UK Using Behavioural Science Techniques To Nudge To Net Zero

By Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.
March 3, 2022 Updated: March 8, 2022

With legally binding targets of reaching net-zero, the UK government plans on radically reducing carbon emissions by 2030. And in order to accomplish climate goals, such as phasing out petrol and diesel cars, gas boilers, and changes to diet, behavioural science is being used as a method to move the population towards everyday decisions that will spur on environmental action.

The Nudge Unit, also known as The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), was established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 by former Prime Minister David Cameron’s government to apply behavioural science to public policy. The profit-making company was third owned by the Cabinet Office until the shares were sold to the innovation foundation NESTA last December.

‘Nudge’

BIT’s aim was to be the world’s first government institution to use behavioural economics to examine and influence human behaviour; ie to “nudge” people into making better decisions by applying psychology to policy. This can mean prompting people to pay their tax on time or getting people to turn up in court. BIT now has over 400 units around the world.

On the lower scale of environmentally-based nudges, this can mean making recycling bins more eye-catching to putting a plant-based meal as a default option in a university canteen in line with UN food policy agendas and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

But the nudge unit was accused of exploiting scare tactics during the COVID-19 crisis when the government embarked on a major campaign that used adverts with the slogans like: “Stay home to save lives” and “if you go out and spread it, people will die.”

BIT co-founder and behavioural scientist Simon Ruda told the publication Unherd that he feared the “most egregious and far-reaching mistake” made during the COVID-19 crisis was the “level of fear willingly conveyed on the public.”

“Nudging made subtle state influence palatable, but mixed with a state of emergency, have we inadvertently sanctioned state propaganda?” he said.

In terms of net-zero, nudge techniques are already embedded in UK media. Last year, the broadcaster Sky commissioned a report from the Behavioural Insights Team on “nudging viewers to decarbonise their lifestyles.”

BIT Chief Executive David Halpern championed the report saying that “broadcast organisations and content creators, therefore, have a unique opportunity to make a difference for the planet.”

Sky’s chief executive, Dana Strong said that by partnering with BIT, they wanted to show content we see on our screens can “influence the sustainable choices we make in our daily lives.” Some of the changes included proposing giving “green content more screen time, more salience in plots and scenes” to its television output, including kids’ content.

Ethical aspect

Advocate for climate change action Dr. Lory Barile, an expert in behavioural and experimental economics in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick, argued that nudge didn’t have to mean manipulation.

‘It’s about helping people to make better decisions (for their health, wealth, and happiness) without restricting their choices, but changing the framework in which decisions are made,” she said.

“I see the word manipulation with a negative connotation and I think this is not what nudging individuals is. When it comes to identifying what is right or wrong for people, there’s always an ethical aspect to be considered. However, I don’t think nudging is manipulating people’s choices, it’s more about reducing frequency of mistakes among those behaving sub-optimally, without affecting those already behaving optimally,” she added.

Though Barile said that nudging individuals was not the solution to tackle the issue of climate change, rather that it’s only part of the suggested solutions to a global crisis “where all parties should play their role.”

“Nudges can play an important role to help us build a more sustainable place to live. However, it is important to emphasise that this is only part of the suggested solutions to a global crisis where all parties should play their role. A good starting point is to start to convince people to accept that their behaviour won’t be sustainable in the relatively short-run,” she said.

Manipulation

In Spiked, Philip Hammond, visiting professor of media and communications at London South Bank University, said that there are various eco organisations that draw on psychological models “not simply to understand our behaviour, but to manipulate it.”

One such group, the research and advisory group Counterpoint (pdf) said that post-COVID, “it is worth noting that attitudes are most easily ‘refashionable’ in people whose attitudes and emotions are ‘up for grabs.’

“The idea that climate policy should be sold to the public by manipulating people’s emotions and waging ‘semiotic warfare’ should be a scandal,” said Hammond.

Environmentalism skeptic Ben Pile, co-founder of the Climate Resistance blog, said that he believed that nudging was not ethical.

“A lot of political thinking these days is based around utilitarian principles that the ends justify the means. We all know where that takes us at a policy level, emergency after emergency, you can justify anything on that basis,” he said.

“I am not so convinced it will work. The intention behind it if they think it’s their place to mould and modify and engineer the public’s perceptions, that’s a grotesque inversion of how democratic politics should be. I couldn’t put it in more damning terms if I tried, the principals are completely debased. Once authority takes it on itself to do that, then democracy is all but dissolved,” said Pile.

Owen Evans
Owen Evans is a UK-based journalist covering a wide range of national stories, with a particular interest in civil liberties and free speech.