The problems with nudge

This is a guest post by Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh, lecturer at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. It is part of a series of posts on whether government needs to do more than nudge us towards sustainable living.

It’s easy to see the appeal of Nudge. It’s a cheap and invisible way of changing behaviour to help meet policy goals.

And while Nudge approaches have only recently been discovered by governments, they’ve actually been around a long time in behavioural science. Back in the 1970s prospect theory showed that there are systematic biases in human decision-making and in particular that people are influenced by how decisions are framed. So if the risk of having an operation is framed in terms of ‘ninety out of 100 will survive’ we will consider it far less risky than ‘ten out of 100 will die’, even though the content of the two statements is identical [1]. People weight the value of losses more than gains.

The automaticity of behaviour is also evident from decades of research into habits and unconscious processing. Behaviour undertaken regularly in stable circumstances will tend to become habitual; and in the presence of habits we tend to ignore information about alternative behaviours. So Verplanken’s research, for example, shows that people with strong driving habits tend to ignore information about public transport, cycling and walking, and in general use much less information to decide how to get somewhere than people with weaker driving habits [2].

Social beings
The social influences on behaviour are also well-established. We are influenced by what is considered ‘normal’ or what it expected of us by others. And messages which include a description of what other people do have been shown to affect behaviour; one recent US study, for example, found a saving of 6% in home energy use could be achieved through including information on residents’ energy bills about the average energy consumption for homes in the area (i.e., the energy use ‘norm’), demonstrating how people unconsciously conform to what others like them are doing [3].

But while well-grounded in theory and empirical research, Nudge approaches are limited in a number of important ways; and in fact – in the case of sustainable behaviours – may even be counter-productive.

Too simplistic
First, there is a risk of simplifying behaviour change to a kind of ‘recipe book’ that ignores how context-dependent behaviour and behaviour change often is, and ignores other theoretical approaches. To give an example, social identity theory tell us that using social norm-based messaging on energy bills will only work if you identify with the reference group; but if you don’t identify with them, the message will have precisely the opposite effect because you will want to differentiate yourself from this group [4]. So if the bill refers to how much energy other people ‘in your area’ consume, and you feel you have nothing in common with your neighbours, this message will be counter-productive and may result in increased energy use. Social norm messaging only works under certain circumstances.

The use of fear-based messaging to communicate climate change is another example. The Act on C02 campaign has used fear in its Bedtime Story and some other adverts, highlighting extreme impacts of climate change and showing images of a CO2 monster and drowning pets. According to prospect theory, we might expect – given people’s general risk-aversion – highlighting losses would be an effective way of changing behaviour.  However, we know from the health psychology literature that it depends on the type of behaviour in question, and particularly whether the behaviour is considered risky or safe. Empirical research shows that climate mitigation is best encouraged through gain frames than loss frames – in other words, highlighting the benefits of taking action, rather than highlighting what happens if you don’t – presumably because energy use is not considered a risky behaviour [5]. So, fear-based messaging only works under certain circumstances.

Actually if you read Nudge, it’s evident that economic decision-making is the main context of the research. There are relatively few environmental examples, on the other hand. And yet why should we expect economic and environmental behaviour to be in the same category? Climate change is a commons problem, a social dilemma, which cannot be addressed at the individual level, and climate change mitigation (unlike setting up a pension) doesn’t necessarily offer benefits to the individual. So, we shouldn’t assume Nudge techniques will work in the case of sustainable behaviours; they may do in some cases, but let’s not ignore the wealth of other behavioural research which may show something quite different.

Second, Nudge is a piecemeal approach to changing behaviour; it doesn’t attempt to green lifestyles or society as a whole. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but there is a risk that it undermines ultimate, long-term goals. For example, encouraging uptake of home insulation is a worthy objective; but if the money saved by a more efficient home is invested in a cruise or other carbon-emitting activities, the net gain may be reduced or even reversed. These kinds of rebound effects are avoided if a more holistic approach to behaviour change is adopted.

Related to this, Nudge-type interventions may serve to reinforce materialist values and economic self-interest, and erode intrinsic motivation. Given that Nudge interventions only have a short-term impact, it may even be a false economy to focus on them to the detriment of values that would foster durable behaviour change, values which are pro-environmental and pro-social. Empirical research highlights that promoting selfish values actually suppresses altruistic and environment values, so promoting energy saving by highlighting financial savings may be effective in the short-term but risks undermining longer-term goals of sustainable living [6].

A third limitation of Nudge is also one its political attractions: that it changes behaviour imperceptibly. People don’t realise they are being influenced, so we avoid the risk of public backlash against unpopular policies, for example fuel duty increases and road charging.  But then neither are people involved in decision-making about how to tackle climate change or other problems of unsustainability. Which raises the normative question of who gets nudged and in what direction. And we know the public need to see others take action and to feel their behaviour makes a difference and to feel part of a concerted, collective effort; research on public attitudes to climate change consistently shows this [7]. By treating the public as passive or ignorant, we risk undermining democratic principles, and – at a more practical level – we lose the opportunity to achieve more significant change which the public – if informed and involved – might actually support.

Small change
The final limitation of Nudge is perhaps the most obvious. Nudge is great for relatively small-scale and short-term behaviour changes, and doesn’t challenge the status quo. From this perspective, Nudge is not – contrary to Thaler and Sunstein’s claim [8] – politically value-free, but tends to favour the dominant governance paradigm of a deregulated, growth-based economy [9]. But in the face of the enormous challenge of climate change, and achieving 80% cut in carbon emissions, we need to change infrastructures and institutions. And this can’t be achieved without public support and involvement. Ask people why they don’t adopt lower-carbon lifestyles and they will highlight a range of barriers, many of them structural [10]. And you can’t nudge someone onto a bus service that doesn’t exist.  Nudge can help in uptake of low-carbon alternatives, but those alternatives have to be put in place.  Nudge also won’t work in the case of communities being asked to accept new energy infrastructure, such as windfarms or carbon capture and storage facilities, where participatory decision-making and public engagement are required [11].

So, from a behavioural research point of view, on the one hand, I’m pleased that government is using a well-established evidence base on behaviour change to inform policy. This is a step forward from traditional and less sophisticated ‘information plus economic incentives’ approaches. On the other hand, the piecemeal and short-term approach of Nudge – while perhaps fine for some contexts, like financial decision-making – is not enough to realise our sustainability ambitions or tackle climate change. Here, Nudge needs to be just one part of a holistic and consistent strategy that involves participatory and structural policies: to foster – rather than erode – social and environmental values; to enable and encourage public involvement in decision-making (especially at the local level, but potentially at national level, too); and to provide viable and attractive low-carbon alternatives to those behaviours which are harder to change but also have the most impact on environment, such as transport and food choices.

So, in conclusion, yes, the government does need to do more than just nudge us towards sustainable living; but also should be cautious about applying Nudge solutions to sustainability issues which may well demand quite different types of interventions, informed by a broader range of behavioural research insights.

[1] Tversky, A. & Kahneman, D. (1981). The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice. Science 211: 453-458

[2] Verplanken, B., Aarts, H. & van Knippenberg, A. (1997), Habit, Information Acquisition, and the Process of Making Travel Mode Choices, European Journal of Social Psychology, 27 (5), 539–60.

[3] Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18, 429-434.

[4] Rabinovich, A., Morton, T., & Duke, C. C. (2010). Collective self and individual choice: The role of social comparisons in promoting public engagement with climate change. In L. Whitmarsh, S. O’Neill, & I. Lorenzoni (Eds.), Engaging the public with climate change: Behaviour change and communication. London, Earthscan. pp. 66-83.

[5] Spence, A. & Pidgeon, N.F. (2010) Framing and communicating climate change: the effects of distance and outcome frame manipulations. Global Environmental Change, 20, 656-667.

[6] Crompton, T. & Kasser, T. (2009). Meeting Environmental Challenges: The Role of Human Identity. Surrey: WWF UK.

[7] Whitmarsh, L., O’Neill, S. & Lorenzoni, I. (Eds) (2010). Engaging the public with climate change: behaviour change and communication. London: Earthscan.

[8] Thaler, R. H. and Sunstein, C. R. (2008) Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT

[9] Corner, A. (2011). Selling climate change? The limitations of social marketing as a strategy for climate change public engagement. Global Environmental Change, submitted.

[10] Lorenzoni, I., Nicholson-Cole, S., & Whitmarsh, L. (2007). Barriers perceived to engaging with climate change among the UK public and their policy implications. Global Environmental Change, 17(3-4), 445-459.

[11] Dietz, T. and Stern, P. C. (eds) (2008) Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making, National Academies Press, Washington, DC


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