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]

Doing it better

Below is a post I wrote for the Behavioural Design Lab a short time ago. The aspect that has attracted the most interest is the use of proposed use of defaults to move from a project management-centric view (where residents make a fresh decision at each stage of the process that has been mapped out) to a citizen-centric approach (where, once someone has chosen to have a warm home, the default is that they are taking part.

Two quick points, drawing on conversations that I’ve had with people since writing this.

First, this is a really good litmus test for whether we are comfortable using behavioural insights. Personally, my view is that our choices always have a context, and that framing the choice in this way makes it clear and easier to make a decision that is salient to the person making it. But I know that some people not used to working with behavioural insights are a little uncomfortable with it; because it seems a little, well, sneaky. In a world where there are numerous websites on which I can click a ‘buy now’ button, before verifying a host of details, I’m comfortable with it, and that’s why I see it as a litmus test: it only seems sneaky if you compare it with a context in which people have to repeatedly decide.

Second, reflecting that most of the feedback I’ve had has been of the “what a great idea!” variety, there is so much that we can do better in public services, and it is within our grasp. I hope that this helps demonstrate the value of what I’ve been trying to do with With The Grain over the past couple of years. There are so many behavioural effects that we know can affect our decisions; and there is an ever-growing body of evidence of how and when they work. So let’s generate new approaches drawing on this knowledge. This idea was generated in a workshop of stakeholders brainstorming ideas based on different effects, of which defaults was one. Most of them hadn’t been exposed to much behavioural science before; if they can do it, so can you. This is one of our best chances of meeting the demand management challenge.

“Did I just use behavioural science? But I’m not a designer!”

So said a dozen or so stakeholders of a project aimed at retrofitting 160 draughty homes in Crawley, West Sussex. With good reason. They had co-produced a wide-ranging set of design and communication ideas for the project.

The project offers work such as external wall cladding, funded by the Energy Companies Obligation, through which the Government is obliging utilities to fund energy efficiency work on Britain’s coldest, draughtiest and most energy inefficient homes. The problem many have found is that, in the absence of existing demand (that is, people who are aware that they want their home retrofitted but haven’t been able to do it yet), building demand for something free is tricky. Price perception tells us that if something is free, it doesn’t have value. Homo economimus might see free cladding as a no-brainer; real people don’t.

So, when introducing the opportunity to people, we decided to frame the choice as being between a cold home and a warm home – not as the chance to choose a named process or product. And we avoided terms (such as ‘retrofitting’), known by professionals but which may provide a barrier if not familiar to residents. Crawley-ECO-leaflet-section

Adding the use of behavioural insights to the team’s existing expertise in community engagement had a major impact immediately, speeding up recruitment 4-fold, compared with similar projects being undertaken elsewhere in the South East.

Another innovation is that, when people say ‘yes’ to a warmer home, this becomes the default setting. So, instead of initially agreeing to an “assessment” which leads to another choice once the surveyor has visited, householders make a single choice: the surveyor will make a recommendation of the measures to adopt “ … unless you drop out”. From a project management viewpoint, we’re moving from a process whose success depends on people saying ‘yes’ at several different stages to a process designed to support and prove people’s positive choice to have a warmer home.

There are a dozen other ways in which we are using – or plan to use – behavioural insights. Rob Bennett, who leads the community engagement team, says, “It is really important that we find ways to encourage communities as a whole to get behind these initiatives, So whether it’s the initial decision to participate in a scheme, or ensuring that residents communicate what works best by sharing good practice and experiences – we expect behavioural evidence to play a critical part in successful ”delivery”.

We think we’ve learned what the With The Grain tool has also demonstrated in other settings: that behavioural insights are accessible and usable; that these insights help make approaches more people-centric and therefore more efficient; and that it’s possible to get away from the default setting of trying to persuade people.

So we now have a platform for using behavioural insights in the future. And we have a group of stakeholders who are comfortable with knowingly using behavioural insights to affect the context within which people make decisions.

In the future, this won’t be unusual. Right now, it feels revolutionary.

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.