how decisions are made towards behaviour during formative research can improve the specificity of strategies and interventions we develop.

Focusing on how decisions are made towards behaviour during formative research can improve the specificity of strategies and interventions we develop.

Since January this year, I completed two secondary research projects, and I am currently in the middle of leading formative research. Behavioural science frameworks emphasize understanding the barriers and facilitators of completing a behaviour, but there is insufficient focus on how people or entities make their decisions with these barriers and facilitators in place. I found adding focus to analysing how the back-and-forth interplay of information processing towards a behaviour takes place to be just as important as unpacking all the barriers and facilitators.

I’ll illustrate my point using examples from two different projects I worked on. The first looked at understanding the decision-making processes of countries in the Global South to become contributors to development and humanitarian aid. The second looked at the decision-making processes that individuals in Southern Africa use when seeking healthcare. I found commonalities in the underlying principles to my approach for both projects.

Understanding decision-making requires a multi-theory approach.

One needs to use theories outside of behavioural science to fully understand decision-making. Indeed, behavioural science should oftentimes have a supporting role rather than the main role. I always rely on behavioural science for framing a problem and giving tools to organise thinking, but further content needs to be informed by other disciplines to bring nuance and meaning.

In the case of non-traditional actors in development and humanitarian aid, I combined research from international relations and political science and put them within a behavioural science model (see figure 1 below). The COM-B model provided a simple model to organise thinking, but the subject matter expertise from the research I analysed provided the depth of perspective needed to understand the relationship between national interests, global power dynamics, and institutional decision-making processes that influence a country’s decision to become an aid contributor.


Similarly, for the healthcare-seeking behaviours in Southern Africa project, I drew upon medical anthropology and health economics literature. These additional lenses provided crucial insights into how cultural beliefs, economic constraints, and community influences shape individual health decisions in ways that traditional behavioural models might overlook. This process also introduced me to less known concepts in the social and behaviour change field such as medical pluralism. In this way, I gained insights into the non-linearity of decision-making and how individuals go back and forth between decision points.

The points of back-and-forth within decision-making are important to intervention design.

Traditional journey maps often present decision-making as a linear process, which can be misleading when trying to identify where people change course on their way to making a decision. In reality, decision-making is often a non-linear, iterative process with multiple points of reconsideration and potential exit.

When trying to understand countries’ decisions to contribute to aid or not, I identified several “pivot points” where countries reassessed their commitment to becoming aid contributors. These included changes in political leadership, economic fluctuations, and shifts in global development priorities. Mapping these points of potential back-and-forth allowed me to identify potential areas where countries could be supported through these critical junctures.

For the healthcare-seeking behaviours study, I discovered that individuals often cycled between traditional and modern medicine, influenced by factors such as treatment efficacy, cost, and social pressure. Recognising these decision loops allowed me to give the client a fuller picture of what happens in reality as opposed to a simple dichotomous choice.

Appreciating the impact of the messenger effect in decision-making.

The messenger effect is a well-known principle in behavioural science, but its full implications are often underappreciated. My recent work showed me that the impact of a message extends far beyond the characteristics of the messenger themselves, and that the impact of the message is influenced by the setting within which the source communicates the message as well.

In the context of non-traditional aid contributors, papers pointed towards countries’ decisions being influenced by whether they received messages in multilateral forums, bilateral meetings, or through regional bodies. The physical and institutional setting of these interactions played a strong role in how they interpreted the information and acted upon it.

For healthcare-seeking behaviours, studies I consulted showed that the same health information was received differently when delivered in a clinical setting versus a community gathering or through social media. The context and medium of the message significantly influenced its credibility and impact on decision-making.

We can benefit from adding a behavioural science lens to various parts of our work.

This year was the first time I combined my behavioural science skills with my work on institutional funding. A significant insight for me was that many behavioural science theories traditionally applied to individual behaviour can be effectively adapted to understand collective behaviour as well. The key was looking at the exercise as an attempt to understand decision-making.

In the case of countries deciding to become aid contributors, I found that concepts like loss aversion, social proof, and reciprocity played out on a national scale. For instance, countries were more likely to commit to aid contributions when they could frame it as maintaining their international status (loss aversion) or when they saw peer nations making similar commitments (social proof). For me, adding a decision-making and behavioural science lens helped to bridge the gap between theoretical understanding and practical application.

Do you think focusing on decision-making processes is useful? And do you plan on experimenting with adding a behavioural science lens to a part of your work? Share them with me here.