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Shifting from ‘nudge’ to ‘think’ as a strategy for ‘spillover’ behaviour change

By Adam Corner on February 9, 2017

Do you turn off the tap when you brush your teeth? Dutifully wash out jars for the recycling collection?

These sorts of ‘easy’ changes in behaviour are now widespread. But the challenge for climate change campaigners and environmental psychologists alike has been figuring out how to use the simple changes as a stepping stone to other, more substantial shifts (like eating less meat or avoiding flying altogether), and catalyse widespread changes in people’s everyday behaviours.

There’s certainly been progress of sorts: recycling rates have risen, and plastic bag use has fallen. But beyond these simple, painless – and ultimately limited – changes, there is little evidence that the lifestyles of people in high-consuming, high-carbon Western nations have adapted to the risks and reality of a changing climate. Low-carbon lifestyles have remained the preserve of a small band of committed activists (and even this group doesn’t always have a carbon footprint to write home about).

At a recent Roundtable event that Climate Outreach chaired, a group of leading thinkers and practitioners came together to share expertise and experience on how to move past this bottleneck in behavioural engagement – and to discuss whether it was possible to create ‘spillover’ from one green behaviour to another. With representatives from the UK and Welsh governments, the charity WWF, the waste campaign group WRAP, Ikea’s sustainable behaviour campaign as well as more grassroots organisations, the Roundtable provided a fascinating snapshot of the latest thinking on this question.

The event was part of the ‘CASPI’ research project (Low Carbon Lifestyles & Behavioural Spillover), led by Prof Lorraine Whitmarsh at Cardiff University. Lorraine and her team at Cardiff are exploring the concept of ‘spillover’, by carrying out research in seven nations (including China, Brazil and the UK). At the centre of the project is the question of whether different social, psychological and cultural conditions can bring about more significant lifestyle changes.

Findings so far from the CASPI project suggest that significant lifestyle changes – and political engagement with climate change – remain an aspiration at best for people in all the countries targeted. For example, in a UK survey, almost everyone (96%) reported switching off lights when not in use. However, a large majority (83%) have never contacted a politician about an environmental issue. Concerningly, the CASPI research has also found that people tend to think environmentally-friendly behaviours which are widespread (such as recycling and using energy-efficient lightbulbs) are also the most beneficial (when in fact they have limited value).

There is very little evidence from the CASPI project that easy changes are leading to more substantial shifts anywhere – but the Roundtable was able to paint a slightly more optimistic picture of the potential for more significant changes (proportionate to the scale of the climate change challenge) if the right kind of interventions are pursued.

Firstly, the visibility of environmentally-friendly behaviour can be an important spur to further change. Conspicuous behaviour changes can add to a tangible sense of action, as well as conferring a sense of collective effort (and acting as a positive social norm for others). The importance of encouraging social interaction and community support around supposedly ‘individual’ behaviour changes is also crucial: the Roundtable participants spoke of the need to normalise environmentally-friendly behaviour and to move away from individualistic and ‘worthy’ framings of action. The more we see other people like us undertaking low carbon activities, the more likely we are to join them.

A lot of this chimes with the analysis we offer in our new book, Talking Climate: From research to practice in public engagement. In Chapter 4, we argue that tiny tweaks and changes to behaviours – embodied in the ‘nudge’ approach to behaviour change – are the wrong way to think about public engagement. Instead, we should focus on the reasons behind behavioural changes, and [tweet_dis excerpt=”Need to shift from ‘nudge’ to ‘think’ as a strategy for behaviour change #climatechange @climateoutreach”]shift from ‘nudge’ to ‘think’ as a strategy for behaviour change[/tweet_dis]. When people consciously reflect on the links between different behaviours, and see themselves as consistent, coherent individuals, then spillover is more likely to occur.

Find out more about the CASPI project (including a Briefing Note summarising the Cardiff Roundtable) and the Talking Climate book.

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By Dr Adam Corner

Adam led Climate Outreach’s research work for almost 10 years, growing the Research team and building long standing relationships with academic partners, including the CAST Centre (Climate Change & Social Transformations). He stepped down in early 2021 to start a new adventure in freelance work, which includes a role as a Climate Outreach Associate.  

Before Climate Outreach, Adam worked in the Understanding Risk research group at Cardiff University, researching public attitudes towards climate change. An accomplished and widely-published author, Adam wrote Talking Climate: From Research to Practice in Public Engagement, with Jamie Clarke, and his research and writing has appeared in academic journals, reports and briefings, and international media commentary.

Adam also writes about music – including the increasing connections between music and climate change – for UK media, and can occasionally be found lurking behind the decks at pubs and parties in Bristol.

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