This is What We’re Like: how the most counter-intuitive thing you’ll hear all week will help you manage demand

(Originally published by the i-Network following my talk at their recent Shaping Demand conference)

You know how you sometimes lie awake at night planning to do something the next day – and then fail to do it? Well, you’re not the only one. We all do it.

Me, too. I’ll resolve not to have butter on my toast in the morning. Or walk to work. Or decide that, tomorrow night, I’ll wind down for sleep by doing the cryptic crossword instead of flicking through TV channels, because I know that screen time before bed makes sleep harder. And what’s more, I really, really, really mean it. Every time. But I almost never follow through on these decisions. Why not? It’s not because I change my mind and decide that I was wrong.

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing. The reason we don’t follow through on these good intentions of ours is that one of the main ways we understand human nature is wrong.

We’ve all grown up with a clear sense of self, believing that we’re in control of our actions. We take account of facts and opinions, make up our mind, then enact the decision we’ve made. And because I think I’m in control, I think everyone else is, too. So, when I want to influence someone’s behaviour, my instinct is to persuade them. If they’re doing something different, I assume that they’re doing it for a reason. So I try to change their mind.

Though we grow up with this understanding, there is a mountain of evidence that this isn’t what we humans are really like. Our evolution to be arguably* the most successful species on the planet has many quirks we’re beginning to understand better, but which are not yet in the mainstream and which overwhelmingly haven’t been reflected in how we have designed public services and shaped localities.

So what are we really like? Well, we have loads of mental shortcuts. Why? Because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage to leave much of their brain’s cognitive capacity available to spot and instantly deal with predators. This is why you find it harder to apply your willpower if you’re already doing an ‘effortful’ mental task. It’s also why you’re really good at pattern recognition; your ancestors who realised that the leaves rustling nearby might be due to a predator were the ones who got to influence the human gene pool by running for cover and living long enough to pass on their genes.

Life expectancy has typically been under 20-30 years for most of human existence, so it’s no surprise that we also have mental shortcuts that help us grab the resources that will help us through the night, or the winter, and hold on to what we’ve got.

We also have plenty of short-cuts that help us be social, since human co-operation has also give us a real advantage. These biases have a much bigger influence on us all than we’d like to admit; in short, no-one likes to be the odd one out.

As I said a few times in my session at iNetwork’s recent Shaping Demand conference: this is what we’re like. And I think these insights are really helpful in taking new approaches to managing demand.

Freed from believing that people always have a reason for their actions, we can try to systematically examine what people do that creates demand for public services, and understand how it happens (not why).Freed from the need to change people’s minds when we want to influence their behaviour, we can concentrate instead on making self-sufficient behaviours easier and seem more normal.

And we can make this evidence-based understanding of human nature accessible, in order to involve staff, citizens and others in co-producing new designs and approaches.

The question for each of us is: how are we going to make sure this happens, rather than going the same way as my late-night commitment to walk to work tomorrow?

[*ants might beg to differ]

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!

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.

Can #advertising be ‘not evil’? #behaviourchange #neuroscience and cats with thumbs

I think the blog I’ve amplified below is significant because it’s from someone at a big agency and starts to respond to the “Think of me as Evil” report. I’ve posted my comments on the blog page (linked below and shown below. So I don’t need to add more comment here. Oh, and there’s a cute cat picture.

Amplify’d from wklondon.typepad.com

neuroscience vs cats with thumbs

There seems to be a lot of talk in the trade press recently about ‘neuromarketing’. And there was an interesting piece ‘advertising is a poison’ in The Guardian last week. George Monbiot makes some good points in the article. At W+K we don’t tend to think of our work as a ‘battering ram’  of ‘pervasiveness and repetition’; the people behind the likes of Go Compare may well have a different point of view.

But is advertising the cause of a society that celebrates image, power and status, or is it a symptom of this society? People have aspired to these values since they were jealous of the neanderthal with a better cave. The societies where the state has tried to enforce the suppression of these aspirations – hello, Stalin’s Russia, North Korea – have in the main been pretty miserable places. It isn’t just advertising that makes humans want a bigger house and a new car.

Since the publication of Hidden Persuaders in the 1950s, academics have been suggesting that advertising has the power to manipulate the subconscious. But it’s pretty rare that an agency team will have a conversation with clients about neurobiology, or how our message will be processed by the prefrontal cortex of our audience, or how we can conceal some sort of secret mind-control message in an ad. It’s just not that scientific or simple. We wouldn’t deny that advertising has the power to manipulate the unconscious mind. But pundits overestimate our ability to control or predict how we’re doing it.

Meanwhile, it’s ironic that Monbiot suggests advertising is to blame for low savings rates by UK families when at the bottom of the article there is an ad for… Barclays Investments.

In Marketing magazine this week, Dr AK Pradeep ‘one of the world’s leading neuromarketing experts’ says, “One of my clients trying to sell milk experimented with various imagery – farms, grass, hay, barns farmers…The one that always wins out is cows. Somehow the source of a product is more evocative in the deep subconscious than anything else. This is something we’ve learned through neuromarketing.”

So, what about cats with thumbs, as featured in our highly successful campaign for Cravendale milk then?

Cats-thumbs-2

Our view: the difficulty with showing cows or talking about the other familiar benefits  listed above by Dr Pradeep is that it gives the audience immediate permission to ignore you because they assume you’re telling them what they already know. But something dissonant and unexpected like a polydactyl cat slaps you across the face (not literally, we don’t yet have the technology to make that possible) and makes you pay attention in a way you wouldn’t have done otherwise for such a functional product. An 8% sales increase suggests that this approach has merits.

Of course, perhaps if we had done a campaign featuring cows with thumbs, we would have sold even more milk.

Warrenhattersaid… 

Yes, but … you don’t really think (do you?) that the fact that humans had differential status before advertising wipes clean the ad industry’s responsibility for encouraging the type of consumption that is trashing ecosystem services, increasing inequalities, reducing social cohesion, increasing mental illness, etc, etc. Hope not.

By the way, my understanding is that our ancestors out-socialed neanderthals, though I guess they may have been jealous of the blighters’ caves as well. Status envy probably dates to about 10,000 years ago with settled agriculture. Some people had bigger crops, and they didn’t share it all.

Maybe a cool question to ask yourself as an ad industry person, on the back of this debate is: given that we know how to use behavioural insights to drive behaviours, how can we use this to make people feel good about doing low-impact stuff? A future blog maybe?

Read more at wklondon.typepad.com

My take on what #localgov must do now: create conditions 4 #sustainability #innovation

This is my analysis from last week’s Local Government Chronicle. What’s it about? Here’s a clue: though I learned many years ago that sub-editors never accept the author’s suggestion for a title, I still try – and for this one my attempt was “It’s The Local Economy, Stupid”.

The challenge councils are working on now, dealing with funding cuts, are minor compared to the challenges our places face as a result of systemic global problems. This is why people like Neil McInroy focus on the concept of local ‘resilience’.

I accept that there aren’t yet many local politicians looking to reshape their local economies to meet these fundamental challenges. So the argument needs to be won.

You can help by asking your local leader, “What will the local economy be like if the financial markets meltdown after a default by, say, Greek and Portugal? And wouldn’t it be good to start right now to shape it so that it can deal with shocks like that?”

Amplify’d from www.lgcplus.com

Creating a sustainable future at the grass roots

22 September 2011 | By Warren Hatter

All local economies are facing instability in three systems on which we depend: in the financial markets, in energy supply and prices, and in ecosystem services. And we can already see local problems caused by instability in these systems: just look at the boarded windows on a typical high street, rapidly rising domestic energy prices, or the way that more homes are becoming uninsurable due to flood risk.

Worse, whatever the causes of the recent riots in urban England, they are a sure sign that there are many who feel detached from their local economy. Worse still, all these systems are now subject to major shocks, whether this is financial meltdown from a European country defaulting on its loans, massive jumps in food prices or cuts in oil supply.

There are concrete ways of getting to the understanding that your locality is vulnerable. Maybe through ecological footprinting of the area and starting to understand ‘one planet’ principles (like Sutton LBC); through commissioning a consumption-based carbon footprint, revealing that the true scale of the carbon challenge is more than twice what NI186 has had us believe (like West Sussex CC); or through a networked approach to place planning (like CLES’s work on local resilience).

When leaders realise that their local economy is not fit for purpose, what do we do? First, recognise where we need to go. We often hear leaders talking about the opportunities of a ‘low carbon economy’, but there is much more to this concept than benefitting from ‘green growth’ by providing goods and services related to energy provision and efficiency. The local economy that evolves will need to be:

resilient to shocks linked to food supply

resilient on energy

using much lower-carbon supply chains for everything

able to maintain its natural and social capital

If we don’t choose to be laissez faire, what can local government do to create the conditions for this new, sustainable economy to thrive?

Recognise that place is important

The “little platoons” approach to localism and big society will not suffice here. I believe that there is a vital role for leadership of place (place shaping, place stewardship, call it what you will) that is often absent from Big Society narratives and which is best carried out by a strategic body with a mandate: the local authority. As NLGN has suggested, some places are better equipped than others for the ‘Big Society’, so some intervention is needed. But this has to be about supporting communities, not top-down approaches which stifle innovation.

Grow our economic capacity

Relatively few economists work for local government; still fewer who are engaged with the ‘new economics’ and want to develop policies that let diverse, local enterprise flourish and resource loops become closed. In the future, for example, how can we encourage funding through a new local lending infrastructure? There is a range of models being used and proposed by the likes of NESTA.

Evolve our approaches to local leadership

More than ever, local authority leadership has to allow others in the community the space to lead. To do this, we need to excel at recognising civic entrepreneurship, and nurturing it. And enable the networks that are most likely to bring innovations to scale, so that every place might benefit from innovation elsewhere.

A sophisticated approach to behaviour change

More resilient, successful places can only be created with significant lifestyle changes, but we know that, in recent years, attempts to persuade people towards lower-impact lifestyles have had limited success; increasingly, we are learning to make sustainable living aspirational and in tune with people’s values.

Different metrics

We will have to measure our wealth in a much more rounded way than GDP and GVA do at present. One benefit of new ways of understanding success is that it will make sense for local assets to be used to their full potential.

Whatever we call it, the signs are that the new economy, the Civic Economy, the Big Society, is emerging, with massive energy, with diverse leadership and funding mechanisms and with a strong sense of place. Though these disrupt business as usual, they point to a high-wellbeing, resilient future with high social capital; this is unequivocally an opportunity agenda.

If we can work our way through the challenges, we will find that the local initiatives like these become mainstream. Delivering them is not our job in local government; creating the fertile ground for them to grow and thrive, is.

Warren Hatter is a local improvement advisor specialising in climate change, behaviour change and local leadership

Two recent reports make it clear there are already plenty of initiatives to inspire and councils are involved in many of them. Among the many initiatives highlighted in NESTA’s Compendium for the Civic Economy and NLGN’s Realising Community Wealth are:

  • Fintry community energy partnership, producing profits from sustainable energy for a whole community
  • Nottingham University Hospitals’ sustainable food procurement, promoting local entrepreneurs and growers while improving value for the NHS
  • Sutton Bookshare, a virtual library where members lend books to each other
  • Time Banks network in Islington, enabling people to share skills
  • Southwark Circle, a co-designed membership scheme for older residents
  • Surrey Museums’ provision by volunteers

#climate and #carbon can be at the heart of what #localgov does. Here are some new approaches.

Here’s the full version of an article I wrote for the recent SOLACE Foundation Imprint on Local Government and Climate Change. My chapter (theme: new metrics, new thinking) had to be edited at the last minute, so a useful graphic, and the summary, were missing from the published version. This version, I think, tells the story a bit better.I’ve embedded the full article below. Have a look, and let me know what you think.

#localgov and #carbon – why it’s about #behaviourchange and #infrastructure

By me, from my old-fashioned website.

I did this diagram with Ian Christie that lots of people have found helpful. So I wanted to share it more widely. So I built an article for a SOLACE Foundation Imprint around it.

But the article was on hold for a year, and I had to put in a more recent diagram. So I’m sharing a cut of the original article. One year late. But I still think it’s helpful.

(By the way, the real thing is out next week; I’ve developed some of the thinking below).

Amplify’d from web.mac.com

shaping low-carbon communities (the pre-mix)

Friday, 1 July 2011

Next week, SOLACE will be publishing its latest Foundation Imprint on climate change. This will include a chapter of mine which focuses on consumption-based metrics and carbon budgets. It’s more intuitive, more fun and more of an opportunity for local government than you might think.

The thing is, all the contributors first wrote their chapters a year ago. So when publication was back on, a lot of time had passed, and I made plenty of amendments, to include the most up-to-date thinking and approaches. This meant that, regrettably, I removed a section that I really wanted to see the light of day, particularly the diagram that Ian Christie and I worked on together to help decision-makers get a clear perspective on carbon, and help them take a broader perspective. So here it is, instead:

“It pays to go back to first principles to see what emissions targets really mean for a local authority, because it makes us raise our sights from the processes that were put in place to enable authorities to respond to the demands of the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan and the previous government’s performance framework. I have often argued that local government needs to avoid treating climate change as ‘just another agenda’, on a par with the dozens of other agendas we work on. There are a number of reasons why this is important, not least the consequences of failure.

One approach that can help raise members’ and officers’ sights – and help establish a place-based understanding – is to visualise the emissions in the authority area. This can be done in a number of ways; the diagram below shows one way, focusing on responsibility. It seeks to outline who is responsible for the emissions in the locality. For the sake of readability, it exaggerates the size of the council’s own emissions and those of public sector partners: typically, an authority will be directly responsible for 1-2% of emissions and the total impact of the local state (including what it procures) is a little over 10%. So Zone B in the diagram represents nearly 90% of emissions.

Emissions in a place: who’s responsible?

Emissions in a place

Having a place-based understanding of emissions helps in a number of ways. Below are a number of reflections from recent discussions with leading members and officers.

Leadership

Many readers will be well versed in the principles of adaptive leadership. At an organisation level, this makes sense in dealing with emissions reduction: it hasn’t been done before; relying purely on technical solutions would miss many important aspects; and serious innovation and realignment is needed. But the diagram above shows how the leadership required needs to be projected to the community level. SOLACE Enterprises’ Leading On Climate Change, a course which sets out to develop the new types of leadership skills required to address climate change, focuses on how ‘community-wide adaptive leadership’ can work. There is already some excellent community engagement in places (some Transition Towns, for example), but people involved often feel marginalised. One of the challenges right now is to join up the people who already want a low-carbon place to happen; Islington’s Climate Change Partnership is a good example.

Infrastructure, behaviour change and capacity

Zone B of the diagram is difficult territory for local government (despite some successes addressing emissions with businesses, landlords, community groups and others), but in some respects simplifies the challenge: we do not have the technology to enable us to maintain current lifestyles and reduce emissions at the required rate. So we need to see both major behaviour change and major change in infrastructure, to enable low-carbon choices to be made.

The infrastructural challenge is starting to be grasped. For example, feed-in tariffs for PV panels make it possible to construct financial packages which are beneficial to residents and authorities, as well as the banks. Developing the skills and capacity on which a low-carbon economy can be built is an urgent part of the challenge, being grasped now in London, Greater Manchester and elsewhere.

On behaviour change, however, we are at a fork in the road in local government. There is plenty of good work leading behaviour change towards low-carbon lifestyle; in West Sussex alone, there are around ten pro-environmental initiatives supported by the County Council. And there is plenty of theory and research now being produced, such as the recent Mindspace report. But hardly anyone in local government has behaviour change in their job description, and there is very little practice transfer or sharing of evidence. So we can either begin to professionalise local government’s work on behaviour change, setting up the networks and capacity building that will enable us to be more effective and scale our efforts, or we can continue to leave it to the wilful individuals who currently take the lead.

Resilience

In my view, the perspective we get from this sort of analysis is timely. The sort of solutions we need to put in place to enable genuinely low-carbon living in our localities are completely consistent with the solutions we are now developing to deal with rapidly reducing funding for public services.

With radically reduced resources, through place-based budgeting and other innovation, local government is in the process of re-designing services to support resilient communities, individuals and families – the big society. I see very little difference between the reality of a sustainable, low-carbon community and the sort of resilient community described by those re-designing local services. For example, a resilient community will be sheltered from food and energy insecurity, will have strong capacity and social capital, and waste little. That sounds like a low-carbon, sustainable place.

These are the places of the future. In local government, we can help create them.”

Read more at web.mac.com