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.