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The ethics of behavioural science and the impact of the ‘National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’

The ethics of behavioural science and the impact of the ‘National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’

We all have an obligation to consider the ethics of what we do.

Diving deep into the ethics of behaviour change, this article answers questions like, why is ethics important, and what does the ‘National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’ have to do with my work as a behaviour change practitioner?

The ‘National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research’ is the ethical framework governing how research with human participants is conducted in Australia. It may appear technical, and far removed from the work that you doin your everyday work life. But, ethics is all encompassing, and is about doing all things in a right or morally acceptable way.

So even if your work is not classified as ‘research’, you, like all people, have a moral obligation to do good, and avoid doing harm to others. If your work involves influencing behaviour, the potential of behavioural science to change the ways people act, is a further reason to consider the ethics of your work.

The Australian Government (specifically the NHMRC) made changes to the National statement in 2023, particularly where risks and benefits to participation in research (Chapter 2.1), and where governance and review of research ethics (Section 5) are concerned. In the case of the former, risk is now classified on a continuum from minimal risk to high risk, for any research activities that are ‘harmful’. According to this new classification, examples of high risk include re-traumatisation from research-related anxiety and even death, and require careful consideration by ethics review boards.

Research activities that behavioural scientists and practitioners engage in, however, at best may result in inconvenience to their participants. For instance, they might ask their participants to monitor the amount of time they spend in the shower for one week, as an attempt to quantify this behaviour. Other examples include filling out surveys or costs relating to travel. These activities no longer constitute risk according to the National Statement, as they are not harmful.  But where minimal or low risk or harm is foreseeable, practitioners, researchers and ethics review boards should continue to weigh up these possibilities against the benefits to participation. A summary of all changes and amendments to the framework can be found at www.nhmrc.go.au.

Why should I care about ethics?

There are many reasons why ethics is relevant to behavioural science practitioners. Perhaps the most critical reason relates to the skill that we learn, to collect and consider ‘audience insights’ in our decision-making. That is, we collect first hand evidence of how people behave and why, and use it to inform intervention design. The methods for collecting this data are often similar to, if not identical, to the methods used by researchers, and these include creating and distributing surveys; conducting interviews and asking questions; and observing how people behave in situ, to gain insights on people’s behaviour. Such research activities require a careful consideration of a range of ethical principles, from privacy and confidentiality, autonomy and dignity, to beneficence (acting in the best interests of people) and non maleficence(doing no harm).*

More broadly, ethics are also important when deciding what problems you will work on, which partners you will work with, what behaviours you are trying to influence, and how you will go about changing these behaviours. We might be guided by distinct personal values, professional values and standards, organisational policies, and social or societal norms. Some—but not all—areas of professional research and practice will already have very established ethical protocols, mandates, and infrastructure in place. The National Statement is just another useful document to support sound ethical judgments in research, although it has less to say with regard to whether we carry out behaviour change interventions or not – in fact there is currently no regulating body for this.

So, in early 2022, we conducted a survey of our behaviour change course participants, and asked them about these two questions. The aim was to understand practitioners’ different perspectives when thinking about the ethics of behaviour change. From a total of 52 de-identified responses analysed, we uncovered the following aggregate outcomes:

1 - When asked “do you have the right to change the behaviour of citizens?”, the majority of people (90%) agreed with possessing the right to change behaviour, but only if certain ethical conditions were met. Specifically, most people (77%) identified the need to “do good” in their answer, stating that they only felt that they had the right to change behaviour if the intention was to benefit the individual or society.

2 - When asked “is it right to use any tool to change behaviour so long as the behaviour is beneficial to the individual or society?”, most people (96%) disagreed that any tool was acceptable, with roughly equal numbers of responses touching on the principles of respect, fairness, and openness, as conditions in the use of any tool.

So what can I do to become more ethically minded in my behaviour change work?

There may not be an easy or prescriptive solution to resolve any given ethical issue.However, the important thing is to carefully consider the ethical implications of your work, and apply as many of the principles as practical, when planning and designing your behaviour change interventions.

Our behavioural scientists at BehaviourWorks Australia have brought together multiple ethical frameworks and guidelines for behavioural science, and using these, have devised a series of questions that all practitioners should think about when embarking on any behaviour change campaign:

  1. Is behavioural science an appropriate approach to achieving your goal? Do you need people to do things differently in order to address your problem or challenge? Can your problem be solved any other way?
  2. Will your behaviour change intervention improve the lives of your target audience? If you were to weigh up the benefits and risks to participants when taking part in your campaign, will the participants themselves be better off in the end?
  3. Are the purposes, intentions, and objectives of your behaviour change intervention transparent and open? There are fundamental ethics principles around respect, which can be achieved when providing the target audience with the information they need to decide on their involvement in your campaign. Being transparent also helps keep you mindful of practices that are manipulative, deceitful, or obscure.
  4. Does your behaviour change intervention respect people’s dignity and freedom to choose? Respect is also about valuing human autonomy and decision-making. Avoiding discriminatory or offensive practices and activities is a way of demonstrating respect, as well as justice.
  5. Does your behavioural intervention preserve fairness?  Often in an effort to help our target audiences, we may engage in preferential treatment towards that audience, unintentionally creating disadvantages and inequalities amongst other groups. Consider the extent to which your intervention focuses too much on one group and neglects another. Is this just?
  6. Finally, are there sufficient plans and processes in place for evaluation, and to identify any negative consequences of your behaviour change intervention? Whilst we make every attempt to make informed decisions in our behaviour change campaigns, and to adopt principles of respect, justice, dignity and beneficence, can we be sure that we are achieving this if we are not checking?

So, if what you do involves working with others, collecting information from them, or trying to influence their actions, it is only professional to conduct this work with integrity. Taking the time to consult the ethical principles relevant to your profession, ensuring multiple perspectives are involved at key decision-making points in a process, and sense checking research plans or intervention designs, will help ensure we all make the world a better, more equitable, place.

*Note that if your work also involves conducting research with the purpose of publishing your findings, you must receive approval to do this from a relevant ethics or institutional review board.

 If you are interested in learning more about how to ensure good ethical practices are incorporated into your behavioural change campaigns then our Designing Impactful Behaviour Change Programs courses is a great way to achieve that.

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