Our friends over at Futerra recently published Branding Biodiversity, a ‘how to’ guide on communicating about nature.
One of its most striking arguments is that when you’re communicating with the public, it doesn’t pay to mix love and money. What Futerra call the love message – talking about the awe, wonder and joy that the natural world can bring us – can be undermined if you start to assign those trees a value in hard cash.
That’s not to say that the economic argument isn’t an extremely powerful one for policymakers and businesses – after all up to 40% of the global economy is based on biological products and services. But the emotional pull you tap into with the love story is undermined if you start to combine it with a rational cost benefit analysis.
This insight relates to something that behavioural economists have long noted: that when people are willing to do something for emotional or social reasons, introducing money or into the equation can be counterproductive.
For example, when an Israeli nursery decided to introduce fines for parents who picked up their children late they found it actually increased lateness. Before the fine was introduced there were social norms around being on time and parents felt guilty about being late.
But when the fines were introduced parents started thinking in terms of market norms instead of social norms. They were paying for a service, so they could choose whether to be late or not, and more of them chose to be late.
When the nursery saw that the new system wasn’t working they removed the fines. But all this did was increase lateness slightly more. They had undermined the social norms and taken away the fine, leaving little to compel parents to be on time.
In another experiment behavioural economists found that participants worked 50% harder on a computer task when they were simply asked to take part in an experiment than they did when they were paid 50 cents, and marginally harder than those who were paid $5. Those being offered money took on a market mentality and found their payment lacking, especially when offered only 50 cents. (For more on these examples see Predictably Irrational p67-89)
This doesn’t mean that money doesn’t motivate people – of course it does. But if you can evoke emotions and create social norms around an activity then this can be stronger and more cost effective than paying people.
This issue of social norms and market norms came up recently when we ran a seminar about motivating people to recycle as part of our Bringing it Home project. People might never love recycling in the way they love the natural world, but there appear to be some strong social norms developing around it. Recycling is often cited as one of the top things people do to tackle climate change, and the majority of the population does at least some recycling. It’s also a very visible activity – your neighbours can see if you put a recycling bin out or not – and in experiments this has affected how much people recycle.
But the coalition government wants to introduce market norms into the equation by encouraging councils to pay people to recycle. With rates lagging behind other European countries we need to improve recycling in the UK, but is paying people the way to do it? Or is there a danger this could undermine the social norms we already have around recycling? We’ll be looking for more evidence on this one.