If you work in behaviour change, you likely know the five stages approach to behavioural change, which is based on transitioning our target audience from one stage to another to help them adopt new, improved behaviours. But does focusing on the stages distract us from the process?

Do we hit our program goals at the expense of helping people ‘enjoy the journey’ and make more meaningful transitions and commitments to a sustainable lifestyle?

It’s a simplified question, of course. But the act of helping people enjoy the journey could help create the sustainable changes we’re looking for. And one way to do that is to incorporate a feedback loop.

A feedback loop is commonly used in economic discussion as ‘a situation where part of the output of a situation is used for new input. An example of a positive feedback loop would be one where success feeds success’ (from Financial Times lexicon). In sustainability terms, it’s often used regarding climate change – and the impact of one action positively (increasing) or negatively (decreasing) our global situation.

Do we hit our program goals at the expense of helping people ‘enjoy the journey’ …

But of course that doesn’t mean it can’t be applied individually. We’re all small drops in the ocean, after all.

A simple example of a positive feedback loop is the Your Speed signs now in widespread use to help reduce speeding motorists. Those signs that tell you what speed you’re travelling at in relation to what the zone requires, and sometimes even give you a smiley face or a ‘thumbs up’ as a reward for a suitable speed.

Ronson’s book explores the concept of naming and shaming via social media and the instant, often very long term, impact it has on individuals, companies and ideas.  One idea he posits for the current proliferation of online shaming is that shaming can be considered part of a feedback loop – where we are congratulated instantly for ‘calling out’ inappropriate behaviour as online comments are reinforced by others. Confirmation bias anyone?

The concepts are certainly not unrelated.In Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, he cites the Your Speed case study – covered in Tomas Goetz’s article from Wired magazine, Harnessing the Power of Positive Feedback .  On paper, it seems like it shouldn’t work. How does providing information that is already available to the driver via their speedometer going to encourage them to slow down? But that little bit of feedback has since raised awareness of speed limits and reduced speeds in countless traffic zones around the world.

Several studies have shown links between adolescent smoking and the networks they do, or don’t share. Peer groups can provide positive or negative feedback loops – supporting or actively dismissing  an individual’s desire to smoke. And the term ‘enclothed cognition’ was coined during a study into the impact that wearing fashionable athletics gear was having on women’s likelihood to start being, well, more athletic.

Feedback can be a powerful tool to encourage change.  Used appropriately, it feeds into our confirmation biases and motivates us to continue our thinking, behaviours and enjoy the trouble we’re taking to change our behaviour.

What sort of feedback have you found most effective in encouraging and sustaining behaviour change?