The ISM Tool – Individual, Social, Material – for designing policy interventions (Scottish government)


A practical tool for designing effective policy interventions


There are many different theories which help us understand behaviour and change, drawn from many different disciplines. But there are fewer practical tools which allow practitioners to mobilise that theory, and apply it in developing and delivering behaviour change interventions on the ground.

ISM (standing for ‘Individual, Social, Material’) has been described as the most comprehensive of the available tools.

ISM is a multi-disciplinary tool for designing effective policy interventions, originally developed in the context of sustainability challenges. It was created by Andrew Darnton with colleagues at the University of Manchester, and launched by the Scottish Government in 2013.

ISM brings together into a single figure the main factors from the three disciplines most concerned with understanding behaviour: behavioural economics, social psychology, and sociology. The factors are arranged into three contexts, symbolised by a head (the Individual) in a circle (the Social) in a square (the Material). Evidence from reviews of international behaviour change interventions suggests that lasting change requires action in all three contexts (Southerton et al, 2011).

ISM Tool

ISM was developed as a practical approach for intervening in complex systems, grounded in a deep understanding of behaviour. ISM offers a shortcut to the task of drawing on multiple models and theories, resulting in a tool which policymakers, analysts and practitioners of all stripes can pick up and run with – including in self-facilitated sessions. Used in this way, ISM supports approaches to policy development based on co-design and co-production, which in turn are vital for effective action in complex systems like obesity, biodiversity, or social inclusion, where no one organisation or actor holds all the levers over a given behaviour.

The process of using ISM is as important in producing results as the content of the model itself.