Strategy Unit
Personal responsibility and changing behaviour [2004]
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Executive summary:
Consideration is given to how government acting as a more effective ‘persuader’ can be squared with an agenda of enhanced personal responsibility – helping people to help themselves. … the limits of top-down policies to change behaviour are highlighted. In some cases, the application of alternative approaches might allow government to relax more punitive and rigid approaches to behaviour change.

1. Introduction: … the eventual aim is to entrench a habit of personal responsibility and restraint, and a self-sustaining social norm.

1.1 Government can’t do it alone:

  • Health outcomes rest heavily on the lifestyle and behaviour of citizens (diet, exercise, smoking, drinking) and only modestly on the quality of secondary health care;
  • Crime and antisocial behaviour is at least as strongly affected by the values and behaviour of individuals and communities as by the activities of the police and criminal justice system;
  • Education. Research has suggested that more variability in educational outcomes is explained by what happens in the home than in the school.

1.2 For many traditions of social and political thought greater personal responsibility is a good in itself:

  • it enables society to function with a less coercive state and judicial system;
  • it enables public goods to be provided with a lower tax burden;
  • the exercise of responsibility strengthens individual character and moral capacity; and
  • greater personal responsibility – in terms of restraint and support for others – enhances the quality of life of the whole community.

1.3 A further key argument is cost-effectiveness. Detailed cost-benefit analyses in health, crime and education have shown that behaviour-based interventions can be very much more cost-effective than traditional service delivery. For example, smoking cessation programmes deliver around ten-fold more quality-adjusted life years per pound than expenditure on drugs to reduce cholesterol.

1.4 Establishing the division of responsibility between individual, community and state.
Assessments of causal responsibility:
Generally speaking, people tend to assign ‘moral’ or ‘fair’ responsibility on the basis of who, or what, was the cause. Hence we seek compensation from the reckless individual or organisation that causes a major accident, but think it wrong for an individual to have to pay for treatment for an illness resulting from factors beyond their control, such as their genes or pollution. Similarly, more moral responsibility is assigned for educational choices to eighteen year olds than five year olds, on the basis that an eighteen year old has far more knowledge, control and ability to predict the consequences of their lifechoices.
This has been characterised as a presumption that individuals should take responsibility for their ‘knowingly taken life-choices’ (for good or bad) while the state or community should seek to attenuate ‘bruteluck’ effects, such as result from family social background.

2.1 All modern societies suffer the consequences of prohibitions that are only partially effective – for example, against hard drug use. Clearly laws on their own have only limited efficacy where other powerful drivers of behaviour are involved. There is a mature and growing body of knowledge in psychology offering a more sophisticated approach to behaviour and behaviour change, but that remains largely untapped by many policymakers.

4.2 …interventions to curb drug use have been popularly supported despite relatively modest evidence of significant impact. …probably the most simple and important point is that consistency matters – behaviour is most powerfully shaped when all the influences on a young person, from infancy to adulthood, point in the same direction.

An over-arching logic: helping people help themselves
3.5 ... a key role of the state is to encourage in us behaviour that is in our own best interests. ... sometimes everyone engages in behaviours that they may regret or that do them harm, or harm to those around them.
There is a potential tension between, on the one hand, an agenda of encouraging personal responsibility and, on the other hand, of the shaping of the determinants of personal behaviour by the state. How can this be resolved? One solution is to recognise that policy can have twin goals which operate together - policy must at once empower and give choices, but at the same time policy should set the default to be in the best interests of individuals and the wider public interest. To be effective, this twin approach needs to be built around a sense of partnership between state and individual. Hence in employment, while individuals are not ultimately forced to work, the strong default pressures are that they will. In education, young people are not forced to stay on in school and acquire qualifications, but the default pressures are that this is what they do. And in health, governments do not ban unhealthy foods or smoking, but seek to refashion the behavioural pressures towards healthier choices.