Shaping the Path

…for energy productivity and procurement.

This is the second blog capturing the bulk of the reading I’ve done on the psychology of choices, behavioural economics etc. You can read the first in Decision Making Trickery. I’m trying to focus this piece on the actions we need to take to make use of the influencing tools, cognitive biases and decision making automation in order to harness decisions for a low carbon state government (and in the longer term, carbon neutral Adelaide and zero carbon South Australia).

I’m not alone in having energy decisions in my sights. Fostering Sustainable behaviour has long had energy, water and waste decisions as it’s key focus and I understand that many US utilities have used CBSM with a vengeance. This recent article in Scientific American shows that in Germany a default setting of purchasing green power led to 70% staying with the renewable energy purchase, in comparison to 7% when they had to deliberately opt in – that is a very substantial result and throws up a clear challenge to policy makers.

My resources cover a spectrum of decision making scenarios – from you want to make a decision but need help through to disrupting the status quo and triggering a change you didn’t know you needed or wanted. Obviously the latter is harder and in Fostering Sustainable Behaviour there is a whole step dedicated to defining the behaviour that we want to change.


Similarly, in Switch the early steps in the process are to work out the logical steps that need to be taken (Direct the Rider). We may have an overarching vision for the change that needs to occur but we need to be quite specific, rather than expecting that the “rider” will spend time working out the most sensible way to fulfill the goal. Looking for ‘Bright Spots’ is a great start. That means looking at ways that others have tackled the problem, or even for a person to reflect on the times when they have behaved in the way they aspire to. The advantage of these positive examples is that they are context specific and you are most likely to get a locally appropriate result if you start with winning examples from that local context.

My recent read of Getting Beyond Better emphasised the importance of understanding the system and co-designing the solutions with actors and partners within the system in an experimental way. There appear to be no shortcuts here – change requires effort and engagement.

Switch also highlights the importance of making the change as simple as possible – “script the critical moves” and “point to the destination”. We know that behaviours and habits can use triggers or prompts so if people can imagine the behaviour clearly they can implement easily when in that situation eg in front of the dairy cabinet, reaching for the 1% fat milk.

Nudge uses NUDGES as an acronym for its six tools:

  • iNcentives
  • Understand mappings
  • Defaults
  • Give feedback
  • Expect errors
  • Structure complex choices

In terms of early steps – Understand mappings and therefore framing the issue or the critical steps into language anyone can understand – like kWh of electricity into $$ per bill. cbsmFostering Sustainable Behaviour encourages a detailed look into the barriers and benefits. All of these examples require us, as designers, to take time to understand the local context and system – or to devolve the design process to the actors themselves.

Switch tackles the elephant next. Motivating the elephant requires us to show people something that generates emotion and feelings – inspiring enough to drive change and movement. Nudge doesn’t delve into motivation much past incentives. A few important things to remember here, incentives don’t need to be financial and one of the main examples in Nudge was the fly in the urinal that motivated blokes to aim well. In fact financial incentives can revert the frame of engagement away from friendship and back to commercial, hence undermining some of your efforts. But incentives can provide a strong signal about the activity Government is trying to encourage (for example).

Emotional motivation often requires something more and the Switch examples are creative – one manager piled the 400+ glove brands on a table to get his senior leadership to really feel how crazy it was not to have a centralised purchasing policy. A chemotherapy video game for teens helped with medication compliance because it allowed the teens to feel like heroes rather than outsiders.

influenceIf you take a look back at the six influencing styles (see decision making trickery), they are all about how sales and marketing folk make you ‘feel’:

  • liking and feeling ‘one of us’
  • obligated to reciprocate
  • avoiding the feeling of inconsistency
  • reassured to follow the decisions of others or an authority figure and
  • worried about missing out

The final parts of moving the elephant in the Switch framework is:

  1. Making the first small step as small as possible – eg ‘if we just tidy for 5 minutes’ – so that momentum can start around reform.
  2. And growing the people involved to start a virtuous cycle of action as people get better at it.

A parallel in the CBSM framework might be the focus on convenience and prompts to make the steps as easy as possible and to be reminded of the action at the best time.

Shaping the Path is the area that most interests me. In using the phrase ‘choice architecture’ Thaler and Sunstein emphasise the importance of understanding hows much you do set the context for people’s choices and using your knowledge wisely. If you are going to set the elephant moving, best that it blunders down a pretty good default path.

Nudge highlights the importance of feedback so that people learn from their choices, expecting errors – so that you can redirect the elephant when it goes wrong, and also the structuring of complex choices. The latter brings up the experiment of choosing jam. People will buy when there are four to six choices but beyond that they tend to be overwhelmed by choice. Breaking music into categories and subcategories (for example) or highlighting what others with your music al taste are listening to are just two ways online providers have helped musical choices with some additional structure.

In Switch, shaping the path calls for a tweaking of the environment, language that suggests less control over the context for choices b ut the examples they provided were simple tweaks which radically improved the convenience of the system. I was going to cover some of the examples in ‘The Small Big’ at this stage but I have decided to document my ideas from that book in a seperate post.

And finally we need to build habits and rally the herd. As you can imagine, the context, the ‘path’, is much more conducive to action if the action is habitual and everyone else is doing it too.

In the CBSM framework we need to experiment and pilot before spreading to broadscale implementation. I have read a number of case studies from electricity utilities in the USA implementing these types of behaviour change programs across their whole customer base.

I am a fan of the experimental approach and quite interested in the idea of a knowledge commons building up around approaches to energy efficiency and clean energy solutions. In my mind there wouldn’t need to be a single best solution because everyone could learn from each other’s experiences in a self organising sort of way and build on the approaches that appealed to them most.

So this is my challenge going forward. If you’ve enjoyed this little exploration, make sure you read Decision Making Trickery and the Small Big.

If you want to explore more about design in the social context, I recommend Getting Beyond Better and Change by Design.

And finally you ought to know that Thaler and Sunstein have their critics – as Nudge became popular, people pointed out that delegating our decisions to a nudgy environment was not very democratic – there are many decisions that don’t belong here and I recommend Yankelovich’s Coming to Public Judgement for an exploration of how we help citizens make better decisions for the whole of society.



About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
This entry was posted in Booknotes, Changemaking, Climate change policy, Energy Efficiency, Policy Ideas and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Shaping the Path

  1. Pingback: Decision making trickery | changing weather by Heather Smith

  2. Pingback: The Small Big | changing weather by Heather Smith

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