By Nick Lyth
Society had to behave differently in its use of resources, industry had to behave differently in its supply chain decisions, politicians had to behave differently in their policy choices. Behaviour Change is often used to mean mass market, public behaviours, but there is no reason to exclude the market makers or the governance of our societies from this finger-pointing exercise.
Because all are to blame. Not a single one of these groups did change their behaviours. Not one.
Hence, 30 years later, none of the problems have been solved. We have still got it all to do. We are fools. Unutterable, blithering idiots. We KNEW we were facing a form of terminal ruin, if not for our own generation, then for our children’s generation, if not for them, then for their children. Yet we did nothing about it. Of course, I am being unfair on the small number of people who tried. But I do so advisedly. Because they failed, and there is no use hiding from this fact.
Hence the paradox. Why, when faced with the blindingly obvious truth about our own self-destruction, does the human race always – always – fail to change behaviour? The answer is, in fact, simple. Because it is easier to do nothing until you are forced to. In the end, society will wake up, industry will change, and our politicians will finally take the responsibility they have been pretending to take all along – because they have absolutely no other choice.
Hence we are witnessing the quickest collective behaviour shift globally in history. Because of COVID-19. In spite of Trump and Bolsonaro, we are ALL changing our behaviours. We have absolutely no choice. And so, in one month, we have achieved more, world-wide, than we’ve been talking about for the last 30 years.
But what is the biggest surprise of all of this is, that it is no surprise at all. There is a professional, practised group of people throughout the world who know this, understand the dynamics, and know how to manipulate them. They earn money from manipulating them, and consequently never put their knowledge to good use, but keep taking the money from the fools who brief for “Behaviour Change” and believe it is possible through persuasion.
It isn’t. There is a long, ignominious history of public health information campaigns, that shows how we behave. The Government spent millions over the years on information and advertising messages concerning the awful effects of smoking. They could prove that awareness of these messages was close to universal. Everyone knew how harmful smoking cigarettes was to their health, as a result of these campaigns. During these years, the statistics for smoking cigarettes – population penetration, or usage, and quantities smoked – changed hardly at all. Nothing moved smoking habits, until smoking was banned from almost every indoor space, and the price of a packet of 20 was hugely increased. (It still has not stopped smoking altogether, by the way, there are still millions of smokers.)
In the early 90’s a famous campaign to encourage healthy behaviours to reduce cancer risks was being prepared, one complete and detailed part of which dealt with skin cancer and the dangers of sun-bathing without protection. Whilst this set of messages dealing with melanoma was being prepared by the team of ten, the first warm weekend of the year arrived. On Monday morning, half the team came into the office with sun burn.
Persuading human beings to do anything different from what they have always done is very difficult indeed, if not impossible – even if it is demonstrably in their best interests.
And who are the people who best understand this, and know how it works? Who do you think?
They are the people the Government turns to when they want to mount these big public health campaigns, the people who can really bring dry communications to life. In fact, they are the very people who persuaded everyone to start doing the harmful things in the first place, the people who made cigarette smoking so attractive, who pushed sweet carbonated drinks down everyone’s throat, who seduced us all into gorgeous sun-drenched holidays, and made it seem desirable to be sun-tanned in expensive designer clothes.
The advertising industry.
The advertising industry ran all the health campaigns that failed to dismally, in the certain knowledge that they would fail dismally. They knew behaviour change does not happen like this. They knew, and know, that behaviour change only happens when it is enforced, even though it is in everyone’s self-interest. They told their clients this, but Government had to ignore them, because it reports to politicians, who want to keep doing what they are doing. They didn’t want the tobacco industry to collapse because they wanted to keep the tobacco lobby happy. Against all logic and reason. They have not wanted to destroy the hydro-carbon economy, because the Oil & Gas lobby is among the most politically powerful groups in the world.
But COVID-19 has forced everyone to change, including the politicians. Will they learn the lessons? Will we learn the lessons?
There is one remarkable exception to the above, bleak rule. There IS a way to stimulate behaviour change without coercion. It is time-honoured, and first reached our doors with the invention of Green Shield stamps in the 1960’s, a copy of a promotional tactic developed in the US. Once again, the marketing and admen were responsible for this cleverness.
The device this uses is incentivisation. Instead of threatening people with the consequences they will suffer if they do NOT change their behaviours, you offer them a reward if they DO change their behaviours. This works! A different form of self-interest cuts in, namely greed. The idea that you can get something for nothing.
There is one company working in the UK, and working through the COVID crisis, which is using this time-honoured means of encouraging behaviour change to help make the difference that we all need to stick, as a result. It is called BetterPoints, and its system provides rewards for doing all the things we need people to do, all the things that, were this a rational world in which us humans could be trusted to do what is good for us, we would do without coercion, and without incentives. But we can’t be trusted. So BetterPoints has found a simple positive mechanism to reward us for doing them.
There is hope. The combination of coercion and incentives has a lot of power to change. I urge you to get behind BetterPoints, and win yourself some points for doing the better things that we all need to do now.
And, by the way, during this glorious spell of spring weather, do keep out of the sun as much as you can, and use sun block whenever you go outside.
Nick Lyth is Founder and Director of Green Angel Syndicate, the only angel investment syndicate in the UK specialising in the fight against Climate Change and Global Warming. For regular updates follow Green Angel Syndicate on LinkedIn and Twitter.