Can policymakers and private companies enhance sustainability efforts by investing in behavioural science and implementing its contextual insights? We find out.
Saving money, turning the lights off, buying sustainable produce. Reducing carbon emissions, donating to charity, supporting community initiatives. From individual consumers to multinational companies, the fantasy of good intentions does not always evolve into the reality of concrete actions and this intention-action gap impedes sustainability efforts across the world. However, a growing interest in applying behavioural science insights as a sustainability tool could help bridge the divide.
Behavioural science revolves around how people act, make decisions, and respond to policies, and according to Dr Lori Foster, Professor of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences Advisor to the United Nations (UN), it can be described in terms of friction or fuel. “A car needs fuel to make it go but needs friction to make it stop. The same is true with human behaviour. Different people have different motivations and different frictions. The key is to fuel people towards their best interests by reducing friction on those choices, while applying friction to unhealthy choices.”
Others use the ‘nudge and sludge’ terminology, but the essence of making the desired course of action the easiest course of action is the same. For Samantha de Martino, an economist in the Mind, Behaviour, and Development Unit (eMBeD) at the World Bank, “it’s less about which behaviours are ‘easiest’ to change and more about which solutions are the easiest to implement to see quick wins. These include simplifying processes for programme take-up, improving choice architecture to ensure the default is geared towards the sustainability objective, adjusting information and its framing, invoking positive identities, and sending reminders.”
De Martino’s solutions correlate with the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST framework, which states that to encourage behaviour change, you need to make it: Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. From reducing hassle and providing incentives to leveraging community expectations and prompting people when they’re most receptive, the EAST framework suggests that the more behavioural change is aligned with people’s self-interest, the greater the chances of success.
Meanwhile, frameworks have also been developed to ensure behavioural insights can adapt to the unique circumstances of each community. For example, Ideas42, a behavioural science non-profit, developed its four-step Define, Diagnose, Design, Test process – define the measurable behaviour you want to see changed; diagnose the barriers fueling unhealthy behaviours; design an intervention to encourage a healthier choice; and test if it works in that context – as a practical manual for implementation.
Since 2016, the UN has increasingly viewed behavioural science as a key tool in achieving the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). For example, to promote the use of public transport in Bangladesh as a means of reducing both pollution and traffic congestion, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) developed a smartphone app called “goBD” with live geo-tracking of buses and estimated departure/arrival times to encourage uptake. In Ghana, the UNDP created personas like EcoConscious Ama to learn about recycling behaviours and then used this information to apply localised, socially-conscious nudges to increase plastics collection.
There are a few key behaviours to look at when it comes to sustainability efforts, says De Martino, who adds that the World Bank is currently looking at: “programme, products and policy uptakes, such as the adoption of cleaner technologies; reducing energy use in carbon-emitting activities; and shifting behaviour towards more sustainable, public goods efforts like recycling and land use.”
However, when it comes to shifting mindsets on environmental sustainability, for instance, there is clearly a difference between a developed country where electricity usage is widespread and a lower-income country whose population predominantly burns kerosene or uses biofuels.
“Context matters a lot,” says Foster. “While the process is pretty similar from one setting to the next, you need to pick up on contextual differences and design for that”. De Martino agrees, noting that the “behavioural approach to understand individual decision-making is often the same across contexts,” but the application of behavioural insights will vary regardless of income level as “every society, and groups within society, have varying social norms and ways of thinking that they use to make decisions”.
Professor Danae Manika, who is currently leading a lab on Behavioural Science Insights for Sustainability at Brunel University London, says that “there is no one-size-fits-all solution”, especially as “governments have different schemes and goals in mind which need to be taken into account for any behaviour change initiative.” But governments – whether local, national, or supranational – are not the only actors in town.
“Private companies are in a great position to contribute hugely,” says Foster, adding that changing behaviour “upstream is important as it’s more impactful than trying to change one person at a time.” From news agencies offering online subscriptions as a default instead of print to supermarkets laying out locally produced food front and centre, private companies have multiple ways to directly influence their customers’ behaviour.
And indirectly. “In the world of marketing, private companies are way ahead of the game and we could use these same analytics to tailor sustainability nudges to individuals,” says Foster, adding that for successful interventions, it’s “important to have ethics approval as well as oversight at a leadership level, such as having a Chief Behavioural Officer, and to communicate what works and what doesn't in a way that doesn’t hinder their competitive advantage.”
With the Secretary General of the UN recently publishing a guidance note strongly encouraging UN entities to invest in behavioural science, perhaps corporate boardrooms could be next in line to take the message forward.