Centre for Behaviour Change


Interview with: Toby Park

Toby Park is Head of Energy & Sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team, a global social purpose company which exists to improve people’s lives and communities.

Toby Park

11 February 2020

Living sustainably often requires an investment of time, effort and money. How can behavioural science help reduce these costs?
Behavioural science tells us that these things are important and there is not always a shortcut. We do know that consumers will only be willing to make modest compromises to convenience, cost, and enjoyment. Therefore, a behaviourally informed approach often tries to make the sustainable option the most convenient, the cheapest or most enjoyable. The mistake is in the expectation that we can avoid that with clever nudges or communication campaigns, but that will only get you so far. 

Transport behaviours are a good example. Often, we get enquiries from potential clients who would like us to try and help them nudge transport users to more sustainable modes of transport (walking, cycling, public transport, and so on) through a messaging campaign. The problem is that people’s transport decisions are 99% based on convenience and the availability of infrastructure, so if you don’t have those levers at your disposal there is a limited impact you can have. That’s not to say small improvements aren’t worthwhile – but we’re running out of time to save the planet one nudge at a time, so it’s our duty as behavioural scientists to point out when a bigger solution is needed.

All that being said, there are some smaller things that we can do.

When it comes to effort, for example, quite trivial friction costs can be disproportionately impactful. Inevitably, within a process or a system, there are small frictions that can be removed just by making small tweaks to the design of that system.

We can also reduce effort by identifying the right moment: we are much more likely and able to change our behaviours at key moments, particularly moments when habits and routines are disrupted or haven't yet started. For example, if you are trying to encourage people to insulate their homes, you should do so as soon as they move into their home before they fill up their attic, and perhaps while they are already doing home renovation works anyway. Clearly, that is a much better moment to get people to make that effortful step than six months later when they are established in their new home.

Likewise with costs – there are clever things you can do on the margins to help address financial barriers. Often, the main issue is upfront costs: we tend to strongly bias towards upfront costs and benefits and discount those in the future, so ideally we want to push back the costs and bring forward the benefits. For example, when buying low energy light bulbs or appliances, the savings tend to come in the future and you have to spend a bit more upfront, so helping people think about the long-term savings, as they’re making that purchase decision, is quite advantageous.

But beyond these small tweaks, which can be powerful but ultimately focus on changing individual behaviour, we ideally want to fundamentally shift market design in a behaviourally informed way. That is, so that we are not just nudging some consumers on the margins, but we are doing it in a way that leads to bigger changes in the market, making the more sustainable behaviours easier and cheaper.

One example is the design of the UK sugar tax, which BIT were involved in. The beauty of this design is that it is not a conventional sin tax – it is not just an increase in the price of sugary drinks, which would discourage some consumers from drinking them. Conventional tax designs like this can work, but they tend to be a bit regressive because they affect low-income households most, and only work with some people. The sugar tax is a much smarter design. It sets a tax at key sugar thresholds, knowing that producers will be able to reformulate their drinks to avoid that tax. And that is exactly what happened – the vast majority of drink manufacturers reformulated their drinks to contain far less sugar. Now everyone, even the most inert of consumers who would not have changed their behaviour in response to a modest price increase (and perhaps have never even heard of the tax) is drinking less sugar. This is a more behaviourally informed tax design, because it recognises that changing the choice environment and reducing the availability of high-sugar drinks is more effective than trying to educate or incentivise individuals to make different choices from the existing set of options.

Environment Placards

What are the challenges facing those working towards environmental behaviour change and how can they be overcome?
As a practitioner, part of the challenge is around what levers you have access to. For example, if you are an environmental charity, what can you really control? You can send out good messages, design good social marketing or communications campaigns, but that’s often quite a weak driver of behaviour – you are limited to trying to shift people’s awareness or attitudes. That can be done well, and there is lots of behavioural science to this. But ultimately, we know that awareness and attitudes are rarely sufficient to drive behaviour. If you can’t fundamentally alter the choice environment that’s a challenge.

On the other hand, if you are a supermarket or a government agency, you can fundamentally change the choice environment. In a supermarket, you can change the way food options are laid-out, you can change pricing and so on. That tends to be much more powerful at shifting behaviours. In a sense, it is therefore all about having the right partnerships because you need to collaborate with the organizations and institutions that do have the levers available to pull to shift people's choice environments. That’s the first key point.

The second point to mention – a lesson learnt after working with hundreds of clients - is that it is perennially important for organisations trying to promote sustainable behaviours to overcome the intuitive account of human behaviour. There is a deep belief that it is our values, attitudes, and beliefs that drive intentional behaviour and action, and of course, that can happen to some extent, but behavioural science shows us that more often than not that, this is not really how it works.

We therefore need to broaden our toolkit and think about how we can directly shift behaviours. Partly, that is about overcoming the temptation to promote sustainable behaviours on the message of sustainability. As sustainability practitioners, we all care deeply about sustainability issues, so we tend to promote behaviours on that message, but there is no reason to do so - there are many other drivers of behaviour. We already talked about using convenience, cost, and enjoyment but we can also think about leveraging social influence, cognitive bias, and other non-conscious drivers of behaviour that tend to shift behaviours directly, rather than via people’s attitudes and awareness.

UCL food self service

You recently published an extensive report outlining strategies for promoting sustainable diets. Could you elaborate on strategies that would help an institution such as UCL encourage greener eating?
One approach is to change the choice architecture, particularly in student canteens and campus shops. In the report, there are a number of recommendations around making plant-based food and other more sustainable foods more prominent and more available. For instance, there have been a number of studies showing that just increasing the relative availability of plant-based food in a canteen environment (rather than having one in four options being plant-based having two in four being plant-based), can significantly increase the number of people who choose that option.

The report also mentions defaults. In a university environment, you could default conference attendees into plant-based food. If attendees want to have something different they would have to pre-order, in much the same way that anyone who is currently a vegetarian or a vegan would have to pre-order (so that's flipping that default without reducing choice). You can also think about timely moments of change. In the context of food, starting university is a timely moment because for many undergraduates it is the first time buying groceries and cooking for themselves. Most of us have a repertoire of 6-10 dishes that we cook that probably constitute about 90% of what we cook and eat. Getting people habituated to a handful of good sustainable recipes at that key moment when they are learning, can clearly create good habits for life.

The report recommends the re-branding of plant-based food towards a mainstream identity. Do you believe identity plays a role in pro-environmental behaviours in general? If so, how do you suggest decoupling identity from environmental issues?
I do think identity plays a role. It is a shame that it does (partly because it ends up being quite politicised), but it clearly does. For instance, there is evidence to show that women are more pro-environmentally oriented than men. Plant-based food has an association of femininity and even weakness (the opposite to a prototypical masculine meat-eater). These are clearly barriers that need to be addressed if we want the entire population to act more sustainably.

I think partly, it is about targeting the right identity and tailoring the approach accordingly. A made-up example can demonstrate this point: if you are trying to promote solar energy to Democrats in the US, by all means, promote it on an argument of saving the planet If you are trying to promote solar energy to a Republican audience, you might be better off talking about energy independence and security, job creation and so on. There is no reason why you have to mention sustainability if there are other good reasons to do it (and usually there are). That’s a trite example, but the point could equally be applied to all branding, imagery, and messaging around sustainable products and campaigns, which often speak to a particular identity or set of values.

Partly, it is about removing or undoing features in our choice environment which exacerbate that identity association. For example, in the context of food, plant-based food is often placed in a dedicated section which exacerbates the sense that it is for someone else. It creates a sense of ‘otherness’ against a backdrop of ‘normal’ meat-eating. So one of our recommendations is to integrate products rather than segregate them. On menus, vegetarian options should be integrated rather than in their own box. In canteens, the bean burgers should be next to the beef burgers rather than in their own section. That is a small thing you can do, and there are a few studies that show it’s potentially quite impactful. The vegetarians will find this food anyway, it is more about making it normal and more salient to people who are not vegetarian who might be quite willing to eat it if it wasn’t hidden away.

Finally, it is perhaps around creating new narratives and harnessing the right motivations for an identity group. For instance, there is some fantastic work by psychologist Jonathan Haidt on Moral Foundations Theory. The moral compass of the political left tends to be based on ideas of fairness, justice, and harm. The environmental movement is very much rooted in arguments of fairness, justice, and harm.

The political right tends to have that to some extent but has a slightly stronger focus on things likely loyalty, honor, and purity (which is related to the emotion of disgust, a very powerful driver of behaviour).

It is interesting that on the rare occasions that president Trump does make a pro-environmental argument, he usually talks about cleanliness (cleanliness of rivers, waters, air and so on). He does not talk about big international climate breakdown, he talks about local cleanliness issues, a narrative that does resonate with that kind of identity and that political meaning. So again, we need to broaden our arguments and move away from what we find motivating towards what the target audience finds motivating.

What are the most effective nudges that hub members can apply to promote greener behaviour in their social circles?
Nudging as a technique tends to work on the aggregate, across the population. When you are using these kinds of techniques to try and influence individuals, it is perhaps more hit-and-miss. That said, there are a few lessons that can be learned from the literature. For instance, try and avoid messages of guilt and righteousness (which unfortunately is quite common in this sector). Guilt can be a powerful driver of behaviour change, but only when that behaviour change is easy. If we do not want to change our behaviour (because it is difficult or because it entails some cost), we tend to resolve that guilt not by changing our behaviour, but by ignoring the message, pushing away the messenger, or getting annoyed. The solution is to be more positive, to be pragmatic, to try and elicit pride in what can be done rather than guilt towards what is not being done.

It’s also good to come back to perhaps the most important lesson in behavioural science – if you want to encourage a particular behaviour, make it easy. So can you make sustainable choices easier for your friends and colleagues? Perhaps sharing recipes, sharing recommendations for greener alternatives, and just helping people on that journey rather than admonishing them.