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Individual vs. System: Stop Blaming the Consumer!

Recently it seems an article by Chater and Loewenstein has gone viral. It’s their work on individual change perspectives in public policy “The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray”. In this paper they argue for an increased focus of the behavioural sciences on the systems and contexts decision-makers operate in (the s-frame), rather than the decision-maker themselves (the I-frame). They quote the importance of the decision-making environment, as well as the small and often non-persistent results from behavioural change interventions that only target the individual, and not their context. And I couldn’t agree more.


During my PhD I was asked to join a panel on sustainability. My role was to talk about the behavioural aspects of sustainability, with a strong focus on recycling, but also the general reduction of buying harmful materials, such as plastic. I was on the panel with engineers, chemists and people who knew how to make plastic less damaging, more recyclable etc. I stood out as a behavioural scientist, I’ll tell you that much. People who understood materials and their production went on and on about minor improvements to make plastic better for the environment. They eventually turned to me and asked me directly how we could make it easier for people to not buy plastic. Or just buy a tad less of it. They were hoping for answers such as “make alternatives easier available”, “spread information on the damages of plastics so consumers can make an informed choice” etc. etc. Somehow, it was up to the consumer to stop funding multi-billion dollar companies and their plastic production. My suggestion? Ban the whole lot of it.

Now I’m not saying I got a standing ovation nor did people walk out in anger or disgust, but I was asked to clarify what I meant. So I did. I explained that in a system (aka the grocery store) where everything is packaged in plastic, because manufacturers have not been incentivized to use anything else, you can’t expect the consumer to buy things that don’t have some plastic aspect to them. What a revelation. When you think about this for longer than 2 seconds, you know I’m right, and that the analogy makes perfect sense for a lot of behavioural change problems we are currently facing. You can’t have a decision-maker (i-frame) that is consistently making much better decisions than the system (s-frame) allows them to make. That is insane. To expect that is insanity. Yet insanity is what we have here. Chater and Loewenstein describe a multitude of studies and results from different behavioural change programs focusing on obesity, (inadequate) retirement preparation, plastic waste and the cost of (U.S.) healthcare (the debt spiral). The individual is targeted to change, yet the system is largely left alone. And it doesn’t matter which behaviour change model or tool you adhere to (EAST, MINDSPACE, MAPS, COM-B, SMART etc.), not changing the environment will significantly stunt your results.

Talking about behaviour change models, let’s look at one of the most hardcore form of behavioural change: recovering from addiction. One of the first things that is done in this type of recovery, apart from getting the substance out of the body, is identifying the triggers and the associated stimuli. When do people turn to drugs? Well it depends on the drug, but let’s say cocaine. Cocaine is a stimulant, most famously known for getting bankers in the ‘90s to work and party for days on end without stopping. The motivation for usage is clear: to keep up with a toxic (work) environment. The associated stimuli are a tad more difficult and can be highly individual. Cocaine usage is commonly associated with clean, smooth, flat surfaces, like mirrors. The presence of these stimuli can be triggers to the recovering addict. A recovering coke addict that is surrounded by mirrors is not going to do so well. Successful addiction recovery can often only be completed by a reduced exposure or absolutely no exposure to the environment and the stimuli the addiction was formed and enabled in. At the very least, the recovered addict must be given and trained in the usage of coping mechanisms. Knowing what we know from addiction recovery studies, why do we expect non-clinical behaviour change to be different? COM-B very clearly indicates that if there’s no Opportunity for behaviour change (i.e. there’s no alternative to plastic) that there will be no behavioural change. Or at least, the chance of it occurring reduces dramatically. We have known this for decades, so what’s going on?

As a proud behavioural scientist it hurts me to say this, but I do believe it to be true: behavioural science is sometimes used as a band aid. For fixing a problem which presents itself to be more of a fracture rather than a scratch. Individual change can be a wonderful thing. And if we can use behavioural science to help others reach their goals and be better versions of themselves, that is great. If people can help themselves through behavioural science, that is also amazing. But it isn’t enough. We will need to redesign the systems that we are operating in, especially as it turns out these systems aren’t working. We are having health crises due to obesity. Healthcare is becoming more expensive. The globe isn’t coping with our current levels of production and consumption. Things need to change. They need to be redesigned. And some of that redesign will have to be paired with policy reform, regulation and lawmaking.


If companies aren’t allowed, by law, to use plastic containers and must legally use an approved, sustainable alternative, and lots of countries decide this (i.e. the EU as a whole bans it), well, what choice do companies have? And if as a result plastic production reduces, great. And if as a result plastic consumption decreases, because there’s now an actual alternative which consumers can buy, amazing. From my perspective, it’s the system we need to tackle. And behavioural scientists can help with this too. We can identify the barriers, map them out, create the journey towards a better future together with highly interdisciplinary teams to make sure the issue is studied from all angles. But then again, I am an idealist.


Behavioural Science

Personal Finance



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