Stop creating solutions – Define the problem first!

A while back I had the pleasure of hearing Elina Halonen talk about COM-B. She is not the creator of this tool, but she is known for propagating its value, and in my humble opinion, the reason it has become increasingly popular. According to Elina, who is an applied behavioural scientist, we are too quick about diving into solutions upon being given a brief, topic or problem to solve. We accept the problem given to us, design for a solution based on prior work, and call it a day. Often, we do not dig deeper. Without discrediting the applied side (of which I am now part, and proudly so) this will not elevate behavioural science. But applying COM-B might.

COM-B is a tool created by Susan Michie and Robert West and resides at the interaction of behavioural science and public policy. The latter is the most likely reason for why the tool isn’t that popular commercially. Also, I continue to call COM-B a tool and not a model, because that is exactly what it is. It is a tool, specifically, a tool for diagnosing barriers to certain behaviours. From a policy perspective: why are people NOT performing a certain behaviour? To provide some more context, COM-B (Capability, Opportunity, Motivation – Behaviour) is a diagnostics tool with each of the three buildings blocks divvied up further: Capability into both physical and psychological; Opportunity into physical and social; and Motivation into automatic and reflective – as the kids in the front of the classroom who always paid attention will have figured out, this is essentially system 1 vs. system 2.

To give these sub-divisions some arms and legs I’ll dive into some examples:

  • Physical Capability: Someone has to be physically capable to do something, i.e. you cannot have people in wheelchairs exercise more by creating funky looking steps. If you hadn’t caught on yet, they (currently) cannot walk, let alone do steps.

  • Psychological Capability: See the previous example but then for someone’s mental state, i.e. you cannot expect people with depression to drink 8 glasses water per day, tell them to cheer up and expect that to fix the problem.

  • Physical Opportunity: Ever noticed that there is a lot of litter in nature? Litter does tend to reduce once there are actual garbage cans present. If they are physically not present, putting litter into a garbage can does become a tad more difficult (this does not excuse littering by any stretch of the imagination, but as an example, it stands).

  • Social Opportunity: The social environment is created in such a way that a behaviour doesn’t occur. This can range from behaviours which are deemed as “uncool” but can range all the way to no one daring to speak up in cases of physical (including sexual) harassment because they are more scared of the repercussions to themselves than they are encouraged by the repercussions to the perpetrator.

  • Automatic Motivation: System 1 reasoning: The idea that if you keep telling people they should save money now to enjoy retirement they’ll be fine and successful at saving. Spoiler, the present bias exists and is a real problem for those who are going to live beyond the next 5 years.

  • Reflective Motivation: System 2 reasoning: a more conscious form of reasoning, i.e. people might have actively chosen, after careful deliberation, to not save for retirement: they need to pay of debt first, have a nest egg already or have a completely different mindset when it comes to money matters.

Oof, that was a lot. It’s not the easiest or quickest stuff to get through, but it is important. Why? Because if you don’t understand WHY someone is doing something, it is very unlikely that your intervention will have longer-term effects, if any effect at all. Let me give an example of this as well. I recently read the US Financial Diaries. It’s a very interesting ethnographic study into how hundreds of American households think about money, and how they manage it. There’s entire chapters dedicated to spending, saving, borrowing, indebtedness etc. It also reveals that the main culprit of a lot of households barely making ends meet is…. drumroll please… Volatility.

Didn’t see that one coming, did you?

It was the fact that most families had volatile income streams (not taking the same amount of money home per week/fortnight/month) and often had to supplement this income with other forms of income (increasing the total amount, but also often the volatility of their multiple incomes) that made income near impossible to plan for. And if you don’t really know what’s coming in, well, how do you plan for what’s going out? And these families weren’t “living it up” either. They weren’t blowing through money on luxurious nonsense. No, they had to take care of themselves, their children, their family, their communities (race, ethnicity and religion-based). A lot of the spending might have been a lot more stable. But if you cannot meet the stable amount of spending with your volatile income, well, that can lead to shortages. And if you don’t have a buffer, those shortages lead to delayed payments, and, you guessed it, debt accumulation. If your day to day spending is already higher than your income some of the time, you can’t build a buffer. If your spending is higher than your income, you cannot repay a debt. Even when your income finally beats your spending, you now have a debt to get rid of, before you can then, hopefully, work on building a buffer. And debt is expensive. It also turns out, and in hindsight this makes a lot of sense, that those who earn less are more heavily impacted by volatility (duh), but they are more likely to work jobs in which high levels of volatility occur. This is often where the debt-trap starts.

The story the US Financial Diaries tells us is one that hasn’t been explored much. A lot of financial policies (public) or financial tools and instruments (private) do not seem to target volatility. They seem to target our inability to save and properly prepare for the future by making us empathize more with our future selves, have us save automatically when spending or targeting (over)spending as it arises. But if that’s not really the issue, how likely do we think these things are going to work? I’m not suggesting that we run an ethnographic study for each and every problem we encounter (can you imagine?!). But I do think we need to dig deeper than we currently seem to be doing. A lot of people argue that behavioural science and behavioural interventions seem to be grounded in nothing more but common sense, but how common is the answer of “volatility” when it comes to describing why some households are unable to save and fall under the poverty line only half of the year? I think applying tools such as COM-B and spending a significant chunk of time on problem definition and actual diagnosing of the current state affairs will get us where we need to go. To find the actual true “why” of why people do some things, and not others. But maybe that’s just me being a massive fan of Elina Halonen. Who knows?

Behavioural Science