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Nudge, Nudge, Why Won’t You Budge? - Guest Blog By Writer, Rebecca Lillywhite

Posted by Melanie Fisher on
Nudge, Nudge, Why Won’t You Budge? - Guest Blog By Writer, Rebecca Lillywhite

How is it that with the more we understand about our predicament with plastic pollution and climate change, the less our behaviour reflects the crisis?

With more of us set on booking staycations this year (thanks Covid) and finally able to dust off the shorts and vest tops (hi climate change), our local parks, beach towns and nature reserves find themselves flooded with tourists. These small attractions, whilst keen to receive support, are finding themselves battling with the hordes descending on them. Yes, the warmer weather and easing of restrictions is great for the local businesses, but for the people living in the surrounding areas and the local communities the influx of visitors is bad news. Earlier this year as the weather improved, our feeds blew up with images of beauty spots up and down the country strewn with litter; used BBQ’s, nappies, plastic food wrappers and empty bottles. It was disgusting. 

(image credit: Independent

It’s not just the local picnic spots that have suffered. Residents in Cornwall, fed up with the constant trashing of their stunning beaches have launched campaigns such as ‘Don’t Trash Our Future’, whose aims include; increasing the maximum punishment for littering to £1,000 or 200 hours of supervised community litter picking, and to make it compulsory for local authorities to enforce the law on littering. 


So, what else is being done to battle the litter cretins, and, taking it a step further, improve ‘green’ habits of people in general? Most people don’t need convincing that going green is good for ourselves and for the planet, but there seems to be a chronic breakdown between our intent and our actions. One way we see governments and businesses trying to encourage the uptake of green positive action is a little something called Nudge Theory. A nudge is classified as a gentle encouragement or guide in order to have someone perform a specific action, behave in a certain way, or choose a product in line with their own good, while having the freedom to choose. These nudges are based on advanced knowledge of the decision-making process.

Perhaps the most famous example of the nudge theory in action, was born from a disgruntled maintenance team at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. After complaining about the excessive spillage around the urinals (really boys??), some small decals (essentially a decorative sticker) in the shape of a fly were applied in some of the urinals. The result was that the men using the urinals with the flies did so with 80% more accuracy than the urinals without the stickers, safe to assume because they had something to aim at. If you were wondering why they chose a fly it’s because spiders and cockroaches were deemed too ugly looking and those urinals may be avoided, while something like a ladybug or butterfly was deemed too pretty and wouldn’t be peed on. Science.

(photo: Peter Biľak, taken from https://worksthatwork.com/1/urinal-fly )

With the looming threat of global climate change (you’ve seen The Day After Tomorrow, you know how it goes), and to avoid ecological and social disastrous consequences, scientists are urging us to change our behaviour, now. One way governments and companies are trying to achieve environmentally beneficial behaviours is through something often referred to as ‘green nudging’. You might recognise some of the examples below. 

(Image source: https://cxl.com/blog/nudge-marketing/ )

In the UK two cigarette disposal bins were put up, one marked Ronaldo, the other Messi. The bins encouraged smokers to vote for the best football player with their cigarette butts. After twelve weeks, cigarette litter dropped by 46%. In the United States, a similar experiment reduced cigarette litter by 74% in six months. 

You may have seen a Basketball hoop over recycling bins, also an effective nudge to get people to recycle more often.

(Image source: https://cxl.com/blog/nudge-marketing/ )

Or how about the piano stairs in Sweden? A nudge experiment which encouraged people to choose the ‘healthier’ option of taking the stairs instead of using the escalator. 

(image credit: https://www.designoftheworld.com/piano-stairs/ )

Overall, there is evidence to suggest that behavioural nudges can be powerful tools for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour. If that’s the case, why are we seeing the revolting mess left in parks after one sunny day? Why are residents of Cornwall having to launch campaigns to combat the rubbish? Why aren’t we budging with all this nudging? 

This might be best explained with the BJ Fogg Model, which is: behaviour = motivation x ability x prompt

(image credit: https://suebehaviouraldesign.com/bj-fogg-model/ )

To better understand why behaviours aren’t changing, this model outlines three questions:

  1. Is someone motivated enough?

  2. Does someone have the capabilities of performing the desired behaviour?

  3. Did we remind them/ask them to perform the desired behaviour?

Think about quitting smoking. If a smoker doesn’t want to stop smoking (low motivation), you can nudge him all you want but nothing will happen, since quitting smoking is very hard to do (low ability). If someone is highly motivated to quit smoking, it is still very hard to do (low ability). So, you should think about how you could make it easier for this person (higher ability). An answer could be by thinking about baby steps and making the desired behaviour easier by breaking up the task into smaller and more manageable steps.

One area governments globally have gotten a little more serious about getting us to change our behaviour is with single use plastic. England introduced the plastic bag tax in 2015, which saw a dramatic fall in single use plastic bag sales. This isn’t a nudge, it’s a consequence. How many of us have popped into the shop ‘just for one thing’ and come out with a small armful? Countless times I have done the perilous juggling act of putting ‘things that may explode if I drop them’ firmly under one arm, and everything else piled high so I can hold it all in place with my chin. All this simply because I point blank refuse to pay 5p for a plastic bag. The plastic bag tax wasn’t a suggestion to improve our behaviour, it was the consequence of not taking a greener action. To date it has been effective, but perhaps not effective enough as the plastic bag tax is rising to 10p.

Nudges can have a large impact on conversions; the percentage of urinal spillage dropping, a decrease in cigarette butt litter and choosing the healthier option (taking the stairs), but none of these results had a large-scale uptake. If residents of Cornwall are launching campaigns pushing for the maximum punishment for littering, then it doesn’t seem like signs suggesting beachgoers take rubbish home with them are particularly effective. If we plan to get serious in our efforts to avoid ecological and socially disastrous consequences on a global scale, then we really need to kick it up a notch and gently suggesting better behaviours just isn’t going to cut it.   

Written by freelance author Rebecca Lillywhite

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