Of behavioural wedges and spillovers

Posted on September 21, 2012


In the New Zealand Parliament yesterday the Associate Minister for Climate Change Issues Simon Bridges repeatedly answered Kennedy Graham’s questions about worsening scientific evidence with answers about protecting NZ jobs (video). Only when the economy improves, he said, could we look at changes so long as they didn’t affect NZ jobs. In other words, the environment is icing, not the cake. And the NZ government believes that changes should only be made that do not affect lifestyles.

This lead me to a paper by Thomas Dietz on household actions to address climate change via “behavioural wedges”.

(Dietz) analyzed 17 types of household action that can appreciably reduce energy consumption using readily available technology, with low or zero cost or attractive returns on investment, and without appreciable changes in lifestyle

They calculated Reasonably Achievable Emissions Reduction (REAR) with a model combining potential emissions reduction with the plasticity of a behaviour. This plasticity is defined as the proportion of current non-adopters that could be induced to take action.

The most effective interventions typically (i) combine several policy tools (e.g., information, persuasive appeals, and incentives) to address multiple barriers to behavior change; (ii) use strong social marketing, often featuring a combination of mass media appeals and participatory, community-based approaches that rely on social networks and can alter community social norms; and (iii) address multiple targets (e.g., individuals, communities, and businesses)

This is sounding promising. But then I turned to the “spillover” literature. This is led by John Thøgersen and widely published (including this accessible WWF report Simple & painless: The limitations of spillover in environmental campaigning). The premise of this is that interventions focussed on small changes are necessary but insufficient, and we can’t rely on a spillover to other actions.

Don’t be distracted by the myth that ‘every little helps’. If everyone does a little, we’ll achieve only a little.

The comfortable perception that global environmental challenges can be met through marginal lifestyle changes no longer bears scrutiny. The cumulative impact of large numbers of individuals making marginal improvements in their environmental impact will be a marginal collective improvement in environmental impact. Yet we live at a time when we need urgent and ambitious changes.

Thøgersen argues that if we “persist in advocating ‘simple and painless’ behavioural changes as a meaningful response to today’s most pressing environmental challenges, this must be because they are persuaded that such changes will encourage the adoption of other, and particularly other more ambitious, behaviours”. The idea of spillover compelling and can be traced to Bem’s self perception theory whereby we use our own behaviours as cues for our internal disposition. Thus “foot in the door” or “doing something painless”, and hey I’m recycling I must be a recycler…”. This then leads to a “virtuous escalator…leading them to engage in more difficult (and perhaps more environmentally significant) behaviours”.

Unfortunately, Thøgersen argues, spillover doesn’t work, at least not reliably:

However, we do not find evidence that positive spillover and foot-in the- door effects occur with the dependability that would be necessary to responsibly advocate their use as a major plank in engaging environmental problems (such as climate change) that require urgent and ambitious interventions.

There are many explanations for the failure of spillover, cognitive dissonance among them (and here this is perhaps counter-intuitive). While we might hope that we would strive to achieve greater consistency by increasing one’s pro-environmental behaviour, it is only one of several possible responses: another may be to abandon the existing pro-environmental behaviours.

what’s the point in taking the bus to the shops on a Saturday morning and leaving my car at home when I drive 30 miles to work each day during the week?

The theory predicts that increasing one’s pro-environmental behaviour will be the preferred option only if there are no other easier ways of reducing cognitive dissonance.

Not only does spillover not work, it provides an excuse for not doing more. It can even provide an excuse for continuing to be bad “it’s OK to drive a gas guzzler, I recycle at home”.

Thøgersen says that the onus is on developers of campaigns to reflect on their contribution to ambitious changes:

Environmental campaigners should be clear with themselves about whether a campaign is aimed at delivering a specific behavioural change (the actual focus of the campaign) or whether it is aimed at helping to elicit a wider set of behavioural changes (through positive spillover effects).

If we are to rely on spillover, then we need to make sure it actually happens. Thøgersen finds that spillover from one pro-environmental behaviour to others is more likely if the first is promoted as appealing to environmental imperatives than an appeal to financial self interest or social status.

Appealing simultaneously to several incentives (e.g. the financial savings and environmental benefits arising from energy-efficiency measures) is likely to reduce the instance of positive spillover into other pro-environmental behaviours.

What does all this mean for us?

Next year as part of our Sustainable Community Enterprise we are running a course on alternative energy generation. Participants will together build a windmill. Are we preaching to the choir? Do the skills and knowledge in the alternative energy spillover to wider energy literacy? Does it change behaviours? More to come…