• Opinion
  • November 26, 2019
  • 16 minutes
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6 ways of using behavioural science in green policymaking

Even the best policies fail when the public is not on board

This article is written by Dr. Michael Shank, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs.


We need to quickly move our cities and towns towards more sustainable development. To do that, we need to take advantage of the full range of tools available to us. Behaviour change communications, in particular, is a game changer from the social sciences that we need to scale up quickly.

Most of the more technical game changers, such as mandating the recovery of organic material or building a ubiquitous electric vehicle charging infrastructure, which we cover in this Game Changers report from the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, will be impossible unless public and political will is mustered, mobilised and maintained over time.

So, how do you do it?

In this article, I will cover 6 out of 12 behavioural science-based principles that will help you roll out sustainable policies in cities and communities — be they social, economic or environmental — focusing especially on getting buy-in from your stakeholders in the public and private sectors.

These principles are well-known to the fields of sociology, psychology and behavioural economics (and packaged and explained succinctly by Ideas42) and will be helpful when building consensus around, and communicating out, game-changing policy.

Let’s begin.

1. Choice Overload

There’s lots to do when it comes to sustainable development, and it’s not uncommon to see websites advocating for myriad actions and initiatives — because, in all fairness, the work is massive in scope.

There’s so much that needs to be pursued now. Not later — now. 

But is there a way to deliver this to users that doesn’t cause choice overload? And is there a way to deliver, as Ideas42 put it, that decreases the number of choices presented and increases the meaningful differences between them?

For example, what if a city’s sustainability webpages offered a featured action of the month? And it encouraged users to take that one action during that one month. And all of the city’s communications centred around that one action.

The month after, the city could roll out a new action that it wants residents to take. Residents who are ahead of the curve could always explore more actions: the city’s website could have in the background (and off to the side) an easy-to-navigate catalogue of the 12 actions (that run concurrently with the calendar year) that all residents can take to help the city and their homes/communities be more sustainable socially, economically and/or environmentally.

Here’s an exercise for you: Before moving on to the next principle, take a quick look at your own organisation’s outreach materials to see if a user might feel choice overload and, as a result, feel too overwhelmed to take action. How could you simplify the site so that users are directed to one or two priority actions that they can take now? 

2. Cognitive Depletion and Decision Fatigue

There’s plenty of research in the social science field on how fatigue makes for bad decision-making.

With this in mind, we should consider how we are reaching out to the community to build support for our sustainability work. Are we cognizant of when and where they might be fatigued (and thus less equipped to support our initiatives)? At the end of a long day of decision-making at work, school or home (or all three), how do we help ensure that there’s some cognitive bandwidth left for our ask of, and invitation to, them?

When we’re hosting events, are we bringing food (yes, sometimes it’s that simple), and creating a nurturing and welcoming space, so that we’re enabling the community get behind a sustainability initiative? Will what we’re offering them make their lives a little bit better, or a little bit easier, and give them a cognitive break for a bit?

3. Hassle Factors

This is a huge one for cities and communities everywhere. How can we make sustainability easy for our community? If we want people to ride the bus more, bike more, eat more plant-based diets, waste less, insulate their houses better, and buy heat pumps and solar power, how can we make those actions as hassle-free as possible?

Can we make it more enjoyable, more affordable, or more accessible? People might be more willing to undertake the effort and expense needed if they’re doing it in friendly company, with free food, while having a fun time.

Not everyone knows about or cares about sustainability. So how can we make it attractive for people to act in a climate-friendly or people-friendly manner?

Think of a time when you needed help moving, painting, or constructing. You may have added some friends, some free food and some music to make it less of a drag. The same goes for any sustainability initiative. If we can’t reduce the hassle any further (and let’s do everything we can to make it hassle-free), let’s at least make it fun, family-friendly, with free food.

Exercise: Look at a sustainability initiative (e.g. Project Drawdown’s solutions list or the UN’s sustainable development goals) and consider how we can make it more hassle-free for the user. Are there ways that we can make any of these processes slightly less cumbersome? Recognising that some of these initiatives are heavy lifts — in terms of time or money spent — are there ways in which we can offset some of the hassle?

4. Identity

Not everyone knows about or cares about sustainability. Not everyone considers themselves an environmentalist, for example. So how can we make it attractive for people to act in a climate-friendly or people-friendly manner? How can we tap into and speak to their identities? No two people are the same, so what are the principles that matter to these different identities?

Parents, for example, have a desire to keep their children safe from harm and to provide for their household. In that one sentence, we’ve covered health, security and economics.

When our communities don’t immediately do what we ask them to do — like recycling, for example — it’s not necessarily because they lack interest

Are we mindful of identity when we are messaging and mobilising for our sustainability initiatives? And in the words of Ideas42, how do we “prime positive identities to encourage socially beneficial actions”?

Exercise: If we were to do a scan or audit of our sustainability outreach and communication vehicles (printed materials, speeches, websites, social media, etc.), how are we being mindful of our community’s many identities and how are we tailoring our message to be respectful of and resonate with these worldviews? Ultimately, we want everyone to see our work and connect with it. That means we’ll want any and all of our behaviour change-related communications to be sensitive to the identities that are coming to our events, our websites and our action requests. Let’s make sure they see themselves in our work.

5. Limited Attention

When our communities don’t immediately do what we ask them to do — like recycling, for example — it’s not necessarily because they lack interest.

Perhaps they only heard the recycling ask/message once from us, perhaps they never heard it at all, or perhaps other priorities took their attention at the time. People have short attention spans, so our goal should be to ensure that the community hears from us over and over and over again, at least a half dozen times. Some highly visible ways of doing that is by simultaneously using radio, television, billboards, community newspapers and newsletters, local associations and advocacy organisations, religious halls, phone and email, text and more.

Mindful of our own limited attention spans, and being cognizant of all that’s taking priority in our community’s lives, how do we make it easy for everyone to hear from us, by repeating and reiterating our work through every possible channel that might reach them?

While this may sound time-intensive (and it is), it’ll be necessary if we want to truly engage our community and transform policy. Surrogates and liaisons can be helpful here, as we don’t have all the inroads and we don’t always have the credibility as communicators that more local leaders might, so employ others if/when possible. But we have to reach our audience often.

Exercise: Do an audit of the frequency of your city’s or town’s or organisation’s sustainability communications. How and when are you repeating and reiterating and is it resonating? And if not, let’s pre-test and focus-group these messages to ensure that it’s the right wording and the right messenger for the right identities (per the previous section).

6. Loss Aversion

People have, perhaps unsurprisingly, an intrinsic disdain for loss.

This makes sense. Most people aren’t in favour of losing something. We get attached. And we hold onto that attachment — be it emotional, relational, physical or spiritual.

So, how do we communicate our sustainability work in such a way that it’s mindful of the public’s proclivity for averting or avoiding loss? When we think about what people care about — quality of life, standard of living, ego, money, health, and physical security — are we articulating our work in such a way that is mindful of what they don’t want to lose?

Habitat or species loss quickly translates here — as does the quality of life lost, the money lost, the health lost and the security lost from fossil fuels, global heating, and extreme weather — but do we also build new attachments to the kind of world we’re trying to build?

For example, after a city turns a few previously road-trafficked blocks into a pedestrian-only zone, full of beautiful park amenities, and encourages active public engagement in that new space, it’s much more likely that the public will become attached to this new reality and want to preserve, protect and proliferate the experience elsewhere.

How do we show that life is better in this new, more sustainable world? How do we give people an experience that fosters attachment to that new and better life? There’s a lot of natural, intrinsic fear in letting go of the known experience. One way to offset this fear is to provide experiences for people to build new attachments to the new reality that we’re trying to create. Give them something to hold onto, to protect. Most people who have a personal experience and bond with something that’s impacted by global heating — a polar bear, a vulnerable community, a seaside view — are more likely to do everything they can to protect it.

In our messaging and mobilising, let’s give them something specific to protect.

I’ll be back again soon with another six behavioural science principles, exploring how they might apply to sustainability in your community. In the meantime, I look forward to hearing in the comment section below how you’re applying the aforementioned six principles — choice overload, cognitive depletion, hassle factors, identity, limited attention and loss aversion — and how others might learn from your experience. — Michael Shank

Michael Shank, is the communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Centre for Global Affairs. 

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