Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Guest blog #17: Laura Smith on durable change and rethinking incentives

"I should preface this post by saying that what you are about to read is 100% my interpretation on the writing and teaching of my adviser in the School of Natural Resources, Raymond De Young. He teaches a course on the Psychology of Environmental Stewardship, and has written articles with such titles as “Changing Behavior and Making it Stick.” So, in writing this post, I find myself in what I refer to as another “channeling Ray” moment.

When we talk of scaling up environmental behavior change, the question of incentives inevitably arises.  It is a commonly held belief that monetary incentive, in particular, is the only way to insight individual change on a massive scale. There is no doubt that financial payoff for do-gooding has magical powers. However, as a behavior change strategy, it has its pitfalls, not least of which is durability. But I will get to that in a moment.

Perhaps the first question regarding financial incentives or disincentives is this: who pays? Incentives for going green are often temporal in nature, and the kitty eventually runs out. Recent politics around budgetary issues suggest that these pots of money could be even more rare in the coming years.  Disincentives, on the other hand, force the consumer to pay up, which is perhaps a dicey proposition in "economic hard times."  From a purely economic standpoint, there are good reasons to rethink monetary incentives to drive environmental behavior change.

There is another compelling reason – behaviors driven by reward have a notorious “back to baseline” effect when the incentive is removed. In other words, materially incentivized behavior typically goes back to previous unsustainable levels when the rewards go away. Research has shown this effect time and again with a multitude of environmental and health-related behaviors. So, unless someone is willing to pay the price indefinitely, we can hardly expect durable change.

Disincentives are a slightly different story, since these can be put in place for lengthy periods of time, perhaps yielding the desired trend over time (think gas tax). Like incentives, this is a technique of coercion, and because of that, it poses some interesting challenges. Psychological reactance is a common one, and describes the behaviors of people who go out of their way to mess with the system.  

The driving law in Sao Paulo, Brazil illustrates well some of some issues with disincentives. To reduce its daunting pollution and traffic problems, the South American mega-city put a law into effect that allows license plates with odd numbers to drive on certain days of the week, and even numbers the other days. Unfortunately, the city did not simultaneously provide reasonable alternative transportation choices. As a result, many people ended up changing the times they drove to skirt hours of enforcement, and in some extreme cases, bought a second car so that they could legally drive every day. Neither behavior was an intended consequence of the law that was supposed to curb unnecessary driving and encourage carpooling.
So, the behavior change goal can’t conflict with needs basic to one’s livelihood. But say we are dealing with behaviors more benign.  How do we encourage durable change?

Change from within
One alternative to techniques of coercion (change from the outside) is helping people to construct their own internal motivations for the behavior in question (change on the inside). This can be spurred through our relationships with inspiring people, time in nature, time spent learning about environmental issues, and the list goes on. Personal change is ideally bolstered with a supportive social network. So, in some ways, the strategy implies an incentive program that is individually tailored, and maintained, by each person…in their own heads…and supported by a loving community. 

Durable change, in this light, may take effort to get people started, but becomes self-maintaining over time. 

Now, if you need to change behaviors of a lot of people and fast, and you don’t necessarily need the behavior to stick, get out your wallet! There is no doubt that incentives and disincentives have a valid role to play in environmental behavior change. But isn’t it nice to know that they’re not the only way?"
~Laura "Smitty" Smith

This post on durable change dovetails wonderfully with some of the thoughts from a recent post. I have written about durable change a few times (here, here, here), too. Laura raises some very interesting points, some of which I have been trying to articulate over the past year. The notions of "incentive" and "disincentive" in our world almost always seems to boil down to a monetary issue, and money viewed under the economic structures of today has different powers than maybe another framework you might conjure up. I personally believe that when it comes down to it, the talk about things being "economical" and "efficient" must be moved away from, particularly when viewed under our current framework, and especially because of the nature of the compromises that this framework results in. 

1 comment:

  1. Laura, I agree completely with the premise.

    But, as an environmental policy guy pretty familiar with the movements history, I would argue that the history of the environmental movement is one focused too keenly on internal incentives, education, outreach and non-monetary legislative mandate (law).

    I don't feel like America (all nations for that matter) has even begun to scratch the surface of utilizing external economic incentives yet. Most of our biggest environmental problems are happening because precious resources are priced artificially cheap and do not recognize true costs: fossil fuels, land, water, etc.

    For example, If we were to price oil and coal properly, and then dis-incentivise them on top of that with an additional tax, I truly believe we would stop over consuming oil and coal almost immediately.