Humans: Behave!

Marie Briguglio, University of Malta

Once COP21 is over and the commitments have been made, delegates will go back to their countries with a renewed ambition to roll out policy for climate mitigation and adaptation. To do so, they will deploy an artillery of tools, including some aimed at changing human behaviour. They will field subsidies, incentives and investments to boost desirable behaviours, and they may even wield taxes and fines, to discourage emissions. They will, undoubtedly, also resort to softer interventions like information and education.

Information provision, incentives and disincentives have one thing in common: they implicitly assume that people make considered, rational decisions. In other words, that people use the information given and weigh expected costs and benefits before deciding how to behave. By tweaking these trade-offs governments can tip people towards desired behaviours. Certainly, this kind of intervention has, and will, continue to make humans behave ‘better’, particularly as governments get better at pricing carbon and supporting the right investments.

But ‘rational’ and ‘self-interested’ does not fully describe the human decision-making process. More importantly, understanding the other dimensions of human behaviour offers up additional innovative options for intervention, which employed with more traditional approaches, can help countries achieve climate goals faster. Fortunately, there is a large body of multidisciplinary research about human behavioural change, which can complement the science on climate change itself.

We know, for instance, that people have social (and not just private) preferences, caring about what others do, about fairness, and reputation. This offers the potential to change behaviour by providing information on positive norms. It also suggests that, in emphasising the prevalence of laggard behaviour, we risk undermining our very objectives. Descriptive negative norms are powerful and, moreover, they may suppress efficacy beliefs. For similar reasons, it matters who conveys and advocates climate goals. Following COP21, governments will likely communicate their commitments.  Yet using politicians to front efforts can sometimes be a divisive strategy, which risks frustrating behavioural change among those less sympathetic to these public figures.

We have, in fact, long known that people feel uneasy when they behave in ways contrary to their morality. Many governments, non-governmental entities and businesses invest considerable funds and effort on awareness raising. But this is often limited to stimulating environmental issues. A complementary route is to link climate miss-behaviour with other aspects of one’s morality like fairness, political ideology, bequest motives, and even spiritual motives. Similarly, rather than focusing so much on the benefits that will accrue to future generations, we should be highlighting the benefits of action to present communities. Apart from its factual relevance, this strategy avoids another human bias that often hamstrings change: myopia.

The truth is that we have plenty of evidence that people find it hard to change behaviour, even if it benefits them personally to do so. This has been a major stumbling block for some incentive/information based intervention, yet it offers an interesting avenue for policy innovation. Opting people into greener energy plans, for instance, would result in very little switching into dirtier (even if cheaper) practises, even if they would be allowed to do so. Similarly, even if the force of habit has worked against behavioural change to date (e.g. car dependency), the same force can be used to generate new behaviours that stick (e.g. by offering free public transport for some time).

Until a decade ago, evidence of how to tap such behavioural traits for policy was diffuse and largely undocumented. But research has burgeoned, Nobel prizes have been awarded, and front-runners in governance are making inroads in designing behaviourally-informed interventions. Moreover, there exists an even broader spectrum of policy tools and methods that can be used alongside behavioural approaches. So let’s share what we know about what works, let’s continue to invest in developing evidence-based, context-specific policy in partnership with researchers and let’s employ the entire toolkit to reach our goals. We cannot afford not to.


Dr. Marie Briguglio  is an environmental economist. She worked for 15 years in policy and was Malta’s National Focal Point to the UNFCCC before returning to academia to conduct research in behavioural economics.  She is active in outreach activities and was recently awarded the World Intellectual Property Organisation medal for creativity.