Using behavioural insights to ecourage pro-environmental behaviour

Laura Green writes about how we can apply insights from behavioural science to encourage behaviours that are good for the environment.

Behavioural insights is the use of research from behavioural science and psychology to inform the design of interventions to influence people’s behaviour. How can an understanding of behavioural science help us to encourage people to make better choices to protect the environment? This blog post focuses on two examples of where behavioural science could be applied to encourage pro-environmental behaviour: energy consumption and sustainable food choices.

An aerial view of a neighbourhood

Encouraging people to reduce their energy consumption

Providing people with comparisons between their energy consumption and that of others can encourage people to reduce their energy consumption, harnessing people’s desire to conform to social norms. A field experiment in the US [1] found that sending households information about how their consumption compared to the average for their neighbourhood reduced energy consumption in households with above average energy consumption. But, crucially, in households who were already below the average, energy consumption increased, showing what is known as the ‘boomerang effect’. People’s desire to conform to the social norm could actually increase their energy usage.

However, when the message was combined with an emoticon (a smiley face for those below average and a sad face for those above average) the boomerang effect disappeared. For low-consumption households, receiving a smiley face signalled that other people approved of their low energy consumption and encouraged them to keep it low.

This example demonstrates that whilst behavioural insights can be useful in encouraging sustainable behaviour, interventions must be carefully designed and evaluated, otherwise they could be producing undesired effects.

A man looking at a buffet of food.

Encouraging people to make more sustainable food choices

A key theory in behavioural science is nudge theory, where interventions are used to encourage people to make better choices whilst maintaining freedom of choice. One of the nudges that Thaler and Sunstein identify in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is changing the default option, as people are biased towards the default option when making a choice.

This has been applied in encouraging people to make more sustainable food choices by choosing vegetarian options instead of meat options. A study in Denmark [2] found that making the vegetarian buffet the default option at conferences (meaning people had to specifically request the non-vegetarian option) increased uptake of the vegetarian option to 87%, compared to just 6% when the non-vegetarian buffet was the default. This demonstrates how simple changes in the way a choice is set out can influence people’s behaviour. However, nudging to encourage more sustainable food choices in all aspects of life poses a bigger challenge, as there may not be a default option in many food choice situations. It may be possible to use this approach in some other situations where there is a limited range of food options available, such as school lunches.

Want to learn more about applying behavioural insights?

  • Apolitical is currently running an online boot camp for public servants on behavioural insights.

  • The Behavioural Insights Team website has loads of great resources from their work on applying behavioural insights to public policy. An interesting read is their 2019 report Behaviour Change for Nature, produced with the conservation charity Rare.


[1] Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science, 18(5), 429-434.

[2] Pelle G Hansen, Mathilde Schilling, Mia S Malthesen, Nudging healthy and sustainable food choices: three randomized controlled field experiments using a vegetarian lunch-default as a normative signal, Journal of Public Health, fdz154.

Photo credits: Tom Rumble on Unsplash and Ye Chen on Unsplash.