Core 10: The Change Makers' Manual

Decision-Making & Analytics

T he refrain “Guns don’t kill people; people kill people” is repeatedly used by the US National Rifle Association to fight any attempt to regulate the cheap availability of powerful firearms in the US. The implication is clear: there is no need to reduce gun sales or tighten gun laws. Individual people are the problem, not the firearms industry. And the PR tactic of blaming the individual not the ‘system’ isn’t restricted to firearms. It is remarkably widespread. A particularly striking example concerns carbon emissions. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent by BP on a vast media campaign that charged individuals with tracking their carbon footprint (including creating a widely used personal carbon footprint calculator). The idea of personal carbon footprints has definitely caught on with campaigners, governments and the media. “Focusing on ‘fixing’ the individual tends to be disappointingly ineffective” This sounds like a positive step for the climate – unless we suspect that the real goal is placing responsibility for global warming squarely on the shoulders of the individual, and not on the fossil fuel companies. The prevalence of this tactic is particularly alarming for those in

the behavioural sciences, including me, who mostly look at social and political problems from the point of view of the individual. Aren’t we ‘blaming the individual’ just as the opponents of government action might hope? Indeed, my friend and long-time collaborator George Loewenstein and I argue in a recent paper that we, and many fellow behavioural responsibility, and exploring how individuals can be ‘nudged’ to make better decisions, ignores the bigger picture: the systems that cause the problems in the first place, and how these need to be reformed. The focus on helping the individual has been gathering pace for a while. There has been increasing interest in informing consumers (eg putting calorie labels on food), disclosing conflicts of interest and asking permission (eg, through all those legal disclaimers we tick when navigating the internet about better patient information). scientists, have unwittingly fallen into exactly this trap. Emphasising individual And, most significantly, there have been adjustments to the ways in which choices are made (eg, opting out vs opting in to green energy, or organ donation; or being told not just how much we spend on energy, but how much our neighbours spend). These ‘nudges’ try to help people make better health, environmental or financial choices but leave the ‘system’ intact. George and I have been enthusiastic supporters of these developments, which were given a big boost by David Cameron’s Government, with the hope that these measures would be cheap, politically uncontroversial, and effective. But, as we argue in our paper, focusing on ‘fixing’ the individual tends to be

disappointingly ineffective. A lot of nudges don’t really change behaviour substantially at all (an average impact may be 1 per cent or so, but with huge variation); and changes often quickly fade (smart meters are put in drawers, gym memberships lapse). Even when behaviour does shift, it doesn’t always address the underlying problem. A good example is recent studies in which people are nudged into choosing green energy by making this their ‘default’ tariff. They can opt out of the more expensive green tariff, but most don’t bother. This may sound promising, but it has no real impact on the supply of clean energy. It mainly shifts the supply of clean energy from one set of consumers to another. Worse still, signing up can convince individuals they’ve done their bit for climate change and reduce appetite for more painful choices such as a carbon tax. But we’ve been looking down the wrong end of the telescope. Most of our behaviour is heavily influenced by the systems in which we live and work The first goal of behavioural science in public policy should surely be to help citizens lobby for, and to help governments implement, the right system changes (new laws, regulations, taxes and incentives) to address society’s ills. Stepping back to look at how things have changed gives a powerful clue that individuals aren’t the problem. Take obesity: people have grown increasingly obese across many parts of the world in the last few decades because of the flood of cheap, calorific, over- processed food, not because of any reduction in self-control. Or plastic pollution: the countryside and oceans are

But the real action, we now realise, is in systemic change – houses must be insulated, gas boilers replaced by heat pumps, electricity decarbonised, electric vehicles subsidised, and charging infrastructure improved. There is no way to wriggle out of difficult and complex policy choices. As well as policy design, behavioural science can play a role in how policies are formulated – policymakers are fallible, after all, and prone to overconfidence, conformity, groupthink, short- termism, and more. How can you design policymaking to mitigate against these traps? One strategy is to build an adversarial system. Just as banks might bring in ‘white hat hackers’ to test system security, perhaps policymakers need separate teams that are actively trying to pick holes in policy proposals. This could prompt more original thinking and combat a desire to conform, and ultimately result in more robust, ingenious policies. But we need, more broadly, to be thoughtful – and creative – in designing systems that allow people to correct each other’s mistakes and create the best possible policy ideas. The science of individuals’ behaviourl matters hugely for good public policy – but is not primarily used to help us nudge individuals to behave ‘better’. Urgent social problems need radical policy action – and whether that policy succeeds or fails may depend on whether it goes with, or against, the grain of human nature.

increasingly awash with plastic because of the explosive rise in plastic packaging, rather than because we have suddenly become less careful in how we dispose of litter. Problems are created by systems rather than by individuals. But, with some exceptions, recent government policies shy away from regulation and pass responsibility to the consumer – an approach that is very unlikely to work. But if behavioural science has often been misdirected, it still has a crucial role to play in helping design and gather support for more effective system change. One success story is a traditional tax (but a very modest one): the plastic bag tax. While efforts since the 1970s to persuade people to use fewer bags have proven all but useless, very small taxes have dramatically reduced usage. Why? Surely these tiny taxes should be too small to make a difference. The answer is that the tax is cleverly designed to focus on losing 5p – and people hate losses; but more important is the symbolic significance of the tax. We’ve all seen enough David Attenborough documentaries to know that plastic waste needs to be reduced – and most of us want to play our part.

So the small charge acts as a reminder to help us do something we feel we (and others) ought to be doing, and thus is mostly greeted with acceptance rather than outrage. The tax sends the right symbolic message and aligns with our sense of what is reasonable and fair. A far bigger challenge is creating a carbon tax that the public can get behind. Here, understanding individual behaviour – and, especially, how people decide what is fair – can make or break a policy. A pioneering carbon tax introduced in 2014 in British Columbia won support from citizens and industry. It’s a clever design – funds are levied and then redistributed to the population. Were it to have been billed as a fundraiser for government, it would probably have been disastrous. But given sufficient public acceptance of the environmental cost of carbon, people can be willing to take the rap – knowing that there will be both winners and losers. George and I have been involved in climate policy discussions with governments for years. I’ve been particularly keen on novel and vivid ways to inform people about their carbon footprints, to help nudge everyone to make better choices.

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Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)

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