Nudge theory and the environment

In Australia achieving social change to combat environmental problems is about as high a current mainstream political priority as using market mechanisms. With the dumping of the carbon tax (even before the Abbott Government takes office) the political price of using pricing to combat problems or encourage beneficial alternatives is going to be considered a hurdle too high in Australia for quite some time.

Yet research shows that some of the most effective strategies and tactics pioneered through social marketing based on behavioural change research are increasingly being used around the world. George Mason University has been at the forefront of much of this research and has recently published a report, Nudging Towards a Healthy Natural Environment: How behavioural change research can inform conservation, which draws on some interesting international research and presents some excellent case studies. It also demonstrates that while critics of PR focus on the industry’s role in defending polluters and despoilers the industry is also in the forefront of making things better. The report,, was written by Karen Akerlof, PhD Center for Climate Change Communication George Mason University, and Chris Kennedy, PhD Department of Environmental Science at the university.

The authors say: “This paper synthesizes foundational knowledge from psychology and behavioural economics, and other applied fields like public health, to develop recommendations for incorporating behavioural-change interventions in promotion of the health and wellbeing of natural ecosystems. We identify five ‘areas of influence’ that provide opportunities for promoting pro-environmental behaviour: attitudes, agency, emotions, social norms, and environmental or decision context.”

The recommendations flow, as you would expect, from much existing social marketing and behavioural science research and practice but are worth re-iterating because of their relevance and effectiveness. They include: explicitly utilizing evidence from social and behavioural sciences in the design of conservation initiatives; including social science research within conservation programs in designing strategies, selecting behavioural targets and evaluating results; recognising the need for experimental or quasi-experimental designs to identify causal relationships; developing and tracking social indicators for target sites (similar to ecological indicators) that represent attitudes toward conservation; bringing behavioural change researchers and conservation practitioners together regularly  to identify the most important problem areas for research and application; targeting weaknesses in theoretical understanding to improve the effectiveness of conservation interventions and agree upon consistent terms for behavioural change techniques and influential factors; publishing results in both the grey and academic literatures to encourage the adoption of standardized research framework; developing and managing a searchable database of field applications of behavioural interventions and outcome variables; developing tiered funding mechanisms for behavioural interventions; and, testing interventions in controlled settings before scaling them up.

The report is also invaluable for the case studies. They encompass: an eco-forestry project in Pakistan; the impact of ecotourism on attitudes in Trinidad; encouraging recycling in China; cultivating overharvested species in Belize; forest management in the UK and the Netherlands; the theft of petrified wood from Arizona’s national parks; water conservation in Cobb County Georgia; messages about arsenic in wells in Bangladesh; and fire management in Grand Canyon National Park. While the lessons are site specific they include: ecotourism needs to pay more than hunting to change behaviours; theft is better countered by negative messages than straight information; appeals to social norms are more effective in communicating water conservation than general appeals to reduce usage; simplification is important; and the behavioural sciences findings about individuals attitudes to losses and gains explain controlled fire burns very well. The blog wishes it had been familiar with the last in the long campaigns about forests in Australia.

Many practitioners have been applying many of these lessons in Australia and the blog recalls using some of the strategies and tactics throughout the introduction of kerbside recycling in Victoria (of which more details can be found in the downloadable book on the website). But bringing together the research in the way the George Mason report does provides a terrific base for more effective campaigns.

Of course, part of the problem is that the international context means little to many in Australia. For instance, recently the Australian Institute of Public Affairs was boasting of its success in fighting emissions trading. Well that might be right for Australia – with support from lots of well-resourced lobby groups – but ignores the progress being made in the area by California and China. After being told for some years by the IPA and others that Australia ought not lead the way on emissions trading we may soon find ourselves laggards rather than leaders.

Which, of course, raises a more fundamental question: how much do the behavioural sciences tell us about combatting vested interests which rely on the behavioural and attitudinal irrationalities the behavioural sciences reveal to achieve their goals?