Nudges aren’t enough….and the importance of matching incentives with behaviours

 In Thoughts

Two things came across my screen this morning:

Man faces jail for trying to deposit 10,000 bottles in Michigan[1]


Excuse me, that’s rubbish (an aptly named campaign from London Borough of Barnet)[2] 

Two different continents and two different approaches to behaviour change.

In the stateside example we gain an insight into the differing dividends paid across states to those recycling bottles. Such was the difference in Michigan that one canny recycler decided to transport a lorry load across considerable miles in order to double his return, despite it being illegal to do so. It reveals a degree of irrationality on behalf of the individual – could the risk of 5 years in prison ever outweigh the chance to secure $1000? Clearly for him the short-term reward was a considerable motivator.

But that high cash return on bottles has propelled Michigan to pole position as the US state with highest levels of recycling. Properly administered, money talks when it comes to environmental prompts, it seems.

Of course, it’s a completely different issue in leafy north London. In the last few days the local authority has tweeted about the ‘menace’ of fly-tipping (£0.5 million a year of council tax money to clear it up) and the new fine system (£80 a pop) to be imposed on anyone shedding their waste inappropriately.

Big issues. One takes a reward approach, the other a punishment – or as Prof Jeff French explains in his value/cost exchange matrix, a hug vs a slap[3]. Traditionally the public sector has been very good at ‘slaps’; a fine for bad parking, a penalty for a late book return, naming and shaming on occasion. But whilst such cosh-wielding activities have a place it’s worth considering more intuitive ways of solving problems and changing behaviour.

Extrinsic benefits

The US bottle recycler demonstrates just how appealing extrinsic benefits can be in shaping our behaviour. Motivated by financial gain, the bottle collector looked set to make a tidy profit – until he was rumbled by police.

But what about Barnet? Is their slap approach of imposing fines going to make the difference? Their research suggests that 85% of people consider environmental cleanliness as important but it doesn’t uncover the reasons why people drop rubbish or how to address it. Questions remain as to who are the main perpetrators? Why? Is it a disregard for impact or is it a reflection of the cost of disposing of bulky items? Is it convenient to drop items on the street?

And whilst the criminal intent of the bottle recycler has been halted in the US, their ‘reward’ system seems much more in tune with consumer habits than the newly launched campaign in Barnet. But underneath this simple comparison there’s another significant point: sometimes interventions can have unforeseen negative consequences. The different rate of return between US States (5c vs 10c, per bottle) provided the perverse incentive for the hapless recycler to risk long-term negative consequences for short-term gain.

That cognitive dissonance is not unusual; many of us will discount a negative outlook for immediate satisfaction. It’s the same thought process that means we still eat the cake whilst knowing that it will certainly add to weight gain, or worse. So given the irrationality of human thought how can authorities hope to design interventions that actually work? In reality, as Prof French reminds us, we are likely to need a combination approach to shift behaviours as we try to create new norms.

Cake… apple?

Cake… apple?

Cake.    A free apple? Maybe.







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