This is a guest post by Baroness Neuberger, Chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Behaviour Change. The committee’s findings are published today.
Changing behaviour is central to the work of all governments across all policy areas. Sustainable living, however, is one of those issues where the link between what the Government want to achieve and our behaviour is most obvious. How can the Government get us to use less energy and waste less water, recycle more and use our cars less?
For the past year, I’ve chaired the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry into Behaviour Change. Our Report, which was published today, makes some important findings about efforts by the Government to change the way we behave. One of our two case studies looked specifically at what they can do to change behaviour to reduce car use.
Nudge or shove?
Perhaps our most important finding was that in order to solve the most important problems facing society now, including the challenge of reducing carbon emissions, the Government will need to do more than just “nudge” us in the right direction.
The rise in popularity of “nudging”, made famous by Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge, must be a welcome development. Many of the witnesses who gave evidence to our inquiry agreed that governments have relied for too long on an understanding of behaviour which focuses only on our rational and reflective decision-making. In doing so, they have neglected the ‘automatic’ system in our brains which acts on a less than fully conscious level, affecting our behaviour in ways that we are all too often not aware of. “Nudging” has underlined the importance of the ‘automatic’ system and the crucial role our physical and social environment plays in influencing our behaviour.
When it comes to greener living, the environment in which we make our choices really matters. If food packaging is inconvenient to recycle, or not clearly marked as recyclable, we are less likely to recycle it. If supermarkets charge us for plastic bags, we are less likely to use them. If we live in the countryside with little or no public transport, we are more likely to drive. If our friends and family don’t worry about using less gas and electricity, then we are also less likely to be concerned.
But “nudging” is particularly about changing the environment in a way that doesn’t restrict our choice or significantly alter our financial incentives. In other words, it provides a new alternative – in addition to persuasive measures, like advertising campaigns or information provision – to regulatory and fiscal measures. The problem for the Government is that many of the changes to the environment necessary to achieve a real change in behaviour will require a good deal more than than a “nudge”.
No excuse to ignore the science
If we take reducing car use as an example, witnesses told us that a necessary component of changing behaviour on a large scale is to make using cars less attractive through measures like higher parking or road charges and pedestrianisation. But these sorts of measures are surely better described as “shoves” than “nudges”.
Avoiding the use of legislation and taxation to change behaviour is a laudable aim and regulation has all too often been used when it was not really needed. But this cannot be an excuse for ignoring what science tells us about changing behaviour.
We have urged the Government to ensure that a preference for avoiding regulation does not stop them from considering the evidence for the effectiveness of all available measures in changing behaviour. Moreover, we have highlighted that the evidence strongly suggests that no one measure will be effective in bring about substantial changes in behaviour across the population– particularly for complicated and deep-rooted behaviour. Instead, a raft of different measures, reflecting the multiple and varying factors that influence behaviour, will be required.
We need disincentives too
The Department for Transport have done a good job in thinking about the behavioural sciences and what they have to offer to policy development. They have focused on using integrated policy packages to tackle a range of influences on behaviour, piloted their ideas through the Sustainable Travel Towns programme (though this was not as well evaluated as it ought to have been), and taken steps to provide guidance to local authorities on how to change behaviour.
But the evidence is clear that disincentives to car use, which will often involve regulation or fiscal measures or both, will be required if car use is to be significantly reduced. The Government must take note of this and reflect it in their policies if they hope to achieve real behaviour change in the population as a whole.