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A Christmas Carol: inspiration for behavioural interventions?

20th Dec 2016

Those familiar with Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol will know that the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve comes about from an unusual, yet remarkably successful, behavioural intervention. Scrooge (a notorious miser) is visited by four ghosts over the course of one night who show him his past, present and future. He wakes up determined to put right his wrongs and does indeed become ‘as good a man as the good old city knew’, as reputed for his generosity as he ever was for his lack of it.

Sadly, festive ghosts are hard to come by these days, and most seem unlikely to comply with the discipline of a randomised controlled trial (RCT). But here at BIT, we’re never disheartened, and so as Christmas comes upon us again, let’s look at what we can learn from Dickens, and what we’ve learnt in the 150 years since.

Pick your messenger wisely

If you’re familiar with our work, you’ll know that picking the right messenger to deliver information can be very important, as the weight we give to a message depends on the reactions we have to the source of that message. Scrooge is first visited by the ghost of his former colleague, who had died seven years earlier to the day (extra points here for a timely intervention). And while we tend to opt for messengers who are still alive, using colleagues to encourage charitable giving isn’t one that has slipped past us.

But how do you find the right messenger for everyone? Let them choose, of course. In a trial we ran last year, students at a further education college nominated two ‘study supporters’ who were sent messages throughout the year, encouraging them to provide support to the student. That support increased mid-year course attendance by 11 per cent, and the trial is being further developed this year.

Ask, don’t tell

Dickens’s ghosts don’t waste much of their time on telling Scrooge what he’s done wrong. Despite the odd correction here and there, he seems pretty capable of working that out for himself. And if the literature around self-persuasion is anything to go by, the intervention is much more effective for it. Whilst shouting down other people’s arguments isn’t too challenging for most, fighting our own arguments produces ‘cognitive dissonance’ – an inconsistency in our ideas – which we go to great lengths to avoid. Asking people to generate their own arguments, or exposing them to situations where they do so implicitly, is often much more effective at changing their attitudes and behaviour, whether that be increased condom use, improved job performance, or reduced prejudice.

Picture the future… and the present

Dickens is not the only person to suggest that picturing the future could help people to change their destiny, but we might all be able to learn some lessons from ‘mental contrasting’. After visualising what you want to achieve, take a moment to contrast the image with your current reality, and come up with key barriers that could come between you and the goal. Add on ‘implementation intentions’, where you form an ‘if-then plan’ for each barrier you identified, and the results for goal achievement get even better. RCTs have shown mental contrasting with implementation intentions can increase physical exercise, reduce snacking, improve academic performance, and even improve our bargaining outcomes.

Anecdotal evidence suggests simply hearing the story of A Christmas Carol can spur charitable behaviour. In 1867, an American factory owner attended a reading on Christmas Eve and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent a turkey to each of his employees. If you know someone who is struggling to find their Christmas spirit, this book could be the perfect gift.