What is Behaviour Change and why are we using it?


The UK Government, and DECC in particular, has been leading by example on reducing energy consumption and carbon emissions through material changes and technical efficiency improvements. This has successfully led to a 13.8% reduction in carbon emissions across the whole Government Estate in one year.

With a range of building types and uses, this reduction is a combination of different levels of savings achievable in each building. DECC has been at the forefront of these emissions cuts, achieving a Ibid21.3% reduction in the one year target and over 40% savings since the creation of the Department.

For each of the buildings across Whitehall, and across the UK, there is a point at which the energy savings available from material and technological measures will naturally diminish as the new savings become more difficult, invasive, and correspondingly expensive. DECC recognised early on that new and innovative methods will play a vital role in achieving the next stage of energy savings across the Government Estate, an aggregate of Ibid25% by 2015.

This next level of potential carbon savings needs to address not only what people use, but also the way that they use it. If a building is efficient but the people in it waste energy, only part of the problem has been solved. High performance energy efficiency can drive significant reductions in carbon emissions, and is achievable through Hadi, M. & Halfhide, C. (2009). The move to low-carbon design: Are designers taking the needs of building users into account? A guide for building designers, operators, and users. BRE, Watford.complementing technological and material changes with social actions.

As work continues on large scale, long-term carbon reduction measures such as installing new and efficient technologies in UK homes and workplaces through the Green Deal and other schemes, using energy more efficiently sits alongside these efforts. Changing people’s behaviour is perhaps the greatest untapped opportunity for carbon saving across the UK economy.

The savings available from behaviour changes also have the potential to provide significant financial benefits but they are often seen as difficult, unpredictable and hard to quantify. This leads to relatively labour intensive approaches, and makes it difficult to develop cost-effective deployment. However, if further study and exploration of this field can address the Shui, B. (2012). Greening Workstyles: An analysis of energy behaviour programs in the workplace. ACEEE remaining unanswered questions, a catalyst may be found to start this process of cost-effective deployment, and these savings could be implemented at scale.

Workplaces provide an ideal opportunity to engage people and explore their attitudes and behaviours around energy and carbon in an environment that allows their impacts to be measured and understood.

In their role as leaders on tackling carbon emissions, DECC decided to use their own offices as a testbed to engage staff on these issues, and to explore the deployment of behaviour change tools. The pilot model was designed to allow the processes and outcomes to scale to many other buildings. It was a participatory, interdisciplinary design process which sought to bring out the knowledge of people from both organisations in order to maximise impact.

The agreed challenges for CarbonCulture at DECC were to:

  • Design and test behaviour change strategies at 3-8 Whitehall Place
  • Demonstrate staff engagement, and model carbon saving potential of strategies
  • Test the CarbonCulture platform which could be used to deploy games and utilities as tools to engage people in workplaces across the UK at low cost
  • Test how this approach can strengthen conventional behaviour change and play a part in furthering ‘best practices’

Behaviour change theory explains various influences that impact decision making, and these influences can be used as levers to try to encourage certain outcomes. These levers can be used in various combinations, each with varying levels of intensity. It is important that these are introduced incrementally, to draw people in without scaring them off with too dramatic a change. This theory greatly influenced how we approached this pilot stage.

The levers were introduced at a level that would attract an initial audience to test the delivery mechanisms and usability of the behaviour change tools. Following the pilot stage, we suggest that further levers could be introduced that could increase the user audience and level of interaction of existing users.

DECC’s leadership on piloting this approach provides a test case not just for saving energy in a single building, but also the tools through which this can be done — tools that if successful could impact the behaviour of millions of people.

Therefore while the aim of introducing behaviour change to DECC is ultimately to save carbon, the success metrics for the project focus on user engagement, which is the necessary first step to influence behaviour and deliver carbon savings.

We set an ambitious goal for user engagement at DECC of attracting 10% of building occupiers to voluntarily sign up to the programme, and 4% of the building occupiers to become regular users.

It is important to note that there may be an inherent bias in the results from this particular audience, as a proportion were already well informed of how to save energy and carbon and aware of the importance of doing so. This had advantages and disadvantages for the pilot, which we will explore later in the paper.


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Behaviour Change

Behavioural economics, or behaviour change theory, explores what makes people make decisions. It argues that various influences impact the decision making process, and explores these, seeking to identify ways in which behaviour can be adapted by addressing or changing these influences.

The science behind behaviour change has been the subject of many academic papers, Government publications, and recently, popular science and economics books reaching the bestsellers list.

Looking at social interaction and what makes people make decisions is nothing new. Rather, it is using the understanding gained from this to Southerton, Chappells et al. (eds). (2004) Sustainable consumption: the implications of changing infrastructures of provision. Edward Elgar Publishing. Cheltenham.address contemporary problems that has recently taken off.

Habits are easily seen as something that people just get into the routine of doing. However, the presence of new actions in new locations demonstrates that behaviour is Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press. Cambridge.dynamic and constantly refined around the adjustment of objects and actors in the surroundings.

Behaviour change theory suggests that if you can identify the various influences that impact decisions, you can adjust or rearrange them to affect the choices people make. For example, by making pension membership the easy option when new employees join a company, and giving employees the choice of opting out. This Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. R. & Balz, J. P. (2010) Choice Architecture. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1583509.‘choice architecture’ is just one of an exciting set of behavioural economic approaches that can complement the traditional tools governments use to influence behaviour, such as introducing legislation or adjusting prices.

This report is not seeking to duplicate what is being covered around the science behind behaviour change. Rather, it is taking the theories from this field and testing vehicles that can be used to deliver them. However, it is important that we summarise what is being explored, to put the ideas and terminology used in this report into context.

While some studies have focused on specific elements of behaviour change, the Freedman, J. L. & Fraser, S. C. (1966) Compliance without pressure: the foot in the door technique. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.‘foot in the door’ theory suggests that users who are engaged in small actions are more susceptible to future, larger actions. This suggests that engaging users should be an early focus that will provide access to a variety of behaviour change interventions over time, among increasingly large audiences.

The Cabinet Office and Institute for Government have summarised the influences on decision making through the mnemonic MINDSPACE. These influences are:

Messenger We are heavily influenced by who communicates information
Incentives Our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts such as strongly avoiding losses
Norms We are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults We go with the flow of pre-set options
Salience Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
Priming Our acts are often influenced by subconscious cues
Affect Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
Commitments We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
Ego We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves


The role, or level, that these different influences might play in decisions can be explored by deconstructing actions or behaviours with people that make those decisions. This means breaking them down into the base constituent parts, looking at how they fit together and the relationships between them. These influences and component parts can then be reconstructed in a way that brings about different decisions. This can be done simply by changing how, and by whom, the options are presented.

Thaler, R. H. & Sunstein, C. R. Thaler, R. H. (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Yale University Press. New HavenRichard Thaler and Cass Sunstein give the example of Carolyn the cafeteria manager, who rearranges food options so that fruit is in the ‘impulse basket’ by the cash register, rather than cake, which is relocated to a different shelf. The options are still the same, but the order in which they are presented can bring about different choices — namely people buying more fruit and less cake.

Dolan, P. et al. (2010) MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. Institute for Government. London.The ‘messenger’ is recognised as an important influence on behaviour included in the above mnemonic, however, it is equally important at this early stage of helping in the above mentioned deconstruction of the actions and behaviours by approaching and communicating with users so that they can tell their stories in the most open way encouraging users to tell their stories.

Other influences on the actions and behaviours, whose level of importance become obvious during the deconstruction process, are also useful in processing the deconstruction itself. Finding out what makes certain people do certain things can be useful in helping them to tell their stories. This can become an ongoing iterative process — reinforcing the need to enter this process anticipating that it will be dynamic and adaptive.

The UK Government has been leading the way in applying aspects of behaviour change theory to public policy problems. The work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Unit, Defra’s Centre of Expertise on Influencing Behaviours, and most recently the Energy Efficiency Deployment Office at DECC, are well worth a look for more on this.


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‘Choice architecture’ and wider behavioural economics can help people to think differently, and make different decisions about the things that they already do. But in order to stimulate the adoption of new behaviours, we need to make these behaviours more attractive, and design them so that people will enjoy repeating them.

Games make behaviours enjoyable by arranging activities into structures of rules and stories, providing their users with learning, challenges and rewards. These activities might not be too interesting in themselves (for example, just kicking a ball), but when structured into a game (such as football), can become fascinating to millions of people. Deterding, S., et al. (2011) Gamification: Using Game Design Elements in Non-Gaming Contexts. CHI, Vancouver.Gamification is the process of applying game-design to everyday non-game activities to drive uptake or increase their impact.

One of the most pressing public policy issues facing the world is the need to cut our energy costs and reduce carbon emissions. Behavioural economics and gamification could be powerful instruments for tackling this.

CarbonCulture is an initiative set up to investigate how digital media, gamification and behaviour change theory can make it easier and cheaper to help people and companies save energy and carbon. Our ambition is to investigate and test whether modern design-for-behaviour-change approaches and digital delivery techniques can produce savings at higher speed and lower cost than is currently possible.

This approach, if successful, would help people and businesses to cut their energy bills. The tools used in this approach have huge potential to reach wide audiences at minimal costs. Unlike the linear cost of scale associated with most carbon saving measures, the cost of scale associated with delivering behaviour change through digital tools and online spaces could be near to zero – engaging a million people could cost only marginally more than engaging ten thousand people.

Delivering savings on this kind of scale could play a significant role not only in helping individual users and businesses save money and carbon, but could help to meet the UK’s national carbon reduction targets.


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