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The University of Southampton
Economic, Social and Political Sciences

Shaping change in civic behaviour

Research by the University of Southampton’s Centre for Citizenship, Globalisation and Governance (C2G2) has influenced the UK government’s approach to the concept of the Big Society and has helped shape the debate on behaviour change and how it relates to public sector reform in the UK and other countries. Its work is at the forefront of helping shape policy decision-making into how civic behaviour can be promoted for the benefit of public outcomes, and local authorities, think-tanks and voluntary associations have all used this research as part of their decision-making.

Research challenge

The research, led by C2G2 Director Professor Gerry Stoker and Professor of Politics Graham Smith, is part of an on-going project exploring different ideas to promote civic behaviour.

C2G2 encompasses participants from Social Sciences and across the University and merges insights from political science and international relations to focus on the central political questions of today’s world about power, cooperation, security, inequality and democracy.

The work grew out of contacts with The Home Office and a direct approach to Gerry by then Home Secretary David Blunkett. It reflected a shared interest in the promotion of citizenship and civic or civil behaviour. The Home Office funded a research programme in this area that looked at practical policy options and the results were published in the book Re-energizing Citizenship: Strategies for Civil Renewal.

A further planned research programme using randomised control trials provided more clear cut evidence about what kinds of interventions can stimulate civic behaviour.


Governments and organisations in the UK and around the world are facing many challenges to change people’s behaviour in a wide range of different areas from tackling obesity and carbon reduction, to increasing recycling and community safety. They need to understand the most effective drivers for change and how they can influence and make a difference in what people do.

Our solution

The research built on previous work investigating the importance of two areas on changing and promoting civic behaviour:

Nudge concepts – where social cues and signals, the introduction of small incentives, and the harnessing of peer pressure are used to influence behaviour.

Think strategies – where people are asked to reflect upon, discuss and deliberate over information.

The team used experimental methods to gather robust evaluations of how different interventions could be used to change people’s behaviour in a variety of areas including recycling, petitioning, voting and volunteering. They worked with local authorities, the NHS and voluntary organisations to carry out a number of field-based, large-scale experiments that demonstrated how different techniques work in practice and how they can be made more effective.

Their findings showed the importance of the type of message the citizen receives and the design of the institutional arrangement.

What was the impact?

Southampton’s research on behaviour change has influenced policy deliberations among government and civil society organisations, operational practice and high-level government strategy and policy. It has also generated considerable media interest and increased public awareness of civic behaviour and related concepts such as the Big Society. Former Minister for Decentralisation Greg Clark publically recognised the importance of the research and its findings and how they could help realise the vision for the Big Society. Gerry has also presented the work in Australia and New Zealand where the Australian and New Zealand School of Government praised the research for being a very important part of a wider movement that has driven change and shaped government agenda.

The key research findings have been published in a book Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Using Experiments to Change Civic Behaviour.

Changing people's behaviours

Related Staff Member

The team used experimental methods to gather robust evaluations of how different interventions could be used to change people’s behaviour in a variety of areas including recycling, petitioning, voting and volunteering.

Gerry Stoker - Professor of Governance

Department for Communities and Local Government -

British Academy for the humanities and social sciences -

The Australia and New Zealand School of Government - (see 43:00 mins to 47:00 mins in the recording).

Gerry Stoker Nudging citizens Towards the “Big Society”? (2011) Australia and New Zealand School of Government -


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