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How “nudge theory” can prompt pro-environmental behaviour

Climate change is one of the public’s biggest concerns but NS polling shows that achieving behavioural change is no easy task.

By India Bourke

“Not everything needs to sound so goddam clever, or charming, or likeable all the time. Sometimes we need to just be able to say things to one another.” Such is the despairing outburst uttered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in the film Don’t Look Up, a Netflix hit about impending planetary peril. 

The movie’s appeal for plain speaking in the face of existential danger has struck a chord with those dedicated to communicating the climate threat. And despite campaigners’ frustrations, there are signs that their efforts are working: in the UK, climate change became the public’s biggest worry in November 2021. In more than 15 other nations, at least seven out of every 10 people said that they were willing to alter how they live in order to reduce their carbon footprint.

Yet bringing about behavioural change is complicated, as demonstrated by a survey conducted for the New Statesman in January by Redfield & Wilton Strategies. The exclusive polling found that almost half (47 per cent) of participants said they would support food items being labelled with a carbon emissions score that rated their environmental impact. That figure fell to 37 per cent, however, when individuals were asked whether they thought it likely that such a label would impact their purchasing decisions.

“If you want people to do something, make it easy,” is the rule coined by the economist and “nudge” theorist, Richard Thaler. But easy how, exactly? And for whom?

Campaigns to encourage lifestyle habits that would help the environment have tended to focus on raising awareness via information campaigns and eco-labelling, and have assumed that the more information people are armed with, the more they will care. In 2007, for instance, Tesco announced a plan to add carbon footprint labels to all of its products. But by 2012, the supermarket chain had dropped its scheme, citing the failure of other retailers to do likewise and the uncompetitive amount of work involved.

“Consumption habits are very habitual, and so labels are often ignored,” explains Lorraine Whitmarsh, the director of the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations at the University of Bath. “Also, environmental impact tends to be less influential than other factors, like taste and price.”

More recently, a “nudge” approach to behavioural change has played down the role of knowledge and instead argued for contextual shifts that make it easier to adopt new, better habits. This could involve placing low-carbon foods at the top of the menu (as in some Scandinavian experiments), or making renewable electricity contracts the default option (as the Swiss have tried).

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Appealing to emotions is also useful in motivating behaviour “because they’re immediate and visceral” says Ayelet Fishback, a professor of behavioural science at Chicago Booth University and author of the book, Get It Done: Surprising Lessons from the Science of Motivation. Yet different emotions can have different impacts: guilt, for instance, is a “risky bet” as people “might choose to protect their mood by not engaging”, while hope can be a “better motivator” when trying to persuade others.

Introducing such “nudges” at a sufficiently impactful level can also raise the ire of those opposed to regulation and standardisation. Subsidies for installing heat pumps or introducing mandatory standards for food sourcing can, for some, seem dangerously close to encouraging a “nanny state” (see the gilets jaunes protests over fuel tax rises in France). Alternatively, reforms that are overly disconnected from wider regulations and schemes can end up as little more than greenwash.

“A green leaf on a box, or just the words “eco” or “green”, might hope to convince buyers that the product is eco-friendly in some way,” but might not provide the full picture about the product’s environment impact, says Dr Cameron Brick, an assistant professor in Social Psychology at the University of Amsterdam. “More consumption means more damage, and that is much more important than which product is being chosen.”

The biggest risk to any intervention is perhaps a breakdown of public trust in environmental messaging. But academics and companies are not giving up yet.

Researchers at Oxford University have teamed up with the UK division of the food services business Compass Group to trial a traffic-light eco-labelling scheme in their cafeterias. While, The Foundation Earth non-profit organisation is working with scientists and retailers, including Nestle and M&S, to roll out a similar pilot which aims to produce an automated system that can be rolled out across the UK and the EU this year.

Virtual supermarket tests run by the Oxford team found that “most ecolabel designs had a small but statistically significant effect of lowering the overall environmental impact of the average shopping basket,” says Dr Brian Cook, a senior researcher. He adds, however, that more evidence is needed from real world settings. And the very act of introducing labelling can have as great an effect on suppliers as consumers. “If ecolabels become more common, retailers, foodservice providers and suppliers could become more attuned to these issues and begin to shift supply to more environmentally sustainable options,” says Cook.

The short and easily distracted attention-spans that Don’t Look Up throws into stark perspective will doubtless remain, but the convergence of insights into psychology, shifting social norms and the standardisation of government schemes could offer hope for more pro-environmental behaviours in the years to come.

This article was originally published in the New Statesman on 11th January 2022

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