Incentivizing More Sustainable Behavior Change

Editors note on our Sustainable Cities series:

2012 marked the first time in human history a majority of the world’s population lived in urban areas.  Cities can be major drivers of economic growth and human development, and because city governments are often more politically flexible than national or international institutions, they can also act as laboratories for social innovation.  But they can at the same time be centers of disease outbreaks and poverty traps.  How successfully cities are able to generate sustainable solutions to their challenges will determine development outcomes for billions of the world’s population.  Over the next year our series on Sustainable Cities will showcase how some cities are tackling this problem.

Poor Little Fishbowl Sink. Dancing Crosswalk Signal.

These are not the results of a strange word game. Instead they are two examples of recently unveiled, thought-provoking sustainable design projects.

The first, Poor Little Fishbowl Sink is at its core addressing environmental sustainability: it features a fairly average looking sink with a goldfish in a decorative fishbowl perched atop. As soon as the tap is turned on, the water level in the fishbowl begins to drop. The message is clear: finish washing your hands before the goldfish is left gasping in an empty fishbowl. In the words of the designer Yan Lu, it “offers an emotional way to persuade consumers to think about saving water, by making consumption tangible.” It points to wider issues of excessive water consumption, and future scarcity in our urban water resources.

The second, Dancing Crosswalk Signal refers to an experimental set-up piloted in Portugal this past summer. Instead of an ordinary crosswalk light, featuring the typical stationary little man made of red LED lights, the stop signal instead displayed a happily dancing man. This dancing man was linked to a real-time dance box located a short distance away, in which passers-by could perform any dance moves of their choice, and the red light man would follow suit. The results included an increased number of pedestrians that actually stopped at the crosswalk for the duration of the red light, with dramatically reduced incidence of jay-walking. The intent here was focused on another facet of urban sustainability: attempting to reduce the number of accidents that occur between cars and pedestrians at these busy crosswalks.

The gasping fish and dancing crosswalk man have in common that they are both visually and emotionally appealing ways aimed at helping people change their behavior, encouraging more sustainable use of natural resources and sustainable co-existence of pedestrians and cars in busy urban areas respectively. The wider discussion this stimulates is one of motivations and outcomes, one of how to create lasting sustainable behavior change. When striving to elicit more desirable behavior from society, to what extent can behavior change result from self-driven, purely ethics-based reasons- that is doing something simply because it is right? Can lasting change realistically come from clever gimmicks like the dancing traffic light? How does the effectiveness of these innovative but unusual strategies compare to more traditional approaches that focus on (de-)incentivizing (un)desirable behavior? Furthermore, if people are doing the “right thing”, how much should the underlying reason or their true personal motivation matter?

First, we examine this question of self-driven behavior change, or the extent to which we do something simply because we think we should, because it seems like the right thing to do. It seems not illogical to ask why we cannot simply teach people to care about the environment, and then presume that sustainable behavior change will follow. For instance, prior to 2008, policies aimed at changing environmental behavior in the United Kingdom included a focus on providing the public with relevant environmental information. Unfortunately, research has since indicated that this typically has little to no effect on people’s actual behavior. This could suggest two things: either people did not learn from the information provided; or they did learn what more environmentally-friendly behavior could entail, but did not act on this newfound knowledge. In fact, both of these factors are responsible for contributing to the lack of observable behavior change. Informational campaigns have frequently been shown to be less effective than alternative forms of learning, such as observing other people’s behavior. However, even among people who do possess the necessary information about the relative benefit of one course of action over another, increased awareness does not necessarily lead to action. Hence, changing attitudes and providing information, without directly focusing on changing behavior, unfortunately proves to be a relatively ineffective strategy for widespread change.

So what methods of initiating social change have proven effective on a large scale? While an entire article could be dedicated to this particular group of tools that encourage behavior change, the large-scale success of economic incentive and disincentive measures is mentioned just briefly here. Incentives such as subsidies to support desired activities and the imposition of taxes on undesirable activities have been used widely around the world and often to great success. For instance, the imposition of a gasoline tax in the US has been correlated with decreased fuel consumption per capita and increased use of more fuel efficient vehicles. In Germany, a mandatory deposit to be paid on drink cans incentivized the return of these cans to recycling facilities, radically changing consumer recycling behavior in Germany and subsequently around the world.

So, where do novel strategies such as the dancing traffic light fit into this spectrum of drivers for sustainable change? Can lasting change realistically come from these sorts of unusual approaches? There have been numerous studies that try to pinpoint a robust and generally applicable sequence of steps that result in sustained behavior change. While details vary, typical components include attracting people’s attention; uncovering barriers preventing action; using persuasive messages tailored to the audience; provide concrete strategies for action; enhancing motivation to act as well as building social and community support to maintain the changed behavior. The fishbowl and dancing man both fit neatly into one of these steps, namely that of attracting people’s attention to an issue on the societal agenda. A comparable example is the introduction of public litter bins in Berlin which say thank you when passers-by put something in the bin. No long-term research results are available for these particular examples, but knowledge of the wider field of behavior change would suggest that this momentary catching of people’s attention will alone not be enough to create lasting change, without the support of additional motivation, education, practical guidance and follow-through. Eliciting lasting change in people’s environmental behavior requires novel and at times complex practical interventions that stretch across a range of different sectors and are operative at every level of society. These kinds of attention grabbing strategies form only the first step in a longer transformative process.

Having looked briefly at some of the research that is being conducted around the world in this field of eliciting desirable behavior change, the final question considered here is a rhetorical one; one that escapes the reach of science, public policy and even human psychology; one that delves into the realm of ethics and one that every human must decide for themselves: should it matter whether we are driven by true personal motivation, by a rational economic incentive, or because of a catchy and appealing gimmick, so long as we are doing the “right thing”?

Image credit by Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia Commons.


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