Wouldn’t it be nice if there were painless and unobtrusive ways to promote a shift to sustainable behavior? 

Well, there are. In fact, they’re all around us, if you look for them.

You may have heard of the book Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, which describes tricks learned from behavioral economics—the study of how real human beings, rather than the idealized, hyper-rational automata of traditional economic theory, make decisions.  Nudge shows how subtle shifts in how choices are offered can make a big difference to the decisions people wind up making.  For example, signing people up automatically for 401ks, and letting them opt out if they choose, can lead to massive increases in retirement savings—even though a purely “rational” actor.sees no difference between that approach, and letting people voluntarily opt in. 

Once you’re aware of them, you can see examples of effective nudges all over the place.  Take this look at laundry in the New York Times website.  The article compiles suggestions for reducing laundry’s environmental impact—and this nugget stuck out at me, about an experiment with the cards that hotels use to encourage guests to reuse towels.

[W]e conspired with the management of an upscale hotel to place one of four cards in its guestrooms. Three cards employed some version of the typical environmental appeal. A fourth card added (true) information that the majority of guests do reuse their towels when asked.

The outcome? Compared with the first three messages, the final message increased towel reuse by 34 percent. How easily we can be influenced to act by honest information about how those around us are acting.

There:  actual data, showing that when we’re reminded about the way our peers are behaving, we’re more likely to do the same thing ourselves. Obviously, that sort of thing can be used to bad ends (“C’mon, Danny, everyone’s doing it!!”).  But wanting to fit in is a very human instinct, and a powerful motivator.  And the numbers show that it’s not hard to harness that instinct for good ends.

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  • Then there’s this set of mini-demonstrations of a similar principle: the importance of making the sustainable choice the fun choice.  Of course, I hesitate to blog about this, since it’s actually a viral ad campaign.  (I won’t say for whom.)  But it’s an interesting demonstration nonetheless that some simple changes to our environment—turning stairs into piano keys, turning glass recycling into a midway game—can encourage people to walk rather than ride the escalator, and to recycle their bottles rather than toss them away. (Of course, I’ve got to wonder how long the “fun-effect” would last: if every staircase were a piano, would we get sick of the music?)

    In the same vein, this entertaining TED talk, “Life lessons from an ad man” has some similar—if a bit over the top—ideas for making sustainability fun and easy.

    Anybody out there got other examples of sustainability nudges?

    Photo courtesy of Flickr user infrogmation under a Creative Commons license.