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Could behavioural nudges help us tackle the climate crisis?

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Four decades ago, social scientists conducted an experiment with the elevators in a Canadian university. They added a 16-second delay before the doors closed to see if more people would use the stairs. They did. No surprise there. But what was particularly interesting was that when the elevators returned to normal many people continued to use the stairs, cutting energy costs and raising students’ fitness levels.

What’s more, the elevator trick cut energy usage far more than when the university simply posted messages asking people to take the stairs. Adding tangible friction into our routines, in other words, can sometimes change habits in a beneficial way.

It is an important lesson to ponder as many of us trickle back to offices. During the past 18 months, many of us have experienced an enforced culture shock. Lockdowns have turned our routines upside down and shown we cannot take longstanding rituals for granted.

This has demonstrated how powerful oft-ignored cultural patterns are. But it has also shown these can change. Consider face masks. In the spring of 2020, it seemed so hard to imagine that Americans and Europeans would willingly wear masks that I wrote a column lamenting this (and pointing out that anthropologists in Asia had studied pandemics and seen how beneficial masks could be). How wrong I was: even individualistic New Yorkers have embraced masks to an impressive degree, along with other once-alien habits such as social distancing.

This poses two questions for the future (both tie into that Canadian elevator experiment). First, how many of our new lockdown habits will become ingrained? And, second, can we use this lesson to make other shifts in our lives, say, in relation to the crucial question of combating climate change?

When recycling bins are placed next to office workers’ desks with visible signs, recycling suddenly rises

New research from scholars at Insead business school and the University of Southern California offers hope on the second point. They surveyed a wide range of behavioural experiments linked to “green” issues — including the elevator test — and concluded that such so-called nudges are not just effective in promoting eco-friendly behaviour but also better than pious speeches from government officials or activists. “Interventions that change minds often do not change behaviours,” the authors explain, noting that there is a gap between our rhetoric and reality.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center shows that while 64 per cent of Americans think combating climate change should be a top priority, two-thirds also think that citizens are not doing enough. Another survey published this week, also by Pew, estimates that up to 80 per cent of respondents from a 17 developed economies, including the US and UK, are willing to make lifestyle changes to slow global warming.

The Insead team argues that “people often fail to act to protect the environment not because they lack concern but . . . because they keep reverting to old, habitual behaviours”. Rituals matter.

How can we change our habits for the better? The paper highlights three main tools. The first is “friction” — making it more difficult to engage in non-green behaviour. The Canadian elevator experiment is one example of this. Another experiment recently occurred in California when some companies removed free car parks and saw use of public transport surge.

Friction can also be introduced into restaurant menus. Experiments in Scandinavia show that when meat-eating consumers are presented with menus that list vegan food as the default option or placed at the top of the menu card, most will order vegan, put off by the friction of finding the meat dishes.

A second tool is an “action cue”, an overt prompt to change behaviour. When recycling bins are placed next to office workers’ desks with visible signs, recycling suddenly rises. Such cues are effective when other factors have already jolted people out of their routines: households will switch to green utilities more readily when they move house. Returning to an office after a lockdown might offer the same opportunity. The pandemic has also prompted us to rethink flying.

The third tool to promote green behaviour is one that economists love to cite: incentives. However, signals must be clear; humans are rarely as rational or all-knowing as models imply. Thus, if people are instantly charged for plastic bags in a shop, they cut plastic usage even if the price is small. If they have meters in their house displaying real-time energy usage, they will conserve it more readily than if they just get monthly energy bills.

Of course, some people might object to such nudges, fearing the encroachment of a “nanny state”. Others might question whether they can really make much difference, given that the biggest factors behind climate change today are decisions made by governments and company leaders, not individual consumers. That’s a fair point.

But the key thing to remember is that habits are not just powerful, but malleable. And the disruption caused by Covid-19 has given us a rare chance to reflect and remake. The pandemic could be a once-in-a-generation cultural reboot. It would be tragic to waste such an opportunity. Shunning elevators or flights is just a start.

Follow Gillian on Twitter @gilliantett and email her at gillian.tett@ft.com

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