You might not realise it – and the government would prefer that you didn’t – but you’re almost certainly the target for government behaviour change initiatives that aim to ‘nudge’ us into making better decisions. Apparently we don’t make very good ones, left to our own devices. Why else would the UK be facing problems like stubbornly high carbon emissions, human-influenced climate change, epidemics of obesity, diabetes, depression and other mental illnesses, family breakdown, high unemployment, binge drinking and massive food waste? It’s all our fault – we must mend our ways.
That’s the theory. But recent studies, including the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee’s Behaviour Change Report, suggest that behaviour change policies generally seem to be about as effective as King Canute telling the rising tide to stop – and they may not be ethical either. This is because behaviour change interventions aim to bypass people’s awareness and induce them to act in ways they haven’t thought about.
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) wants to target specific behaviour change interventions at different sections of the population, according to whether or not they see themselves as green. This is likely to be extra-pointless. A recent survey shows that - with green values or without – people’s energy consumption and carbon emissions are the same.
The Behavioural Insights Team wants to make us better consumers
Despite this evidence, behaviour change is central to current UK government policies. The Coalition Agreement announced their intention of “finding intelligent ways to encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves”, preferring this to policies that involve regulation or public spending – which it called “bureaucratic levers”.
The Coalition set up the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) to oversee behaviour change policies. Accordingly, government is forming partnerships with businesses and local authorities, to use ‘behavioural insights’ to encourage people to buy products that will make their homes more energy efficient. This is the basis of the Green Deal, which has got off to a bit of a shaky start.
The problem is market failure, the solution is better consumers
Behaviour change policies are rooted in the belief that everything boils down to the so-called free market – remember Maggie Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” and “There’s no such thing as society”? According to this story, social or environmental problems like obesity, food waste or high carbon emissions happen because the market – for food, or energy – isn’t working properly. A Report by the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) identifies that household carbon emissions are caused by these market failures:
- households’ failure to take account of how their consumption decisions damage the environment
- households’ lack of access to information about the fact that they can save money through buying energy efficient products
- households’ failure to act on this kind of information, when they are aware of it
- social marketing
- behavioural economics (aka nudge theory) and other branches of psychology
- choice editing – which means removing choice from the buyer, eg by phasing out fridges that are lower than a C rating on the A-G energy efficiency scale, or, more recently, phasing out the sale of incandescent light bulbs
- changing the physical environment, eg reducing road capacity, increasing traffic calming measures and pedestrianising town and city centre, in an attempt to reduce people’s use of their cars
- changes to the default position – eg the proposal that people should have to opt out of organ donation, rather than opting in
- using the power of social norms – eg using people’s social networks to get more people to buy energy efficiency products, like loft and cavity wall insulation. The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has trialled this approach in partnership with B&Q and two local authorities, who were responsible for marketing the scheme to the public. The scheme provided incentives in the form of price discounts to people who formed groups to bulk-buy these products. The more neighbours who signed up to buy together, the bigger the discount.
When governments get the idea that the public are idiots who can safely be patronised, maybe it’s high time the public nudged them out of office.
Updated 5.5.2013 with link to Stronger Unions blog post about ConDem government’s move to part-privatise the Behavioural Insights Team, aka Nudge Unit.