WARNING: Is Your Message Effective?

16 Jan

An Attempt To Use A “Nudge” To Make A Better Climate Message

If you could send an environmental message to drivers every time they fueled up at the pump, what would be the most effective message? Could you influence their consumption behavior?

This is not a hypothetical question. An environmental activist group, 350.org, may succeed in convincing Bay Area officials to let them place warning stickers (see below) on fuel pumps at gas stations alerting consumers to the connection between gasoline usage and greenhouse gases.

But behavioral economics research suggests that the stickers proposed by 350.org will not have much effect:

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 6.37.05 PM

As a serious suggestion to the 350.org folks (I’ve actually reached out to their campaign team – no response yet see update at bottom), here are some ideas on how to make their message more effective and more likely to influence people.

Why It’s So Hard to Create Effective Environmental Messaging

Behavioral economics, in a nutshell, analyzes how heavily people’s decisions are influenced by the way information and choices are presented to them. It has long been an interest of mine – I’ve previously written about about framing effective non-profit messages (“Screw the Polar Bears“) and default choices (“Why Soccer Pundits are Sheep“). And I’ve just recently finished the easy-to-read behavioral economics book Nudge, which has influenced policy makers worldwide with its explanations of “choice architecture.”

I’d summarize the problem that 350.org faces – as it relates to behavioral economics and in influencing public opinion – as follows:

  • People make rational decisions (in their self-interest) when they see the clear and immediate consequence/reward flowing from their choice.
  • But, even though people have good intentions, they don’t make rational choices when the reward: (1) occurs at some uncertain time in the future; (2) is hard to directly connect to any specific act or choice; (3) requires doing something different from the status quo; (4) requires doing something different from everyone else; (5) has a high present perceived cost, but a far-in-the-future reward.

So environmental messaging is really tough, because it’s difficult to convey how any particular choice today will affect the climate some time in the future. Nobody got into their car this morning and thought, “If I don’t drive today, I’ll have to rearrange my entire schedule, but I might stop the polar ice caps from melting, oceans from rising, and half my city from sinking into the sea.”  Because that’s crazy.

Too dramatic?

Too dramatic?

But at the same time, that’s basically what environmental activists want/need to achieve.

And the big problem with the proposed warning stickers, is that all they do is “warn.” Even if they successfully convinced drivers that fuel consumption produces CO2, and that CO2 causes climate change, that would not cause a change in behavior – in this case, decreased fuel consumption.

How do I know? Because 43 million Americans still smoke.

Don’t get me wrong, in the 50 years since the first Surgeon General warnings of smoking’s health effects, millions of lives have been saved in what has been called “one of the great public-health successes of the 20th century.”

But virtually everyone in the U.S. knows that smoking causes cancer (including smokers) and yet tens of millions of Americans chose to smoke even though they know the facts.

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 9.38.25 AM

Why? Because, in addition to being addictive, (1) the health “cost” of smoking comes far down the road; (2) no single drag or cigarette can be identified as causing cancer; and, (3) social norms – many people smoke because their friends smoke. And, unlike fuel consumption/climate change, your decision to smoke will affect your health (and those closest around you).

If 43 million Americans still smoke, even knowing the long term consequences for them personally, what chance does a warning sticker at gas pumps have of changing people’s fuel consumption?

Because the costs are so detached from any one individual’s conduct, and because cars are such a routinized part of most people’s lives, I doubt that simply informing people about the link between driving and climate change would have any effect.

So what might work?

How to Make an Effective Message

The question/challenge is: what message on a sticker at a gas pump would have the highest likelihood of impacting people’s awareness and behavior? Admittedly, until the Statute of Liberty actually gets swallowed by rising tides in real life, very little will change.

But behavioral economics research gives some clues on how to maximize the effectiveness of a message. In fairness, the folks running the warning sticker campaign do seem to be aware of some of these principles, but their message seems targeted to people’s “reflective system” or active cognitive (mindful) thinking. They are trying simply to “inform” and appeal to people’s intellect.

An alternative approach might be to appeal to their automatic thinking system. Filling up at the gas station is such an ingrained activity, that the message needs to reach deeper and challenge that routinized, mindless behavior.

1. Social Norms Heavily Influence Behavior

People are influenced by the behavior of their peers.

A hotel chain provided a great example. The hotel wanted to encourage guests to re-use their towels rather than getting fresh ones every day, to save money and decrease environmental waste (from all the water, energy and chemicals used to clean the extra towels).

The most effective message was not “help save the environment.” It was one telling the guests that 75% of guests staying in the same room re-used their towels. The message increased towel use by 25%.

When people believe others just like them are doing something different, they are much more likely to conform their behavior to that perceived “norm.”

Here, the sticker could take advantage of the fact that Americans are actually already using their cars less, in a trend that has been ongoing for almost a decade. If people believe that others are consuming less gas, they will be inclined to follow this trend.

2. Personal Messages Are Much More Effective

In the U.S., at least, people are much more motivated by messages that appeal to them personally, rather than appealing to their sense of the greater good, as a study from Stanford found recently. I wrote about this previously. Telling people the link between fuel consumption and climate change in general is unlikely to influence behavior, for all the reasons I’ve described above.

Shining the spotlight on an individual is a well-known behavioral bias, which can be useful in this context. Drawing attention to someone’s own conduct, while contrasting it with everyone else’s actions, can be leveraged to influence that conduct.

In the gas pump sticker context, making someone think about their own fuel consumption, and attempting to compare it to other’s consumption, could be an effective way to start to challenge their patterns.

So What Could a Sticker Look Like?

Okay, time to put everything above together. We want a sticker that (1) informs people about the link between climate change and gas consumption; (2) makes them think about their own consumption; (3) nudges them to possibly reduce their own consumption. That’s a lot of work for a sticker to do. And, as I’ve discussed extensively, because I think simply “informing” people will not be very effective, I’m going to place more emphasis on #2 and #3.

Here’s the sticker:

Proposed Gas Pump Sticker

The first time someone fills up and sees the sticker, they might be confused. But it will likely draw their attention.

The second or third time they see the sticker at the pump, they will start to remember they’ve seen it before. They may even read the smaller print.

The fourth or fifth time they see the sticker, they may begin to realize “Wow I actually see this sticker a lot.” And they may be curious enough to think about how often they are filling up at the pump. And they may even consider their consumption in relation to others (social norms), and the effect of their consumption on greenhouse gases.

In a small percentage of cases, people might actually consider whether/how they could drive less.

I don’t pretend for a second that a sticker alone would have any major effect on consumption, but I believe it has several major advantages to 350.org’s warning sticker: (1) It would draw much more attention; (2) It would draw attention to the activity of the individual (amount of driving) rather than just to the total effect of everyone driving (climate change); (3) It would likely gain people’s attention on multiple occasions, rather than a warning sign which people tend to ignore after seeing once.

In any event, I realize my message is more provocative and controversial than 350.org’s warning sticker, and would be a harder sell to government officials whose blessing is apparently required. But given an opportunity to blanket every gas station in a city or state with a message, wouldn’t you try to make that message as effective as possible?

UPDATE: I got a great response back from Jamie Brooks from 350.org.  He agreed that more personal messages are more effective.  But, as I suspected, they are concerned about the legal scrutiny of a more opinion-based message, especially when it is being mandated by a local government.  Ironically, of course, some people are still skeptical about the link between climate change and human activity, but yet it’s an undisputed fact that Americans are driving less today than they did ten years ago!


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