Science - March 27, 2014

Sustainability? Study human behaviour

Roelof Kleis

We would all like to live a bit more sustainably. Waste less food, use less energy, recycle more waste. But in practice we often make the wrong choices. There is a lot of room for improvement there. A bit more understanding of human psychology could work wonders, says professor of the Economics of Consumers and Households Gerrit Antonides.

Old-fashioned environmental policy often fails to deliver the goods. This is because the way people really tick is different to what we assumed until recently. We are not rational beings who take calculated, well-thought-out decisions. And a government that takes this into account will get a lot further, says Gerrit Antonides, co-author of an advisory paper by the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure (RLi) on making environmental policy more effective by basing it on knowledge of human psychology. The document was presented to state secretary Mansveld of Infrastructure and Environment (I&M) last week. Resource talked to the professor.

So you argue for paying more attention to people’s gut feelings?

‘You could put it like that. The big insight in psychology in the last 20 years is that we make decisions in two different ways. We have System 1, which is intuitive and works associatively, and which is what people apply first when they are making a decision. This is the default system, in standard use. Only when people think that this won’t deliver a good solution do they use System 2, which is analytical and rational. This is a very important framework for our advice. People do not always think rationally: that is the main message. We offer a toolkit for arriving at a better policy, based on behavioural economics.’

Do you have an example?

‘Intervening in the physical environment is one such tool. By making a small change, such as painting footprints leading to a rubbish bin, you can influence people to exhibit a particular desirable behaviour. Recently I saw a picture of cartoons on a zebra crossing. They had been drawn so that an approaching driver would think there were dummies on the zebra crossing and would automatically slow down.’

But after the first time you know it’s fake, don’t you?

‘Yes, but System 1 is often so dominant that you find it difficult to see things any other way. Experiments have been carried out in which people could take sweets from a glass pot with a label saying it contained cyanide. Even though the people had put the sweets in there themselves and knew there was no cyanide in the pot, they still preferred to take their sweets from another pot. Simply because they think: cyanide, bad news. That is System 1.’

The basis of the advice is that people do not always make the right choices of their own accord. The government has to give them a helping hand. How ethical is it then, to influence unconscious behaviour?

‘The prevailing view is that the government is free to apply behavioural economics principles where they are justified. Which means, where it has democratically been established that people want it. And you shouldn’t do it if people feel manipulated. I think the government should use the most up-to-date methods and the latest insights to realize the policy. If this is more effective than other measures, why shouldn’t you do it?

But when does influencing turn into manipulation?

‘A well-known example is establishing default or standard options. Take organ donation. The default position in our country is that you don’t donate your organs unless you explicitly state that you want to. And now there is a massive shortage of organ donations. If you turn around that default so that you automatically donate your organs unless you state that you don’t want to, there will be far more donations. Is that manipulation? There is a default now too, so you are being manipulated anyway, if you want to see it like that. If you do nothing as a government, you are doing something anyway. You are accepting the status quo. You should be aware that that has a particular influence as well.’
A criterion for influencing is that you should be transparent about what you are doing, why you are doing it and what effect you are aiming at. Will ‘unconscious’ influencing still work then?

‘I think it will. It is not all that unconscious. You are allowed to say that you are using this kind of influencing. We know that explanation and rationalization make very little impression. People cannot easily let go of a particular frame or default. We know that people do not function rationally.’

What will be done with this advice?

‘We are going to run workshops for policymakers, for a start. A major feature of the advice is the Behaviour Test we developed. That is a card game which can help policymakers to analyse people’s behaviour. The test inspires them to translate behavioural characteristics into effective policy. Meanwhile – following the British example – a Behavioural Insights Team is being set up at the ministry of I&M. The team includes behavioural scientists and works on these sorts of issues. It would also be good if science benefitted from it. We advise testing the effects of new policy in advance, on a small scale, and using scientific methods. We don’t know yet what is the best way of applying those new insights. That requires research. The government would benefit from commissioning such research, with a combination of applying a measure and developing further insights.’


Too much food is wasted and thrown out. That needs to change. What does behavioural economics have to teach us about this? Don’t buy everything at once, because then you often buy too much. Gerrit Antonides has done research on this point himself. He calls it the diversification bias. ‘People choose too much variety if they do all their shopping at once. Take desserts, for instance. Out of fear of monotony, they buy a lot of different flavours, whereas they only like one or two. If they shop every day, they make choices that are more in line with their own preferences. The bias towards variety leads to purchases which are later thrown away.’ A simple aid is to make a shopping list.