WHO Bulletin: Harnessing the power of behavioural science to improve health

4 November, 2021

Citation and extracts from WHO Bulletin November 2021 and a comment from me below.

CITATION: Bull World Health Organ. 2021 Nov 1; 99(11): 754–754A.

Published online 2021 Nov 1. doi: 10.2471/BLT.21.287375

Harnessing the power of behavioural science to improve health

Elena Altieri et al.


'The international health community has set ambitious goals for health: eliminating or reducing communicable and noncommunicable diseases, ensuring appropriate use of antibiotics, increasing the uptake of vaccines and other preventive measures, and responding appropriately to epidemics, among others. Behavioural science can help in achieving these goals...

'Traditionally, public health efforts addressing risk behaviours have often focused on knowledge and awareness. Behavioural science analyses influencing factors within the environments around individuals and how insights can be used to design and make discrete changes in the environment to impact behaviours...'

COMMENT (NPW): There is a tension between the persuasion of behavioural approaches (where the aim is to change behaviour) and the information of knowledge approaches (where the aim is to provide the information people need so that they can make up their own minds). There are good arguments on both sides, the two approaches overlap and elements of both are probably needed. I am reminded of the motto of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University: 'To inform, not persuade'. I think HIFA's work is largely in tune with this motto, but has a more nuanced perspective on persuasion: our work is about meeting people's needs for reliable information than about changing people's behaviour. We recognise that meeting information needs is a prerequisite, but is not always sufficient to change behaviour (if that is one's endpoint). In the area of persuasion, there is a wide spectrum that includes (for example) explicit healthy policymaking such as taxing tobacco, through to approaches that include an element of manipulation. Plenty to discuss!

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator, neil@hifa.org www.hifa.org