Off the hook?
Do some interventions unintentionally allow people to defer making the more significant change that is needed?
Climate change presents us with some significant challenges for ways in which we are to reduce carbon emissions. The question, as ever, is just how do we address this? This week we look at the way in which different sorts of interventions can work alongside each other – and the implications for possible interaction effects. This is part technical but also partly a political values based set of considerations. We will unpick each of these in turn.
Polling suggests that many people look to governments to take action as well as private companies. But about half of those questioned also consider that citizens also need to take action. Of course, we live in a world where individual choices are being asked of us alongside governments introducing tougher regulations and brands shouldering their responsibilities.
How do interventions work together?
The issue we then have, as behavioural scientists, is how these different sorts of intervention strategies work alongside each other? An interesting paper from 2015 unpicks some of the challenges here. Authors David Hagmann, Emily Ho & George Loewenstein set out that the most effective ways of reducing carbon emissions rely on government interventions, such as taxes, efficiency standards for cars and homes and subsidies for taking up renewable energy sources.
They consider that the most effective policy relates to the use of carbon tax (a tax imposed on the carbon emissions required to produce goods and services). But despite their effectiveness, they point out that governments have been reluctant to impose them and that by contrast, green energy ‘nudges’ (such as defaulting consumers to green energy providers) are widespread.
Of course, we should be in a position where we can consider a number of different types of intervention so that they work together. However, the authors found that nudges actually indirectly reduced support for the more substantive measures. In a series of experiments, respondents were asked to decide whether or not to implement either a carbon tax policy or a green nudge policy. They found that exposing respondents to the potential for a green energy nudge actually diminished their support for a carbon tax. This effect was only seen when the nudge was related to the same policy area as carbon taxes (a green energy nudge); it was not found when the nudge was unrelated (such as for retirement savings).
They concluded that mere consideration of a green energy nudge can crowd-out support for more effective, but also more onerous, environmental policies.
This perhaps resonates with the work of sociologist Stanley Cohen who identified the principle of Implicative Denial. This is when we accept the facts but avoid the “psychological, political and moral implications that would conventionally follow”. He goes on to say this is when we are “quasi-intentionally not following up on the uncomfortable implications” of what we know.
This is different to ‘Literal denial’ – in this case the active ignoring of the facts or Interpretative denial: where we accept the facts, but reject the meaning, interpreting them in a way that makes life easier for ourselves. So, we might accept climate change, but consider this is something that experts need to address (e.g. through technological solutions) and through that remove responsibility to change the way we individually choose to live.
Polling work does seem to suggest that the most significant issue for climate change is that of Implicative Denial. Most people accept it is happening but are often not necessarily following through on the implications of this in terms of behaviours – or arguably are accepting less significant changes to lifestyle which then offers a moral licence to carry on more or less as normal.
On this basis, we need to take care that the introduction of light touch behaviour changes measures such as green nudges do not result in people feeling ‘let off the hook’ from more fundamental changes to tackle climate change.
Designing behaviour change programmes
The job of the behavioural scientist is to identify which interventions can work for what sorts of behaviour change challenges but, in addition, to spell out how these can work alongside each other, so they support rather detract from each other.
This paper suggests that if green nudges are to be deployed, then working to reduce the potential we might have to exaggerate (to ourselves) the impact of the nudge is important to reduce crowding-out of more onerous measures.
We suggest that this sort of guidance concerning interaction effects is going to be ever more important. This is because the challenges we face are becoming more complex so we will be looking increasingly closely at the way in which we move from planning individual interventions and start to design behaviour change programmes. Given a programme will have a range of interventions, then unpicking any interaction effects between different sorts of measures then becomes critical.
The politics of intervention choices
With this in mind, then we surely need to consider that the types of interventions that are introduced are inevitably interpreted as a reflection of the way in which the climate change problem is being conceptualised.
If the focus is on green nudges, then this may implicitly communicate to people that the onus is on them to change their personal behaviour. If the focus of intervention activity is regulation then this may communicate that the primary responsibility is with governments and brands to take action.
This is a very live political debate with people such as climatologist Michael Mann suggesting that attention has disproportionately and unreasonably been placed on individuals to take action, rather than on governments and brands. On this basis, interventions such as green nudges then run the risk of being seen (by some people at least) as reflecting a political / values-based position which may create a backlash if not handled carefully.
While it is tempting for behavioural scientists to consider that their practice is distinct from politics or values, we cannot ignore that this is not necessarily how the wider public may respond. Indeed, the furore over ‘behavioural fatigue’ showed the way in which the way in which the issues we are grappling with are conceptualised and that the solutions being proposed do not operate in a politics and values free vacuum.
Of course we are not suggesting that individual behaviour change is not an important issue to remedy - researcher Michał Czepkiewicz, considers that the concept of carbon footprints has real value for illuminating the vast inequality that exists between low- and high-carbon lifestyles. A recent report by Oxfam found the richest one percent of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice as much carbon pollution as the 3.1 billion people who made up the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of unprecedented emissions growth.
But there is surely a need for those that are designing behaviour change programmes to be mindful of the way in which others interpret our solutions– and surely even better if we operate in a reflective way, being thoughtful of the political dimensions of our own practice.