Getting Meta All The Time: a new type of behavioural insight?

This is worth a look. I know people have been using insights from behavioural economics and behavioural psychology in staff (or student) cafeteria – and then writing about it – for some time. But if you’ve not read a similar case study before, this is good.

6 Ways Google Hacks Its Cafeterias So Googlers Eat Healthier | Co.Design: business + innovation + design.

The one thing here that IS new to me, though, is the use of what’s called a ‘meta-nudge’. This might be more significant than it seems. Here’s why …

One objection to using behavioural insights in designing policy is that it’s somehow underhand. To some extent, this is a valid view, informed as it is by the use of behavioural effects by marketers, restauranteurs, phone companies and the like (check OFT’s 2010 report on pricing for examples), which seem designed essentially to ‘trick’ customers into parting with more cash than they otherwise might.

Well, informing staff in the canteen, as Google does, that if they use a bigger plate, they’re likely to eat more is not really applying a behavioural insight as such; instead, it’s explicitly telling people about the insight, and giving them the choice. So where we might usually use the ‘default effect’ by making only smaller plates available, here we are explaining how a larger plate primes a certain behaviour – and leaving people to make their own decision. Superficially, this may be similar to a sign by the lift and stairs stating that most people use the stairs (which utilises social proof to encourage people to walk, as referred to on p17 of this Cabinet Office report), but it’s quite distinct, really – it’s the equivalent of the stair sign saying “If we put a sign here telling you that most people use the stairs, then you are more likely to use them yourself”. And I don’t think that has been tried yet!

Being Clear About Green Deal’s Risks

Let’s be honest, it’s not often I am impressed by Ministers on carbon. So praise where it is due for Greg Barker’s speech on Green Deal to Ecobuild a couple of days ago.

Speech by Greg Barker at the Ecobuild Conference – Department of Energy and Climate Change.

His summary (below) is interesting, particularly the second and third bullets:

Today, I wanted to draw out three key points to unpack that simple description of the Green Deal:

  • Firstly, this is a brand new way of approaching energy efficiency.  Not a continuation of CERT, CESP, not a son of this or daughter of that;
  • Secondly, it will create a brand new market and opportunities for industry.  A market for the aspirational, not just for the worthy or energy sensible;
  • Thirdly, don’t underestimate the power of communities in their many shapes and forms.  These will be key to  delivering this agenda

Along with many others, I’m often heard emphasising that ‘doing the right thing’ on carbon and sustainability needs to be seen as aspirational, not hair-shirted or twee. Unfortunately, many ‘green’ messages do come across as the latter. So it’s good to recognise this.

My present concerns about Green Deal, though, relate to whether we will be able to deliver on – and build on – an aspirational approach.

Green Deal will fail if, in the first instance, not enough households take up the offer. This is recognised by all as a real risk, but little work has been done on how to manage this risk.

A second risk of failure is if Green Deal in practice does not build local skills and economies. This risk needs to be understood and addressed by local government; the centre will not take the lead. So when I hear tales of local authorities taking the lead in bringing together local consortia, with clarity about building local skills and using local SMEs to deliver, I’m pleased. But I don’t hear these stories often enough.

A third risk is beginning to be recognised by some in local government. This is the very real fear the the actuals savings on householders will not be realised as they ‘take comfort’. As it stands, there is no real incentive for private sector installers to tackle the behaviour change issue head on. My concern here is that it is now quite late in the day for local authorities to be solving this. And yet we’ve known since Kirklees first carried out mass retrofitting that half of the potential (carbon and financial) savings can be lost to people taking advantage of living in more energy efficient, less draughty homes by ‘walking around in t-shirts’.

The fourth risk I would identify is less recognised even by sustainability professionals and climate officers. This is the risk that we do not take the opportunity of engaging with people on energy use – with a clear carbon imperative – to also find ways of encouraging behaviour change in relation to our consumption-based carbon footprint. In reality, household emissions are a small proportion of our total footprint. This could be a great opportunity to help people take responsibility for their wider footprint. I suspect that few authorities are on the case with this, but I’d love to hear from any that are.