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Behaviour and behaviour change: A literature review

Volunteer team apr 09 - Jeskyns Hopsital ranger leading health walkWind farm at Whitelee


The concepts of behaviour and behaviour change have recently emerged as core areas of interest for central government. This has led to a number of departmental initiatives, particularly in relation to health, travel, energy-use and the environment.

The Social and Economic Research Group at Forest Research has undertaken a review to summarise research and practice relating to behaviour in order to identify lessons and key areas of interest for forestry. The review draws on academic research, policy documents and evaluations of behaviour focused interventions to understand this broad topic area and to illustrate how behavioural approaches might be applied within the forestry sector. The review also outlines gaps in research and evidence.

Review objectives

  • To understand and describe the current policy emphasis on behaviour and behaviour change.
  • To identify and describe relevant explanatory theories and models associated with behaviour and the tools that have shaped the design of interventions to change behaviour.
  • To review the effectiveness of forestry and non-forestry interventions in terms of promoting the adoption of sustainable behaviours.
  • To identify gaps in evidence to inform discussions about SERG’s ongoing research in this area. 


The review of evidence and policy relating to behaviour and behaviour change has revealed the following:

Policy context

Policy makers have long sought to influence people’s behaviour for the benefit of individuals, society, or the environment. Historically, policy instruments have been limited to legislation, regulation, financial incentives, or disincentives – so called ‘carrot and stick’ approaches. However, these traditional policy measures are sometimes viewed as ineffective or potentially damaging to business when they become overly bureaucratic. Therefore, alternative ideas utilising behavioural approaches are increasingly being developed to provide a broader mix of policy options. This focus has recently emerged as a core area of interest for central government.

Theories and models

There are various distinct ways in which behaviour and behaviour change are conceptualised. Some focus on individuals as decision-makers, whilst others focus on the social, economic and technological factors which affect how people behave. Although there are often conflicting ideas and assumptions at the heart of the various theories and models, there is much that can be learnt from them and used to inform forestry interventions and policy design.

Evaluations of interventions

Evaluative evidence of behavioural interventions covers a range of policy areas, but the vast majority comes from the health, transport and environment sectors. Our review of this body of evidence reveals a number of factors that characterise particularly successful interventions. These are presented as key ‘principles’ that could be used to inform the design of behavioural approaches to forestry policy and management, and which can be further tested and developed through research.  

Linking behaviour and behaviour change to forestry

Building on the review of evidence, we are able to consider what a focus on behaviour and behaviour change might mean for forestry. In a sense, influencing behaviour is not a new concept for the sector – under the broad umbrella of sustainable forest management there already exists a wide range of instruments, mechanisms and targeted interventions to encourage or discourage certain behaviours. To date, however, these activities have not been set explicitly within the conceptual and theoretical framing of behaviour and behaviour change. As such, we illustrate how insights from research and practice within the behaviour change field might be applied in the design of interventions to achieve sustainable forest management in the UK. We also set out a preliminary framework for applied research in this area.

Reports and presentations

Review reports:

Funders and partners

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This project is funded by the Forestry Commission.


The review was conducted during 2011 and 2012.


Jake Morris