Pickles’ ‘big society’ recycling scheme is a nudge in the wrong direction

On the Guardian’s Comment is Free, the Communities Minister Eric Pickles has made some bold claims about ‘human nature’ in introducing the coalition’s household recycling policy. Under the new policy, householders will be rewarded for recycling with points that can be cashed in at ‘local businesses’ such as Marks and Spencer and Cineworld. Bravely summarising decades of behavioural research in just two sentences, Pickles states that:

“There are some basic truths about human nature that the previous government found hard to grasp. If you want people to do something, then it’s always much more effective to give them support and encouragement – a nudge in the right direction – than to tell them what to do and then punish them if they don’t obey.”

He later goes on to claim:

“What’s really important about this scheme is that it treats people like adults. There’s no compulsion to participate, no penalties for opting out. It works because there’s a clear incentive to get involved. You put something in, you get something back. This is the Big Society in action.”

Unfortunately, the one basic truth about human nature that Pickles overlooks is the one that seems most essential for the Big Society: people respond to what others around them are doing, and don’t just behave in a rational, individually beneficial way. If they did, far less people would play the lottery.

Much more important than any individual-level cost/benefit analysis of whether to recycle is whether a particular behaviour is seen as socially acceptable. In several psychological studies, the power of social norms has been demonstrated for environmental behaviours like recycling and home energy management. In a famous example, American researchers showed that energy-hungry households reduced their energy consumption when they had access to information about the average usage in their area. They saw their high-energy use as socially undesirable, and fell into line.

Nobody wants to be seen as the gas guzzler in a neighbourhood full of waste-watchers, so reward or punishment schemes may be missing the point if they are aimed at individuals rather than tapping into the huge potential of social comparisons to generate behaviour change. People are more likely to compete to out-do each other than they are for a few pounds off their supermarket bill, and another recent psychological study showed how important people think it is to be ‘seen to be green’. Shoppers were willing to pay a premium for products with an environmental advantage – although only if they thought that other people were watching.

But there are also deeper reasons for not creating a direct link between recycling rates and financial rewards. Studies by Tim Kasser have shown that people who are highly materialistic are the least likely to act in a pro-environmental way. Paying people to recycle promotes the very value (material gain) that is likely to inhibit more ambitious changes in behaviour, or support for policies that may in fact cost people money in low-carbon taxes.

In short, Pickles’ Big Society recycling plan has no societal component, promotes the environmentally and socially antagonistic value of individual material gain as a reason for recycling, and amounts to paying people to put out their rubbish. Is that the best the Big Society can do?

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