By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate
The problem of climate change is one of the richest and most complex issues to hit communication channels nowadays: news regarding global warming, overpopulation, melting of glaciers, greenhouse effect, protection of endangered species, desertification, pollution in all its forms are heard on TV, newspapers, and social media on a daily basis.
Together with climate change awareness, also the consciousness of the key role of human activities is growing: a survey conducted in April 2018 by the leading company for global market and opinion research Ipsos states that half of the Americans acknowledge the fact that humans themselves are causing this already well known climate change. Still, “most Americans are not willing to make changes to their personal behaviours to help limit climate change”, the survey further reveals. How come such a big contradiction exist in the human minds?
Actually, this phenomenon does not come as big news. The same failure in sticking to plans and good resolutions has already been investigated in contexts such as gym attendance, savings, or voting. In psychological terms, it is possible to speak of an actual “intention-action gap”: a human inability to stick to good intentions that is both physiological and contextual. This happens mainly because, even with a good environmental awareness, most of our anti-ecological habits are very ingrained and difficult to change from a rational perspective.
Of course, it is here that green nudges can intervene. According to a report from COWI A/S (an engineering and environmental science Danish consulting firm), green nudges can be classified into four different categories: provision of information, changes in the physical environment, changes in the default option, social norms and regular feedback. Some examples of how these different kinds of nudge work follow.
- Provision of information
According to the EU legislation, consumers should be able to choose between electrical appliances in the most transparent way possible: that’s why today energy labels report energy use in kWh per year. Despite this intervention, few of us really know what it means in monetary terms, and how this will impact on our bills. With this in mind, in 2014, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team and John Lewis conducted a field study. They came up with the expected results: providing information on the electricity lifetime running costs of a certain electrical appliance, consumers are unconsciously driven to buy more energy-efficient appliances.
- Changing the physical environment
In many areas of Africa, drinking water without having previously purified it is a dangerous behaviour that can have serious consequences, as water-borne diseases create health issues for local populations and can be sometimes lethal. In Kibera (Kenya), researchers were not able to understand why the demand for the chlorine solution used for purification was so low, even if discount coupons were offered to incentivize its consumption. In reality, villagers had to walk every day to water sources, and were expected to do an extra trip to the nearest shop to buy the chlorine solution. As people prefer to save energy, very few of them were willing to do the extra effort. Only positioning chlorine solution containers next to the water source, researchers were able to change the behavior of locals and of their neighbours.
- Default options
In most of our previous articles we have discussed the power of default options. This is probably the most powerful nudge intervention. Examples include setting printers to print double-sided by default, sending to customers mails instead of paper bills or providing to the new ones green energy plans as a default option. One case that has been analysed extensively is the impact of the default option as a way to reduce meat consumption. Meat is considered one of the main causes of food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and reducing it from our meals is a great way to mitigate its production effects. Researchers tried, for instance, to influence food choice in campus dining halls presenting a meat-free menu as default. Results showed that this intervention significantly increased the probability for students to choose a meat-free meal option, facilitating pro-environmental behaviours.
- Social norms and regular feedback
Social norms can be considered the accepted guidelines of behavior of social groups, and can be leveraged in a smart way to arrange effective nudges. In this way, it is possible to spread pro-environmental social norms and unconsciously influence behaviour on a large scale. The main example can be found once again in the realm of energy bills. In two studies, approximately 200,000 households received periodic peer feedback reports on consumption. Every household was compared to the average consumption of similar households in terms of family dimension and location, and was provided targeted energy efficiency advice to achieve “the average”. This system is shown to produce significant results, and it can be easily scalable through e-mails or social media. Nevertheless, it presents also weaknesses: below-average consumers may increase energy consumption causing a boomerang effect of the intervention. Targeting directly only the above-average consumers can prevent this.
In conclusion, it is clear that the intention-action gap in the context of eco-friendly behaviour is a complex issue that should be tackled, in the best of all possible worlds, with greater political campaigns for sensibilization and with greater information and data about how best to behave. However, it is exactly in contexts where things are not that easy that nudge interventions work best.