Susan Michie is Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behaviour Change at UCL. Her research focuses on developing the science of behaviour change interventions and applying behavioural science to interventions. Susan took part in our event on 27th of May 2017 in London, where she gave a talk called: “What does it take to change your behaviour?”
By Professor Susan Michie
Standing on a Soapbox addressing the crowds on a sunny afternoon by the River Thames is not my normal weekend activity. It was the result of an email from a University College London colleague encouraging women scientists to apply to Soapbox Science. I had never heard of Soapbox Science before but quickly found out about its laudable aims of promoting women scientists and the science they do, with its catchphrase “Bringing science to the people” (http://soapboxscience.org/).
Such a great idea – instead of waiting for the public to come to us, get out there and take our science to them. It was brilliantly organised with four women scientists spaced along the side of a wide part of the walkway with our names and topics in front of us and helpers milling around the crowds drawing them to us. An hour each over 3 hours, allowing 12 women scientists to talk in an afternoon.
My topic was “What does it take to change behaviour?”. One of my research group, Lucas Michaut had created some props – large signs saying ‘Why is behaviour important?’, ‘What is behaviour?’, ‘What influences behaviour?’ and ‘How to change behaviour?’ and a large poster with the COM-B model of behaviour; this provided the framework for the talk.
People were interested and engaged, and ready to share their experiences. I used what they had to say to illustrate wider principles of behaviour change. A recovering alcoholic talked about successfully being dry for 10 months and I elicited some of the strategies he had used to bring about change in the short-term and then to maintain it long-term. A man volunteered that he sometimes struggled to keep his temper and wanted to find other ways to respond to aggravating situations. I managed to bring several of the audience in to the conversation about possible strategies, which included changing the situations that aggravated him which, in turn, raised other questions of how to achieve this. The most memorable interlocutor was a man who said he had bipolar disorder and struggled to find his ‘middle’ and keep there and wanted advice as to how to achieve it. This led to a discussion about how emotions and behaviour interacted and the importance of recognising patterns so that one could intervene early on when things were going awry. As he left, he turned around and pointed at me and shouted ‘You are legend!’ – praise indeed.
The experience was heart-warming and energising. I was pleasantly surprised at how ready people were to give me personal examples to use in outlining principles of behaviour change and how easy it seemed to be to get conversations going. I think my willingness to give examples from my own life helped – I think I wasn’t what most expected from a ‘woman professor’. Although most of my research is in behaviour related to promoting health, most people were interested in behaviour in relation to their emotions and their communication and relationships with people. The continual interplay between real life examples and theories and evidence from my work seemed to go down well.
I would wholeheartedly encourage others to have a go at this unusual but effective way of ‘bringing science to the people’. Not only does it feel good to get out there and think about how to make one’s science relevant to all but engaging with such a wide range of curious people stimulates one’s own thinking. There were many young people, including children and I hope that I may have planted seeds in people’s heads about areas for further enquiry and even study.