Meet the health psychologist helping people make better decisions

Why do so many people say they care about the environment, but continue to make unsustainable choices?


Dr Fiona Fylan

Dr Fiona Fylan, researcher at Leeds Beckett, pioneers ways to help people make better choices, whether they’re thinking about how they heat their homes, travel to school or work, or even how they drive.

Fiona applies her expertise in behavioural sciences to understand how to we can change people’s mindsets and actions. “Changing people’s behaviour is not easy. We have to explore the world from their perspective and provide more than just information. After all, most of us are still driving everywhere and putting the heating on, rather than wearing an extra layer.

“If we want to get people to behave more sustainably we have to look at what their barriers are, and how we remove those barriers. Other techniques used by behavioural scientists include finding things that individuals will gain from changing their decisions and behaviour, and making things seem more relevant to people’s everyday lives."

A cleaner commute?

Leeds City Council asked Fiona to work out how to get more people to choose cycling instead of driving. Her research found people thought cycling was too dangerous and that car drivers saw cyclists as a nuisance, with no regard to their safety. But Fiona found this to be a myth: most drivers were supportive of cyclists and did care about them.

“To tackle this problem effectively we need to dispel this myth. We should work not just with cyclists but with road drivers too – for example drivers could display window stickers showing they support cyclists”, says Fiona. Her research garnered interest from across the world, with behaviour scientists in Australia keen to try out cycling supportive car stickers.

Helping people to behave more sustainably Dr Fiona Fylan, a health psychologist and researcher at Leeds Beckett University, talks about her pioneering work to help people make better choices to support sustainability, whether they’re thinking about how they heat their homes, travel to school or work, or even how they drive.

Cutting car use

It’s pretty much universally known that car journeys hurt the planet and people’s health through their carbon emissions. So why isn’t car use decreasing? “It’s pretty clear that just telling people why they should reduce their car use isn’t working. We need to think about the barriers different groups of people face in making that change.

“For example, if we think about parents who drive their kids to school, they often are rushing from home, to school, to the workplace. This means public transport and walking are too time consuming. But what if employers offered more flexible start times, that allowed parents time to walk their children to school, then catch the bus to work?

Driving down dangerous behaviour on the roads

Fiona’s expertise has been sought to change behaviour in a wide range of settings, including improving the decisions of both drivers and pedestrians.

If someone gets caught speeding or doing anything illegal on the roads, they’re often sent on a behaviour change course – I’m responsible for designing these.

Fiona drew on a whopping 96 behaviour-changing techniques to develop her driver behaviour courses, and used those that have extensive evidence of success. Her techniques include helping people understand what triggers them to break traffic rules, and getting people to have a plan of how they would make a better decision if they find themselves in risky situations.

But it’s perhaps what isn’t in the courses which might surprise you.

One approach often used is getting people to use a virtual reality headset and experience a really nasty crash. The thinking is that of you shock people it will make them change.

But the evidence actually found this made people more likely to take risks – they mentally distanced themselves from the situation and person in the scenario and believed that the scenario would never happen to them.

“Some people think drivers caught speeding should be punished on these courses. But the evidence strongly shows that people learn better when they are enjoying the experience.”

Fiona has also worked on designing road safety activities for schoolchildren. She found activities taking place out on real streets had more impact than those done within school grounds. “We also need to see parents modelling good behaviour, such as using pedestrian crossings and not being consumed on their mobile phone on the walk to school.

We learn by what we see, not just by what we are told.

Cutting carbon use at home

Recently Fiona has been looking at how people can reduce their carbon footprint. “Many of us don’t realise heating our homes and using gas to cook is contributing massively to emissions,” Fiona explains. “My research explores how we could convert the national gas supply from methane to hydrogen. Hydrogen doesn’t contain any carbon so would instantly reduce emissions.”

Government teams worry that the public won’t embrace the change, but Fiona reveals, “I’ve been working with the public and they’re not actually worried – all they care about is whether it works and whether it’s going to affect their bills. Many people don’t even know what is in their gas supply.”

Our research expertise

Fiona leads the sustainable behaviour team at LBU, a group of academics and professionals trying to change behaviour and make the environment more sustainable. “Many of my colleagues in our Leeds Sustainability Institute look at areas like building performance – for example looking at insulation and how effectively it will save money. I look at our behaviour within the home and factors influencing whether we act sustainably.”

The importance of research skills

By studying at Leeds Beckett, you’ll become part of a thriving academic community. Instead of just reading a published paper, you can talk to the researchers and learn about the context of the research. Fiona says, “There are opportunities for students to get involved with research – they don’t have to wait for a placement opportunity.”

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research for a more sustainable environment

leeds sustainability institute

With research expertise developed over two decades, the research team at the Leeds Sustainability Institute have achieved significant recognition. The Institute's consultancy and business services are making a significant impact, and through established networks, provide a knowledge base that has clear benefit to its partners.

Abstract image of seeds coming to together
Image of solar panels on the top of Carnegie School of Sports Building

Professor Fiona Fylan

Professor / School Of Built Environment, Engineering And Computing

Fiona is a Health Psychologist who applies behavioural sciences to better understand behaviour and to develop and evaluate interventions to change behaviour. She works in areas such as energy use, transport choices, road user behaviour and healthcare provision.

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