The huge myth-understanding and side effects of “evidence-based” approaches

In Change, Insight, Thinking

We often hear someone use the phrase “well, the evidence suggests that….” And people upon reading that assume that there is actually a causal link between x and y.  And some of these seem to make sense. As in “yes, I see how that could be true

What they actually mean is “we’ve found an interesting correlation between x and y”.  That’s all.

For example, “the evidence suggests that there is a link between teenage obesity and fast food”.  Which on one level seems a logical link and could be true.  After all, most teenagers eat fast food. What they actually mean is: “we’ve found an interesting correlation between teenage obesity and fast food”.

For what about all the times when that isn’t true?  For example, teenagers who eat fast food and aren’t obese?  Or, what about teenagers who eat fast food and lose weight?  Or even in the case of Usain Bolt who reportedly ate 1000 Chicken McNuggets™ at the 2012 London Olympics and won 3 gold medals?  Does that mean that fast food creates an Olympic gold medallist? No.  It’s just an interesting correlation.

But the use of the phrase “evidence based” gets misinterpreted to “this is true”.

And what happens as a consequence of this?  Policy makers and researchers come up with a bunch of theories and actions based on the “evidence”.  For example, if we provide nutritional and health information then that would change people’s behaviour, based on the “interesting correlation evidence” that people make informed choices, so let’s inform them more and that will change behaviour

But if providing nutritional and health information did actually cause behavioural change then the NHS would have the healthiest workforce in the world!  When clearly, that’s not the case.

So, what happens when you compound one interesting correlation evidence, with other interesting correlations evidence? Problem gets worse, and people end up very confused.

So for example,

  • Interesting correlation evidence based approaches to weight loss don’t work 95% of the time, and around 80% of people who follow these approaches put on more weight within 2 years! And the problem continues and gets worse.
  • Interesting Correlation evidence-based approaches to drug and alcohol rehabilitation don’t work 75-95% of the time. And the problem continues and gets worse.
  • Interesting Correlation evidence-based approaches to employee engagement still leave 85% of workforce disengaged. And the problem continues and gets worse
  • Interesting Correlation evidence-based approaches to change management in organisations fail 67% of the time. And the problem continues and gets worse

And the response?  Aside from the  much head scratching and endless debate along the lines of “Well it’s much more complex than we thought and there are multiple factors involved, so we need to dig deeper and do more interesting correlation research”.

And just imagine the compounded effects of decades of this approach? Well, just look around you.

But hey, if you’re surrounded by people all looking in the wrong direction, it looks like you’re looking in the right direction!

And that continues until, as one enlightened NHS senior health policy advisor put it, “perhaps we’re contributing to the problem by what we’re doing”.  They probably didn’t realise the enormous significance of saying that at the time.

So how does all behavioural change occur 100% of the time, in 100% of all humans?

Someone has a change of mind.

I’ll say that again, as you probably missed it because it’s incredibly simple: someone has a change of mind.  Sometimes people notice it when they say things like “I realised that…” or “it occurred to me…”.   But almost everyone doesn’t notice it.

And note I didn’t say, they actively did something to change their mind.  Their mind simply changed.  And as a consequence of their mind changing, they had a different – and more useful – thought and feeling, and then acted on that and their behaviour changed.  This explains all the positive results in the above interventions.

When you work with this simple understanding of how all behaviour changes, you simply get better results.  And having bunch of interventions thereafter such as providing health and nutritional information can be helpful, useful and really impactful.

But don’t think, however compelling, the interesting correlation evidence is, that it works the other way round: that it’s the policy or intervention or “complex factors involved” that changes someone’s mind.  Follow that, and you’re going to continue getting the results you’re getting: the problem continues and gets worse.

Turn it around, and working with how people’s minds naturally change – and that’s built in to the human system as standard – then when that’s occurred, help and interventions really work. And the effects of this?  The problem starts going away and the situation improves.


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