NEWS15 March 2017

When push comes to shove – how nudge theory is changing behaviour

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UK – Individuals’ reluctance to change their behaviour – even when they know they should – is presenting a huge challenge to organisations tackling problems as diverse as childhood obesity, dangerous driving and household recycling.


The annual MRS conference, Impact 2017, heard that while received wisdom tells us that more education about important issues is the best way to change minds and change behaviour, this approach often fails.

“We’ve seen a definite change over the past 13 to 14 years,” said Ali Moore, communications and behaviour change manager at Resource London. “There’s been a real shift in our audiences away from a sense of accountability to a wider world and more of a focus on ‘what’s in it for me?’.”

Moore was presenting one of three case studies showing how research had helped inform and inspire behavioural change.

Resource London had worked with Jon Cohen, partner at Kindling, to look at why recycling rates in London were so low among 18- to 34-year-olds. Interviews of pairs of householders, plus video diaries showing the moments at which people decide whether to bin or recycle an item, proved illuminating.

“We learned that this audience know enough to know they should care,” Cohen said. “Yet they still don’t do it.”

Rather than promote the virtues of recycling in general, Resource London decided to focus on “just one thing” at a time, looking at the items that were easiest for people to recycle, and which they saw most value in doing. A campaign just on plastic bottles, for instance, showing what to do with lids and labels and the effect of not recycling on waterways, was more likely to resonate, they found.

“We accepted that you can’t do everything and be all things to all people,” Moore said. But one campaign, one product and one target audience at a time could make a difference.

A project for the Healthy London Partnership to address the huge problem of obesity in the capital, used research as a tool not just to unearth people’s views, habits and concerns but also to bring about a change in outlook.

Expert interviews with health professionals were followed by online sessions with 120 Londoners and then a day-long workshop – a ‘Great Weight Debate’ – involving both groups of people to look at next steps.

Michaela Rhode, research lead at BritainThinks, said the public initially saw obesity as individual problem; there was a sense of blame, stigma and even blindness to the extent of the problem. When the discussion was framed as an environmental problem that almost inevitably led to obesity – if you’re surrounded by fast food and there are limited healthy options, what’s the alternative? – the mood changed.

“You get anger, outrage, and ultimately a powerful call to action.”

* The third case study looked at the research behind the current Department of Transport campaign to urge motorists not to use their mobile phones at the wheel. The challenge was that while nearly 100% of people agree that phone use by drivers is unacceptable, about a third of people say they do it.

Jo Parry, head of marketing at the department, worked with Sidi Lemine, insight and research director at BAMM, to put dashcams in 12 motorists’ cars and observe their behaviour. The resulting videos were shown to participants, and a range of excuses and reasons emerged for extensive use of mobiles.

It became clear that the solution would need to both remove the temptation of the phone in the car, and overcome people’s keenness to justify their behaviour. The ‘Make the glove compartment the phone compartment’ campaign, launched at the beginning of March, was the result, supported by glovebox stickers and a video featuring a family whose wife and mother was killed by a driver who was texting at the time.