Page last updated at 10:34 GMT, Tuesday, 15 September 2009 11:34 UK

Can politicians shape our behaviour?

By Martin Rosenbaum
Producer, BBC Radio 4's Persuading Us to be Good

Poster in Barnet encouraging residents to reduce their carbon emissions
Is the gentle application of peer pressure the way to change behaviour

Are you a good citizen?

The kind who doesn't drink too much but always puts the empties in the recycling box? The kind who ignores tempting store credit card offers but does give blood, who saves prudently for your pension while avoiding unprotected sex?

In short, the kind who does what the nanny state might want you to do?

And if you're not yet perfect, how can the state persuade you to become better?

That's the question a growing number of politicians, local government officials, health professionals and think-tank members are grappling with, as they puzzle over how best to change public behaviour to achieve their policy goals.

Personal choices

And they are now turning to the increasingly influential ideas of social psychology and behavioural economics in their search for answers.

"In many areas now there are limits to the cures that can be achieved by government alone," says the climate change minister, Joan Ruddock.

Some leaflets are more likely to encourage anti-social behaviour than discourage
Martin Rosenbaum
Freedom of information blogger

"Behaviour change is a very important priority because we know that things like health and the environment are affected by the choices people make."

And the Conservatives are also interested, according to the shadow chancellor George Osborne.

He argues: "Social psychologists are helping governments around the world design policy solutions that are more effective than big state solutions. If you go with the grain of people's instincts you are more likely to achieve the public policy outcomes you want, rather than sitting in a government department dreaming up some rational scheme that doesn't work in practice."

Barnet Council in north west London is one of those local authorities trying to improve its population.

We've got to stop nagging. If nagging worked we'd all be skinny, we'd all be recycling and we'd all be walking to work
Mike Freer, Barnet Council leader

In one pilot scheme in Finchley, the residents have been asked to reduce their carbon footprint by turning down their heating, reducing their car use, and so on.

A traditional persuasive strategy would be based on stressing how this could benefit the environment. But the council is going further in testing out techniques of influence.

The residents are asked to make pledges in a face-to-face conversation with one of the canvassers who have been going door-to-door in this area.

They are only asked to make some limited pledges - to choose three out of nine options on the pledge card they are shown.

And posters on lampposts proclaim the number of households in that street who have agreed to participate.

Peer pressure

In other words, this project is based on enticing people into making a small but face-to-face commitment and then using the force of peer pressure to encourage others.

"If you go to someone's door and say 'can you do a great deal for the environment?', they're probably going to back off," says Daniel Delange, of the charity Groundwork, which the council has employed to implement the project.

"But if you say 'a little bit for the environment', they feel they can do a little bit and feel good about themselves for doing it."

Obese woman
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"We put these posters up, so we hope the neighbours see," he adds. "We hope the neighbours will feel 'if they're all doing it, maybe I should be doing it as well'."

But there is still some way to go.

When we asked one resident if she was impressed by the posters about the number of neighbours taking part, she replied: "Not knowing who the neighbours were, I don't know."

For the council leader, Mike Freer, this approach is an idea whose time has come.

He says: "The role of the council has shifted away from being a provider of services to being responsible for helping local citizens improve their lives. Nudging people along is a terrific idea, we've got to stop nagging. If nagging worked we'd all be skinny, we'd all be recycling and we'd all be walking to work."

The Barnet pilot scheme is being funded by the Department of Communities and Local Government, which wants to examine how well the academic theories involved can be implemented in practice.

Similar ideas are also being employed at the national level.

If you fill out the "carbon calculator" on the government's Action CO2 campaign site, you will see that at the end it compares your carbon consumption to that of other households like yours.

Some of this is based on the work of the leading American social psychologist, Professor Robert Cialdini.

He argues that the key role of peer pressure or "social proof" is illustrated by a Californian experiment about trying to reduce household energy consumption.

The participants were given information about how cutting consumption could benefit the environment, and also about what other households were doing to save energy.

The outcome?

"The messages we sent to them about what their neighbours were doing were the only ones that made a difference," he says.

New jargon

But this also suggests that politicians who complain about how widespread an undesirable behaviour is can inadvertently be encouraging it, because it can help that behaviour become a social norm.

I'm starting to hear local talk about 'person-shaping'
Matthew Taylor

This applies to everything from young people carrying knives to patients who don't turn up for their medical appointments.

Thus Professor Cialdini believes that talk of an "obesity epidemic" simply encourages more obesity.

"Instead of normalising the undesirable behaviour, you want to marginalise it," he adds.

All this may mean that we have to learn a new item of political terminology.

"I'm starting to hear local authorities that were quite recently using the phrase 'place-shaping' as the jargon for what they did now talk about 'person-shaping'," says Matthew Taylor, a former Downing Street policy aide to Tony Blair.

The term "person-shaping" probably won't appeal to politicians, but it could increasingly describe what they are trying to do.

Persuading Us to be Good will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 20.00 on Tuesday, 15 September, and again at 17.00 on Sunday, 20 September 2009.

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