Tag Archives: behaviour change

PPPOPP theories: the Power of Popular Psychology over Public Policy

It is intriguing to note how influential ideas translate into actually existing public policies which have very real impacts both on specific individuals and the wider population. And so, not satisfied with having designed a highly scientific diagrammatic model (see this earlier post), a useful mnemonic or acronym is also indispensable. Hence PPPOPP. Eventually, these insights will all come together in my forthcoming best-selling title: How to Change Other People’s Behaviour, essential reading for all those who wish to preserve their own intransigence.

Understanding Behaviour Change involves not only tracing its roots, in terms of the academic theories, disciplines and evidence marshalled in its development as a distinct set of policy solutions.  We also need to examine how and why particular sets of ideas get adopted and others not. In addition, looking at Behaviour Change in its wider context, it is possible to identify broader trends in the governance of the human subject which are worthy of more detailed analysis. As a start, then, it is worth considering how Behaviour Change fits in conceptually and methodologically with the movement for positive psychology, wellbeing and happiness, and to remember some more acronyms…

Libertarian Paternalism is of course a term which sounds far too jargonistic for some. But NUDGE, that is very easy to say. Cheating slightly, NUDGE summarises a suite of recommendations derived from the field of behavioural economics, standing for:

iNcentives   

Understanding Mappings           

Defaults       

Give Feedback                

Expect Error 

Structure complex choices

Meanwhile MINDSPACE, a framework and toolkit developed by the Institute for Government and Cabinet Office derives its themes from a wider spectrum of the behavioural sciences of decision-making, standing for:

Messenger  

Incentives   

Norms                     

Defaults       

Salience      

                                                                  Priming       

                                                                  Affect   

                                                                  Commitment     

                                                                  Ego

And PERMA denotes a set of ideas from positive psychology gaining increasing attention amongst policy strategists, politicians, and an emergent ‘happiness industry’. This one forwards an argument for the power of a mind trained in optimism to overcome adverse circumstances, from the work of Martin Seligman (author of Flourish, 2011), and stands for:

Positive emotion   

Engagement           

Relationships         

Meaning     

Accomplishment

Leaving aside the issue of how all these kinds of knowledges reconfigure the human subject as an object of governance, just for now, let us consider instead some other psychological insights on ‘fluency’ which may have implications for the popularity of popular psychology in public policy. With thanks to Psychologist, Will Matthews for pointing me towards this area (have a look at his interesting work on the psychophysics of price). Adam Alter and Daniel Oppenheimer’s 2006 research has shown how stock market prices are correlated with the pronouncability of their names. Hence, easy to pronounce stocks consistently out-performed those with ‘disfluent’ names.  If it is not too much of a leap then, we might speculate that academic evidence presented as an easy to say acronym  will have much more impact on time-pressed professionals than, say, a paper entitled ‘Reflections on the rescientisation of decision making in British Public Policy’, or RRDMBPP (and that’s only half a title).  Well of course there’s a lot more to it than that, but it is worth bearing in mind when you find yourself marketing, branding and ‘impacting’ your next research project.

Jessica

A ‘3E’ model of soft-paternalism

It seems that no ‘policy relevant’ research is complete without its own easy to remember, easy to say, easy to spell mnemonic or catchy abbreviation for you to take away and apply to all manner of related and not-so-related scenarios (more on the status of mnemonics in public policy later), so here is ours:

Another triangle

The UK Sustainable development strategy (2005, see also DEFRA 2007) developed the well-known ‘4Es’ framework (enabling, engaging, encouraging and exemplifying), only to be trumped by the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s ‘6Es’ model (adding explore and evaluate). But we have come up with our own ‘3Es’ to throw into the mix of important things beginning with E: efficacy, ethics and empowerment. Here I provide a quick summary as a taster for the analytical model we are developing in our forthcoming book, Changing Behaviours. On the Rise of the Psychological State, to be published in 2013 by Edward Elgar.

Efficacy

No we haven’t gone all instrumentalist on you. Our concern with efficacy is not to ask ‘does behaviour change work’, since there are plenty of people asking such a question. Rather, throughout our research we have sought to interrogate the grounds for evaluation as presented in behaviour change policies. First, this raises a concern with the monetisation of behaviour change outcomes in terms of VFM (value for money) or ROI (return on investment). Whilst these are clearly important where spending of public funds is concerned, we urge those evaluating behaviour change policies to consider alternative outcomes in terms of the quality of public deliberation engendered by such interventions.  Secondly, we want to draw attention to the need for long-term and large-scale measures of success, which may in fact defy measurement within the terms or resources of a single intervention. We are concerned to show how behaviour change evaluations may be based on a narrow conception of the times and spaces of decision-making, unable and unwilling to account for the socio-technical, cultural and environmental drivers of meaningful and sustainable social change.

Ethics

Of course we are banging on about ethics like there’s no tomorrow, since this is notably absent from the other E models, and because it is the element most likely to evade measurement and audit.   Three main issues are worth considering, though there are no doubt many more. First, what is the political legitimacy of those designing behaviour change? Where novel governmental tactics exist to explicitly target the collective subconscious, where is the infrastructure to monitor and check this form of ‘psychocratic power’? Secondly, in the settling of new defaults, norms and social goods, how are notions of evidence, expertise and status advanced? I.e. who gets to say what is a desired behavioural outcome in any given situation? Related to this is a third concern, that in targeting behavioural interventions at those behaviours, segmented groups and individuals deemed less rational, does the behavioural agenda itself create and irrational an risky underclass, echoing previous examples of victim-blaming in public policy? This circularity issue is well known to students of political theory, and it remains crucial to ask whether and how behaviour change produces vulnerable subjects.

Empowerment

Finally, we argue that it is essential to evaluate behaviour change policies in terms of their potential for empowering citizens to develop the capacity to act in the future. We have identified that one of the unintended consequences of the sum total of behaviour change interventions is that the homo economicus presumed in prior economic accounts of decision-making is being replaced by a more psychologically inspired vision of the citizen fool. Following on from this is a perceived requirement for policy makers to create foolproof geographies based on naïve conceptions of time and space. And finally that such a decision-making environment removes opportunities for social learning. In its place, we argue for public policy interventions which value more-than-rational forms of decision-making, sensitive to inexpert knowledges, a wider spectrum of what counts of evidence and a more ambitious attitude to the possibility of social change.

Jessica

Can behavioural science help us to resist temptation? Governing by nudges

Behaviour Change tactics are often aimed at encouraging citizens to resist various temptations associated with over-consumption (e.g. of unhealthy food, cigarettes, carbon, credit). In our research we have argued that much more attention needs to be paid to the unintended consequences of nudge tactics as they re-configure the politics and ethics of government intervention, the ‘time-spaces’ of decision making and our conceptions of the human subject itself.

It is widely recognised that governments have always been in the business of changing behaviour. But the more recent growth in enthusiasm for nudge tactics based on a loose political philosophy of ‘soft’ or ‘libertarian’ paternalism raises new questions about policy tools and levers intended to both improve welfare and increase freedom of choice.  Furthermore, given the new found dominance of psychological and behavioural science knowledges, the Behaviour Change agenda demands that we interrogate what counts as research evidence in the justification of new policy techniques.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on Behaviour Change reported in 2011 that not enough was known about how governments can change or influence behaviour at a population level; most of the available research is conducted exclusively on individuals, and it is simply inadequate to aggregate these findings up to social groups, communities and whole nations.  Our research project, ‘The time-spaces of soft paternalism’, conducted by Human Geographers at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust for 3 years, has examined precisely the question of the underlying principles and collective effects of the Behaviour Change agenda in the UK. Far from a neutral set of benign policy techniques which can be deployed by parties of any political persuasion, our research has found a concerted movement towards the deployment of sophisticated psychological powers in order to govern individual and societal ‘temptations’. These research insights can be usefully split into three headings:

The politics and ethics of government intervention

There are several different nudge techniques which fall along a spectrum of political and ethical acceptability. These range from psychographic and geodemographic profiling in social marketing campaigns, design initiatives focussing on spatial arrangements (e.g. the layout of school canteens), to administrative techniques that attempt to encourage optimal behaviours (e.g. presumed and differed consent in organ donation schemes; favourable default positions on company pension options).  Clearly some are aimed at compensating for our all too human behavioural flaws and apparently self-defeating behaviours, whilst others are intended to cultivate a more reflective approach to reasoned and reasonable decision making.  Hence, these distinct typologies of nudge require not only strategies for enabling, engaging, exemplifying and encouraging more ‘sensible’ behaviours, but they also necessitate ‘ethical proofing’.  This requires policy makers and indeed politicians to build ethical considerations into Behaviour Change initiatives from the outset.  Though not a comprehensive list, a starting point would be to judge each nudge from the perspective of:

(a)    its openness or degree of consent secured – how far are individuals and society aware of any attempts to change their behaviours, through subtle environmental or administrative cues?

(b)   its democratic credentials – how far are citizens involved in actively shaping the contexts in which they make decisions (for instance, global energy markets). Are opportunities given for public deliberation on the very nature of the social goods to be promoted through nudges? How can the nudger be held accountable in a democratic forum (whether the nudger is government or otherwise)?

(c)    its effects on personal responsibility – is it indeed fair to assert that actors living in unequal contexts should be held personally responsible for the behaviour in question? Is it fair to ask people on vastly different incomes to save, even proportionately, for their pensions?

 The ‘time-spaces’ of decision making

Secondly, Behaviour Change policies and initiatives have drawn on academic disciplines which remain far from uncontested.  It has been argued, for instance, that the behavioural economic and psychological science approaches are based on narrow assumptions about the very ‘time-spaces’ of decision making. To clarify, on the one hand, such disciplines re-imagine decision-making as a highly immediate, responsive and impulsive activity hampered by cognitive flaws which limit our abilities to make long-term decisions. And on the other hand, they are primarily concerned with decision-making which takes place at a highly localised scale – one of Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) famous examples being to encourage healthy eating by placing fruit at eye-level. In promoting an account of decision-making as both immediate and proximate, attention is drawn away from the wider contexts which frame decisions.  There is little attention paid, therefore, to the way in which decisions can be limited by socio-economic contexts, unequal access to the resources and knowledges required to make decisions, and the much longer running historical contexts in which decisions are ascribed as ‘sensible’. Nudges can therefore be guilty of de-historicising the role that culture, society, economic circumstance and the state have played in shaping behavioural norms and constructing those temptations to be resisted.  Hence, notions of willingness, harm, choice, welfare, health, environmental awareness, wealth and happiness are divorced from the very political processes of norm-formation which make certain behaviours acceptable and others transgressive. Again, these insights urge us to question what kind of research counts as evidence to be used in designing Behaviour Change policies, and raises the need to widen the scope of research expertise beyond the behavioural sciences.  There is also a need to be wary of any account of decision making which appears to equate freedom, and associated democratic rights, with acts of choice, since choice is no guarantor of substantive freedom.

 

Conceptions of the human subject

Following from these principles of decision making are novel claims about the human condition as characterised by a sense of irrationality, flaws and inherent biases in thinking processes.  But we must also consider the cumulative effect of Behaviour Change policy initiatives as they become more commonplace in contemporary UK policy making.  In deconstructing ‘homo economicus’ on which classical decision theories were arguably based, and replacing this conception with those derived from psychological knowledges, nudges risk creating an ‘irrational underclass’ of people judged to be too weak willed to behave appropriately.  Nudges tend to demote the emotional or inexpert drivers of decision making as problems to be overcome. In targeting particular segmented social groups, they can have the affect of stigmatising certain people as less than rational and seemingly uneducable. In creating decision-making environments intended to be ‘fool-proof’, nudges may indeed contribute to the cultivation of fools. Citizens may develop a more acute sense of vulnerability which reduces their abilities to hold governments and other nudgers to account. In addition, by focussing on individual behaviours, nudges reframe social problems as issues of psychological pathology. This limits the ethical and political scope for strong governmental action in the spheres of social and spatial inequalities – and encourages ‘bite sized’ discrete policy remedies for structural problems.  Finally, in their focus on rationalising the irrational aspects of decision making and compensating for the emotional drivers of behaviour, Behaviour Change policies can have unequally gendered effects, subordinating the female citizen to a masculinist rational frame. This makes assumptions about both the determinants of decision making and the selective acceptability of social goods or norms to be cultivated through nudges. It is these social goods and norms which, in a democracy, should never be beyond question.

Taking a much broader view of the population-wide political and ethical consequences of policies based on behavioural insights provides us with a difficult set of questions which require sustained political debate.  The sometime confusion of nudges as an end rather than a means closes down this debate. Critical social science research can therefore illuminate the need for Parliamentarians to maintain a healthy scepticism of the scientific claims which underpin behaviour change. For whilst nudging gives government a toolkit for producing ‘sensible’ citizens, nudges do not get us any closer to the question of how we should live nor which temptations should be governed.

Jessica

The Making of Nudge Theory

How did the word ‘nudge’ get to be its own theory? Is it not simply a suggestion, a physical gesture, something which comes before a wink?

Of course these questions have been posed by numerous commentators since the publication of Nudge in 2008, and all the jokes have been made. But the important question remains: would there indeed have been a Behavioural Insights Team (aka Nudge Unit), a new health behaviours research centre at Cambridge University, a House of Lords Inquiry into Behaviour Change, if the publishers of Nudge had not made the wise commercial suggestion that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein not entitle their best seller ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ as apparently originally conceived.  Would anyone have taken any notice if it had been called something mundane like ‘An introduction to Behavioural Economics’ (with apologies to author Nick Wilkinson for what may well be an excellent book)?

Surely the media love-in with Nudge theory would not have materialised in this case – the ideas being simply ‘too academic’ for our sensitive eyes and ears.

Maybe I am just too obsessed with the elevation of Nudge to truth status, scientific discipline and social panacea, because since 2008 I have been working on a research project examining its politics and ethics. But it does seem hard to turn on the radio these days without somebody (often Evan Davies) heralding yet more novel insights that Nudge offers on the decidedly old problem of understanding  human behaviour.  We must listen to academics extolling the virtues of this novel approach to policy making – which both costs less and promotes human happiness! Not only can it encourage organ donation and more speedy tax-paying, but it can also help people give up smoking, become less obese, save the environment and famously, help men to pee more accurately.

But can Nudge theory really be this versatile and this marvellous?

What is most concerning is that I don’t hear any researchers offering alternative viewpoints on the political value of the Nudge theory. Rather, they seem busy trying to get onto the advisory boards of various Behaviour Change research networks, centres and institutes – perhaps in order to fulfil their duties to serve policy-makers in their research and to secure research ‘impact’ – now a pre-requisite of almost any research funding in an increasingly competitive funding environment.

I am all in favour of communicating research findings beyond a narrow circle of my academic friends, and ensuring that publically-funded research is worthwhile; contributing to the social good. But Nudge theory cannot claim this without interrogation. Nudge theory cannot help us to collectively decide on what that social good is. And its model of human behaviour is entirely reductive, denying any place for political agency, contestation or deliberation.  For that, we need to champion diverse approaches from the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Bunsen Beaker Plug and PlaySo whilst the House of Lords Inquiry recommended the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist, this has since been narrowed in the Government’s response published this week by that very Nudge Unit, who recommend the appointment focus on “Social Scientists within departments on behavioural science”. But behavioural science simply is not the sum total of social science, and the methods, assumptions and theoretical frameworks which make behavioural science count as plausible evidence for policy making are not shared by social scientists as a whole. Behavioural approaches still cannot tell us enough as a society about either the cumulative, long term effect of nudges on populations, specific social groups and the democratic polity, nor about the missteps we are making in terms of narrowing human agency to a set of automated, foolish and irrational psychological responses to various stimuli.

These blind spots were brought home to me when my own efforts to disseminate research to a non-academic audience – a magazine on science topics for Parliamentarians – was met with a disturbingly simplistic disdain for my ‘soft science’, academic jargon and a failure to specify a ‘sample size’. Instead, my unsubstantiated claims were best suited to the ‘mere’ journalism of a Sunday newspaper rather than a prestigious academic tome.

Leaving aside the fact that this soft (read ‘social’) science research was all previously published in international peer-reviewed journals, the incident confirmed the uphill struggle that social scientists beyond the behaviouralist frame have to bear in order to secure the ear of policy makers looking for sample sizes, tested models and cool hard facts that stand in for a wider understanding of the nature of the human condition, and issues of ethics and power in political decision-making.

No wonder then that researchers even from the discipline of political science are now turning to bio-medical methods such as Randomized Control Trials to ‘prove’ their theories, rather than asking the political questions that one might expect of researchers of politics. Who is left to interrogate a Nudge theory which itself explicitly aims to change the very behaviours, attitudes and ‘mindspaces’ of citizens?

So is Nudge theory a mere fabrication of a media-driven enthusiasm for catchy mnemonics, a genuine popular respect for behavioural economics, or is it in fact a political project (the oh-so jargony, “Libertarian Paternalism”) which allows its protagonists to justify all manner of cost-cutting and yet ‘welfare-enhancing’ initiatives? And where is the evidence that reducing the size of government whilst increasing its psychological infrastructures actually improves welfare, and for whom?

No , Nudge theory is not, as the authors claim, a set of policy tools to accomplish the ‘real third way’. It is a forth way: a political project which uses the methods of neoliberal thinking to counter those very excesses engendered by neoliberal culture, and in doing so reframes the flawed citizen as architect of her own self-defeat.

Jessica

 

A body politic – the right to make live and let die

Most political geographers would get the allusion of the title. The first part is to the 17th century world of sovereignty, rights and social contract theory of Thomas Hobbes. For Hobbes peace would be secured when “a multitude of men, united as one person by a common power” choose to covenant their individual power to the ‘body politic’ by relinquishing some of their rights to a sovereign (the right to make war or take life for example) [see Hobbes 1640, Chp XIX, para 8].

The second part references Michel Foucault’s biopower where the claim to legitimacy by ‘the state’ is based on the guarding and fostering of productive life (see Foucault “Society Must Be Defended, Lectures 1975-76”, page 241) and the commensurate extension of state control over the biological. Foucault argued that in modernity man’s existence as biological (in contrast to legal or political) beings becomes the target of state strategies (biopower). He distinguished two forms of biopower: anatomo-politics and biopolitics – the former targeting the individual subject, the human body, the latter targeting man as a collectivity, the population as a body politic.

Donor Card

Concern with life and death of the individual and population comes to the fore in the questions around organ donation, revealing tensions between the body-politic and the politics of the body .

Defaults, organs and the state

Sadly it is statistically likely that three people in the UK died today awaiting a suitable donor.

As Rhys, Jessica and Mark noted in their article “Geographies of Soft Paternalism”, published earlier this year, “organ donation has become an intensive site for soft paternalist policy experimentation […] One classic tool of soft paternalism [that] has been controversially proposed as an ultimate solution to organ donation shortfalls: the re-setting of the organ donation default.” [draft for Geog Compass viewed here]

In the UK this default is based on the notion that the body is gifted, that is it is voluntarily made available for use after death through an act of conscious choice. So we have an opt-in system where people choose to enter their names on an Organ Donor Register. Doing so is simple, via phone, online or at various sites that we all visit such as the doctors surgery. Yet despite the ease and our consistent collective affirmation that organ donation is a good thing and we would like to be an organ donor in reality only about a quarter of us have done it. This coupled with increasing surgical advances, problems of organ compatibility, and the increase in demand (as life style related conditions like diabetes, liver and heart disease continue to rise) has seen year on year repeated headlines about soaring waiting list times.

Switching to a system based on ‘presumed consent’, (where the citizen is entered onto the register and has to opt-out of it) has been debated in the UK for years. It is common in much of Europe and seems to result in higher donor rates but local and cultural factors may be equally significant.

In nudge terminology this is changing the default option, a powerful tool for changing behaviour because the default position is what happens when you have a choice but choose to do nothing. The rationale for the presumed consent default is that numerous surveys show wide public support and a willingness to be entered on the register of organ donors but that that support is not reflected in the number who actually make the effort to place themselves on it. Why this is the case is varied, with the failure to follow through on stated preferences ranging from irrationality and insecurity – that doctors will not work as hard to save a patient, or an aversion to thinking about ones own death – to simple inertia – people are not motivated enough to enact their preferences by seeking out a means of entering their name on the donor register

But messing with the body, or more precisely the corpse, is a provocative act that turns the body into a site of contestation between state and citizen. In particular some argue that subtle changes in the default position like this reflects the over-reaching of the state and people’s loss of control over their own bodies following death. Indeed in the absence of actual consent the autonomy of the individual, the patient, is undermined. As such changing the default for organ donation raises fundamental questions about legitimate state action and personal freedom.

One of these was pointedly raised by the Archbishop of Wales in his Presidential Address to the Governing Body of the Church in Wales last month when he argued:

Archbishop Barry Morgan

There is, in presumed consent, a subtle or perhaps not so subtle change of emphasis in the relationship between the individual and the State.  That is, that unless we have opted out, our organs belong to the State and the State has the right to do with them as it wills.”

His comments, which echo those of a number of other faith leaders, came following the announcement by Health Minister Lesley Griffiths last month that Wales would introduce what they call a “soft opt-out” system (a White Paper outlining the proposals is imminent). This presumes consent unless the deceased has stated a contrary view or the family object.

This stands in contrast to the Coalition Government policy which has opted for Richard Thaler’s archetypal nudge of using ‘prompted choice’ to encourage organ donation. When you register online for a new drivers licence, you are required to complete a question about organ donation. The freedom of choice remains absolute (you can answer : yes, no or “not yet”) except in so far as the citizen is required to express a choice about organ donation in order to continue with their online driving licence application

In other parts of the world experiments with incentivisation schemes are being tested. For example, Israel and Singapore are experimenting with a ‘priority allocation’ system where those already on the organ donors register are given priority on the waiting list should they need a transplant. In similar vein the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has recently suggested the state might pay the funeral expenses of the deceased who donate their organs (and rejected changing the default to an opt-out scheme).  Spain, which has the highest rate of organ donation in the world (nearly 3 times that of the UK), also has a soft opt-out system. But a key factor in its effectiveness seems to be an emphasis on “procurement” with specially trained hospital staff who will always approach relatives of the deceased to ask about donation.

The body-politic is a complex beast. Changing the default is not necessarily a panacea in itself, indeed it is far to simplistic to look at a nudge policy (like opt-in/out) in isolation and anticipate or attribute a population wide outcome to its implementation.

And this debate about the use of behavioural insights to influence what we do with our decaying empty vessels also reveals something about the governmental rationality of this ‘nudging’ by the state. It has consequences that extend beyond the seemingly party politically neutral target of the intervention. In this case the choice of ‘nudge’ may shift in un-noticed but fundamental ways the relationship between the state and citizen.

For the body-politic the covenanting of rights after death to the ‘head’ of that body – the government – may prove an exercise in biopower, of making live and letting die that provokes some serious soul searching by both state and citizen.

Whilst personally on balance I find pragmatically I agree with an opt-out system for Wales I can’t help but be a little wary of what it means for the body politic. Does an opt-out system extend the reach of the state too far into our private lives and deaths? Does it force on us the relinquishing of further rights to the state? Does it, in Foucault’s terms, reconstitute the citizens body as a subject of the state?

Marc

To Nudge, Shove or Prod – when is a bag tax not a bag tax?

From this Saturday (1st October) all retailers in Wales will be required to charge 5 pence for every single use carrier bag it hands out [Note: the levy in Wales is not restricted to plastic bags]. Any business caught handing out bags without charging the levy face a £5,000 fine.

This will make Wales the first country in the UK to introduce such a charge. The Northern Ireland Executive is consulting on similar proposals now. Scotland and England may head in the same direction.  At a UK level plastic bag use fell quite substantially between 2006 and 2009 following a concerted effort by the Labour government, business and environmental campaigners to drive down the 11bn bags we used in 2006 to just under 6.5 bn in 2009. However that trend bottomed out and bag use rose again last year. As a result the Coalition Government is “looking carefully” at what happens in Wales with the introduction of a mandatory charge.

Although pejoratively referred to as the “Welsh bag tax” no money from the charge goes directly to the Welsh Government (VAT is collected for HM Treasury). Rather than a means of direct revenue generation instead the charge has been introduced with an explicitly behaviour change objective – to reduce the number of single use bags given out in Wales, (in 2009-10 this was estimated at 350 million bags from supermarkets alone). The Welsh Government anticipates the charge will see a 90% reduction in the number of bags distributed in Wales.

Not everyone, least of all the Carrier Bag Consortium or the pressure group the Tax Payers Alliance, is happy about this new “stealth tax”. Bag tax is also criticised as rather marginal in environmental terms. They form a relatively small component of the waste stream yet have been easy for politicians, environmentalists and even big business to characterise as a major menace that everyone can tackle providing a superficial quick win and self-congratulatory slaps on the backs all round.

Easy solutions - Not always are the best ones

By pushing onto the public yet another ‘easy step’ on the path to sustainability and encouraging the consumption of ‘eco-bling‘ (as George Monbiot describes it), the fetishisation of the plastic bag menace is charged with doing little to change underlying mindsets of consumption and disposability or more damaging behaviours. But one outcome will be an additional pot of cash for environmental projects in Wales.

Revenue raised is supposed to then go to “good causes”, causes of the retailers own choosing (estimated at £3 million in the first year). The extent to which this will happen is unclear as in another ‘nudge’ the Welsh Government will not prescribe where retailers spend the additional money. It has an expectation that the proceeds of the tax will “be passed on to charities or good causes in Wales, and in particular to environmental projects”. A little wooly and light touch perhaps but this carrot is backed up with the usual governmental stick of the promise of further regulations to determine where the money is spent if Welsh business does not play ball.

Of course none of this is particularly new. Many companies such as Marks & Spencer and Ikea voluntarily introduced charges on such bags a few years ago. Other countries have either imposed an outright ban or introduced a levy upon plastic bags (e.g. China, Italy, Rwanda, South Africa, Mexico City, Washington DC, Hong Kong, Ireland).

Citizens Pledge

The citizens pledge - Uttarakhand is a state in northern India

And a number of British towns and cities have tried to emulate the success of Modbury in Devon (Britain’s first “plastic bag free town”) launching voluntarist campaigns trying to persuade local retailers and consumers to switch from plastic carrier bags. With support from all 33 borough councils in London Borishas unsuccessfully spent two years promoting the idea of making “London a plastic bag free city” in time for the Olympic Games.

(2008 Survey)

 

You would think this issue would have been dealt with years ago, given explicit cross party political and public support (although nudgers would note the discrepancy between what people say and do, but see the Daily Mail/ICM Poll, 2008). Yet the lack the legal powers to impose and enforce a ban/levy coupled with the inertia and entropy inherent in much grassroots campaigning has seen many local campaigns flounder. So Wales has become the first place in the UK where the bag menace can be tackled through a combination of the nudge and the shove to try and achieve a shift in the behaviour of a population. Quite where the nudge comes in is perhaps less clear than might appear.

If this is indeed a nudge then it is really more about the state mandating the placement of a question and a consequent choice in front of the consumer where previously one did not exist. So the introduction of a charge, however small, for something that was previously a ‘free gift with any purchase’ (the cost was already factored in to retailers overheads) reframes the relative value of the bag.

A softer nudge would be training the cashier to ask you an innocuous sounding question like “Good morning, do you have your bags with you?” Underpinned by a legislative shove the Welsh Government nudge seems more of a prod that aims to inculcate a new social norm (bag for life, avoid the strife). No one has to pay the charge, they could make do without a bag or bring their own. In other words they could change their behaviour and from the Irish example it seems likely the majority will do so.

Arrggh! It's the Slovenian plastic bag monster!

Ireland married its bag tax with a large scale education programme and receipts went directly into an Environmental Fund so the link between tax and spend was clear. It is a shame Wales has been unable to do likewise. Unfortunately the awareness raising campaign in Wales has been limited so far, one consequence of which may be to compound resistance and irritation over the Welsh levy which may diminish its effectiveness. Setting the charge at the relatively low level of 5 pence may counter this, though conversely it may also make it easier for the consumer citizen to carry on as before (Ireland is increasing its charge to 22 cents as bag usage has recently begun creeping up again).

But it is an interesting experiment all the same. Watch this space to see whether this combination of nudge and shove does indeed produce a profound change in environmental behaviour of the Welsh population the government hopes for, or whether further prodding may be required …

Marc

Bashing the bookies, nudging the high street

An inanimate object belonging to the Ladbrokes in Lavender Hill has apparently  become “a symbol of defiance” against last month’s English urban riots. The Ladbrokes riot proof plasma tv screen valiantly, but inanimately, stood up to the sustained onslaught of a number of looters trying to prise it from the wall, an incident captured by Sky News.

According to the Ladbrokes press release (11th August) :  “a group called ‘Ladbrokes don’t f*** about when it comes to TV brackets’, which swiftly gained over 45,000 followers, was created after footage was shown of looters being unable to detach the television screen from the wall of the company’s Lavendar Hill shop, despite up to three people using their whole body strength by hanging off it.

 The footage, and the TV itself, quickly became iconic as a symbol of defiance against the criminals, […] a poll […] of several thousand votes, more than half have suggested auctioning the television for charity. Other suggestions included installing a blue plaque, nominating it as an official 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer, and putting it forward to replace Boris Johnson as the next Mayor of London.

Ladbrokes in Hackney

Amongst all the footage of destruction and violence it was noticeable that the brand names of many high street bookmakers were to be seen bobbing around in the background imagery of that week. Bookmakers (in stark distinction from bookshops) were seemingly targets in the riots. According to one report by the 3rd day of rioting and looting over 50 betting shops in London were attacked with Ladbrokes alone confirming that over 20 of their shops had been subject to violence. In report after report from different locations where the violence flared up bookmakers are identified as amongst the victims of the rioting. Whether bookies were attacked in some act of revenge by disgruntled punters or by opportunists who expected to steal cash from safes and gaming machines or simply smashing them up because they, at that time in that place, felt they could is moot. But given the clustering of bookmakers in deprived areas (which even the Association of British Bookmakers recognises has occurred in “some limited inner city locations”) the numbers looted and smashed up is perhaps explained as much by their visibility in the community and their location along main thoroughfares as by business occupation.

Burnt out and trashed William Hill, Tottenham - picture by Alan Stanton, Flickr

It is this visibility, this presence, as part of a redesign of their urban landscape that concerns of some residents of Tottenham. As Mark rightly highlights the production of ‘debtogenic landscapes’ is not confined to less wealthy neighbourhoods. In an era where technology increases the reach of not only ambient gambling opportunities but also an ambient consumption culture and access to lines of credit we are all subject to temptation and at risk of spending beyond our means in favour of short term gratification. Mark draws our attention to the “risk of (admittedly unwittingly) constructing a kind of irrational underclass, who are somehow unable to resist the temptation to gamble” though I argue that recognising that risk it remains important we interrogate the ways poverty and marginality play into the capital accumulation strategies of the wealthy.

High street shopping in the UK has declined as a result of the economic downturn, growth of internet shopping, the downsizing of national retail and banking chains and the diversification of supermarket trading into non-food sectors. Surveys by the Local Data Company and Ordnance Survey this year demonstrate increasing numbers of premises becoming vacant with building societies, pubs, estate agents and recruitment agencies all seeing dramatic falls in numbers since 2007 [NB: the data was disputed by building societies and bookies, nevertheless that high street vacancies are increasing is a finding in numerous surveys]. With the filling in of some of these sites, particularly in less wealthy districts by bookmakers, discount shops, charity shops and pawnbrokers the architecture and landscape of the high street has been changing and changing fast.

Like Mark I recently took a stroll down Tottenham High Road, this was before the riots. It was striking how obvious the clustering of betting shops there really is (there are 38 in the area). Popping in to a couple of bookies in Tottenham their function as leisure sites, as places for entertainment, social interaction and banter was obvious, as was their function as siphons of money from individuals, families and communities. However, Tottenham or Haringey Borough is illustrative rather than exceptional. Where Tottenham High Road has fifteen betting shops on it, Deptford has ten on or close to the High Street, Luton High Street has eight etc. And activists point to the lack of similar expansion into wealthier neighbourhoods. For example according to the Ladder Community Safety Partnership (representing neighbourhood watches and residents associations in Harringay) there is a clear targeting of betting shops “in the poorer areas of the borough and those with a known demographic which is more likely to gamble”. As a result the sixty six betting shops in the borough are clustered in much higher numbers (85%) in the poorer wards than in the wealthier ones (like Muswell Hill and Highgate). Similarly Hackney has 64 betting shops where again “a mapping of the location of these shops reveals that they cluster in the poorer areas of the borough”.

But the truths about bookies in the high street are contested. That they are a prominent element of contemporary urban architecture is not, but the extent to which this represents an exploitative expansion of gambling outlets or a relocation of business to markets where “demand is high” is. From the gambling industry side the case is far from clear:

  • overall numbers of bookies remains fairly static at about just under 9,000 with a number of (mainly independent) bookmakers going out of business,
  • the industry is in the midst of a period of reorganisation and takeovers and consolidation,
  • punters in the main make small manageable bets with only a few running into problems,
  • and the shift in revenue generation from over the counter betting to gaming machines (with over 30,000 ‘B2’ category machines – where you can bet upto £100 a game – they now account for over 50% of revenue) has changed both the costs and customer base for betting shops making competition for available gaming machine ‘punters’ fierce – hence the clustering (as Adi Smith describes in his reply to Mark below).

On the other side there are many community and political activists worried about:

  • the normalisation and penetration of gambling behaviours within their communities,
  • the proliferation of betting shops into communities that contain concentrations of vulnerable people and the gambling related harm that results,
  • and the wider context of a hollowing out and redesigning of welcoming vibrant community spaces – the local high street.

Now the location of things is a key component of the nudge mantra (fruit in school canteens for example). As Thaler and Sunstein note “the arrangement of settings is important to the choices consumers make. Behavior can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context. And the influence can be exercised for better or for worse” (LA Times, April 2nd 2008).

Until the 2005 Act all gambling in this country operated under the notion of “unstimulated demand” (i.e gambling was legal in particular places and could be offered as something people could do, but gambling companies could do nothing to encourage people to gamble, like advertise or allow the public to look in through their windows). One of the consequences of this was that betting shops had to demonstrate a local demand for their services. With the passing of the 2005 Act the ‘demand test’ was removed from legal consideration in the licensing of betting shops. This, coupled with the quirks of planning legislation – the so called Town and Country Planning (Use Classes Order) (1987) which allows change of use between betting shops, banks, estate and employment agencies, and financial service companies without requirement for planning permission – in effect has made it difficult for local authorities or local communities to refuse or influence the relocation of betting shops on the high street.

So under the current planning and licensing system the betting companies find themselves in the position of one of many choice architects in the design of the ‘debtogenic’ urban landscape, notably in economically disadvantaged areas. However, this may change.

Firstly, the DCMS Select Committee launched an inquiry into the implementation and operation of the Gambling Act 2005 back in May. Written representations by community groups have emphasised the clustering and demand test issues. And Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford introduced a Private Members Bill in July to make betting shops subject to planning permission, reintroduce the “demand test” as well as allow local planning authorities to put a cap on the numbers allowed in an area.

The location of betting shops has become a highly politicised issue, one which pits Labour against Liberal and Conservative ideologies.

Conservative and Liberal MP’s generally didn’t support David Lammy’s earlier attempt to introduce a similar piece of legislation into the Localism Bill and there is little to suggest they will in January when Ruddock’s Bill gets a second reading.

But, if I might be forgiven for oversimplification, it seems that in the gambling debate larger ideological divisions in the way behaviour should be regulated or nudged are revealed. For example economic liberal and libertarian politicians seem to locate pathological problems that manifest in individuals (in this case associated with gambling) as lying with the individual, not their social context. Hence intervention should be limited and targeted at the body not the social body, which sits well with an emphasis on behavioural economic logics. Left of centre or progressive politicians seem to see such problems as being one in which context contributes to individual pathology which in turn produces a social harm necessitating the intervention of the state to both minimise social harm and change the context. The subtleties of ‘behaviour change’ techniques sit less comfortably with big thinking and a presumption of bigger government. Quite how behaviour change or nudge discourses are enrolled into the way the gambling issue is going to be debated in coming months will prove interesting.

Marc, Sept 2011