Nudge guru touts 'fast and fun' green revolution

Head of behavioural insight team advises green businesses to promote instant benefits of products over long-term gains.

The head of the government’s so-called “nudge unit” has urged green businesses to publicise the immediate and fun benefits of their products instead of longer-term environmental gains if they want to drive environmentally friendly behaviour change among customers.

David Halpern, head of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, told delegates at Fiat’s eco-driving event in London this week that people were more likely to adopt green practices such as more fuel-efficient driving if they could see the short-term benefits.

Speaking about both Fiat’s eco-drive technology and behaviour change more generally, Halpern said humans naturally want instant gratification and as such are less attracted by long-term environmental or even financial gains.

“One of the dilemmas we have is that in our behaviour, we heavily discount all these future gains, particularly gains for others,” he said. “A challenge facing designers [of eco-drive technology] is that saving the environment or saving a bit of money is not very salient. That it could be fun and people will get there faster is actually far more important, and that’s a recurrent theme in many areas.”

According to research from Fiat, fuel-efficient driving habits such as accelerating and braking more smoothly help reduce journey times.

Halpern also argued that focusing on how people’s actions affect others could help drive positive behaviour change. For example, people would brake more smoothly if they thought about the fact that braking sharply could jolt other people in the car, or force the car behind to brake sharply.

“Often behavioural change doesn’t only affect us, it has these externalities, these knock-on effects,” he said.

Defending the wider behavioural economics or “nudge” theory from critics who warn it could lead to “nanny-state” policies, Halpern said it was crucial to ensure people feel in control of their actions.

The theory, which has helped shape David Cameron’s “big society” agenda, is likely to become increasingly prevalent as the environmental demands on people to change their behaviour intensify.

“We’re very aware, as we wrestle with these issues across a number of areas, that you also have to maintain legitimacy,” he said. “And going forward, as we get on to more difficult issues it’s absolutely essential that we maintain that by involving the public quite heavily.”

For example, while Halpern agreed Fiat’s existing eco-drive technology was not inherently unacceptable, he wondered if people might object if they were asked to compare their driving skills with other drivers.

“We need to keep the public with us, and they need to give us permission to do these kind of approaches,” he said.

BusinessGreen has also learned that the Department for Transport (DfT) is in talks with Halpern’s team to come up with ways of promoting eco-driving practices.

Speaking at the Fiat event, Rupert Furness, head of environment policy and delivery at DfT, said his department was trying to raise public awareness about eco driving and urged businesses to enroll their employees in subsidised “smarter driving” courses.

Consumer behaviour is an increasing concern for a wide range of businesses trying to cut their carbon footprints. Research has shown that it is not enough for some firms to solely change their products without asking their customers to also adapt.

It has led to campaigns such as Procter & Gamble’s “turn to 30” advertisements, urging customers to wash their clothes at lower temperatures.

By Jessica Shankleman

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