Behavioural Insights: Can Local Government Use Reciprocation to Improve Outcomes?

The With The Grain tool, which gives local authorities access to behavioural insights, draws on the (now quite extensive) literature on behavioural economics and psychology. One thing pretty much all practitioners agree on is the power of reciprocation.

Reciprocity is a very powerful urge. When someone has done something for you, you want to do something for them. When you consider how our species’s success has depended on our very social nature, it makes sense. And there’s plenty of evidence for this. In fact, there’s evidence cited by Cialdini as an extension of the behaviour change experiment that nearly everyone has heard of:  the ‘getting hotel guests to reuse their towels by telling them most other people do’ story. You know the one.

It seems the most effective way of getting guests to reuse towels is to tell them that the hotel has made a donation to an environmental charity, and ask them to play their part by reusing their towels. Note the past tense: not ‘will make a donation for everyone who reuses’, but ‘has made a donation’. If it’s the other way round, it feels like a transaction and that it simply less motivating.

So, it seems that reciprocation is a much more powerful motivator of our behaviour (whether we are aware of this or not, and whether or not it’s rational) than incentives. You can see where this discussion is going, can’t you? In public services, we are used to thinking in terms of providing incentives to people to make smarter choices. For many, it’s pretty much a default setting when considering how to encourage behaviour change. We are not used to thinking in terms of reciprocation; and, what is more, there are real barriers to thinking in terms of, say, a local authority providing something in advance of the reciprocated action. It feels too risky to many; and we might worry about being criticised for being extravagant with public money.

And yet, and yet … there are examples of local authorities using the reciprocation effect. I’m thinking in particular of LB Sutton’s approach to gritting over the past couple of years. There are now 10,000 households who accept free grit from the Council. The expectation is that they’ll clear their – and their neighbours’ – pavements when there is snow. There is no obligation to do so, but sure enough they do it, which takes pressure off of local services. It’s interesting to contrast this with the (shall we say ‘mixed’) reactions to communities being asked to expected to staff libraries on a voluntary basis to replace an existing service.

Two points seem worth making. First, the Sutton grit example has legs: if we’re looking to encourage new behaviours, show that you trust people by fulfilling your end of the bargain first. In this way, what looks like a transaction, a ‘deal’ in a committee paper, might not even feel like one to residents. Second, more complex, is to consider how we might apply this principle more to relationships which are already transactional. Can we find ways of moving towards more reciprocal relationships, where the authority’s trust is rewarded by more independent behaviour and choices on the part of local communities, citizens and customers? I think this one has a long way to run.