Little insights, big change


In the immortal words of The Simpsons' Hank Scorpio - supervillain but also genuinely good boss - you 'can't argue with the little things, it's the little things that make up life'.

This would make a good motto for the behavioural insights sector and one of its leading organisations, the Behavioural Insights Team, which was launched by the Government in 2010. Known unofficially as the 'nudge unit', this organisation started as a little thing itself.

It began as a seven-person unit and at the time was the world's first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural science. It is now a global force in a worldwide industry and is still partly owned by the Cabinet Office, along with innovation charity Nesta and its employees.

What the unit proved time and again is that little things can make a big difference, and you only have to tip the scales slightly to usher people into much better decisions.

The transport sector has long been aware of the importance of transition moments and how hard it can be to break travel habits once they become routine. But the sector itself needs a little help as it seeks to secure more sustainable cleaner choices in everyday travel.

Stephen Fidlar, head of local transport at the Department for Transport (DfT), admits: 'Public transport and active travel should be the first choice for daily activities. Around 61% of trips are made by car, and 60% of those car journeys are under five miles. When you get into urban areas, around 40% of journeys by car are under two miles. Quite a high proportion of those could be made in a different way.'


To help with local government's understanding of behavioural change, Toby Park (pictured), principal advisor, head of energy and sustainability at the Behavioural Insights Team, discussed the basic principles behind the approach with council directors' body ADEPT at its autumn conference.

This was actually the second time someone has spoken to ADEPT members about the Behavioural Insights Team's work at the national conference, so let's call it a second nudge in the right direction.

In particular, Mr Park spoke about the team's use the EAST framework – to encourage behaviour change you make it is 'easy, attractive, social and timely' as possible.

Make it easy

Perhaps the best way to help people make better decisions is to make them the default option. Mr Park points out that people are 'disproportionately impacted by seemingly trivial points of friction'. Removing little hassles from decision making can be very effective. How many times do people fail to make a change just because of the threat of a form?

In Germany, a study found that defaulting people to green energy tariffs led to 10 times the number of people on those tariffs.

It can work both ways. Introducing a hassle can discourage behaviour. For instance, removing the plastic tray from a canteen can reduce food waste because it is a little bit more difficult to take too much, even though you can go back.

If we applied this to a sustainable commute, Mr Park suggests one area to pay attention to is bike storage and maintenance.

'It needs to be as easy to pick up a bike as your car keys - default front of house storage in the planning system [might help]. A small change might help people get on a bike.'

He points out that flat tyres may seem too trivial for policymakers. Still, it is this type of small friction that can make or break better behaviour perhaps explaining both the introduction of the government bike repair voucher scheme and its immense popularity.

Mr Park suggests offering new staff at a workplace an application for a cycle to work scheme or auto-enrolling them in cycle training are also in line with the default principle.

Make it attractive?

Firstly, there is a pressing need to attract people's attention and make the relevant details as salient as possible, perhaps through personalising the experience to make it more appealing to the target audience, Mr Park points out.


Another way is to provide incentives. This may seem like an expensive short cut, but financial incentives, no matter how small, can be made a lot more potent if coupled with a psychological dimension, Mr Park points. The plastic levy is a great example, he argues. The 5p charge has been effective at reducing the use of plastic shopping bags because it is coupled with a new friction, a new default and a new social norm.

Mr Park reveals that when working with the DfT on the uptake of electric vehicles, the team found that consumers reacted very positively to a change in framing on the Plug-in Grant that goes with the purchase of a new EV.

'Rather than frame it as a subsidy for the car, it could be seen as a discount on fuel - free fuel for life (of the car). The running costs of EVs compared to petrol are so low that £3,000 would cover you for about 80,000 miles of use – in many cases this is more than the original purchaser would drive in that vehicle. This could be compelling framing.'

Make it social

Social norms have a very powerful influence, as does peer pressure. Someone can be very easily influenced by being told most people are already doing the desired thing. You can also use this principle to leverage people's existing social networks.

Case studies have shown areas with more visible solar panels on roofs also have greater growth in solar power, likewise letting people know they are spending more money on energy bills than their neighbours can encourage people to reduce consumption. In Whitehall, a league table between departments was effective at reducing energy use.

On this basis making EVs more observable, letting people know how many people in their area take public transport could have a powerful effect - likewise giving people a comparison between the amount they spend on the car versus the amount their neighbours are saving by using other means. It both uses social influence but also creates new social norms.

Make it timely

There is an 'immediate cost and present bias', Mr Park says. This needs to be understood to 'help people plan a response to events, as we do have good intentions, but we don't always act on them'.

One way to work around this bias is to correct the market to demonstrate use costs or lifetime costs of a petrol car over EVs for instance. This brings forward the long-term benefits.

Another way around this issue is to intervene when habits are disrupted because of a change of circumstances. In Portland in the US, the team found people were four times more likely to take up the scheme if they have just moved home.

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