The unofficial psychology blog from Paul Hutchings

A Nudge/Shove Towards Being Environmentally Friendly

I’m usually quite negative about the things that governments do, so I feel that it is only fair to also applaud them when they get something right. Whilst official statistics won’t be out for a while, data from shops apears to show that there has been a massive drop in the supply of plastic carrier bags to customers in Welsh supermarkets (see the story in South Wales Evening Post).

Whilst use had been falling over the last few years as people became more environmentally aware, the decision by the Welsh Assembly to introduce a 5p charge for carrier bags last October has played a major role in getting people to cut the number of bags that they use – anyone who has shopped in Wales over the last few months will be well used to seeing the tremendous packing ability that has been developed by Welsh shoppers as they manage to squeeze every last ounce of space out of their bags rather than purchase another one, and juggling skills have improved enormously across the country as people would rather carry their goods than fork out any money for a piece of plastic.

But why? After all, it’s only 5p – in the grand scheme of things, when you have just spent £100 on a weekly grocery shop, what is 10 – 15p really going to matter to purchase some bags? This is where Nudge Theory comes in – Thaler and Sunstein’s argument that the state can ‘nudge’ people into behaving in a sensible way, rather than utilising the classical political theories of leaving them to their own devices or controlling the populace by dictat (it is worth arguing about whether the plastic bag levy constitutes a nudge or a shove, and the Soft Paternalism blog provides some good debate regarding this).

In the long-term, this all fits with both Festinger (and Carlsmith)’s theory of cognitive dissonance and Aarts et al.’s  theory of habit from past actions. I have experienced both on a trip across the bridge to visit relatives in England (where there is no carrier bag levy). Out shopping with my family, I continued my usual habit of maximising use of a carrier bag to its full capacity, whilst my English family happily accepted every bag offered to them, sometimes having only one or two items in them from each shop. On being asked if I wanted something put in a bag I responded automatically ‘no’. When deciding whether I needed another bag I could feel the decision actually having to be made, something I don’t think had ever happened to me before last year. On returning home with roughly the same amount of shopping, I had one-sixth of the carrier bags used by my English counterparts.

Overall then, it appears to have worked – a price that appears to be reasonable but also makes people think about the consequences of having to purchase; a change in attitude which also appears to have an effect even when the price is not levied; of course, the pot at the end of the rainbow would be for it to have a knock-on effect to other environmentally-friendly behaviours, but this still needs to be measured (and may need a different type of nudge or shove). So, for the first time in a long time – well done to the Welsh Assembly for actually following through on a fairly psychologically sound piece of legislation!


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Categorised in: General Musings, Psychology

4 Responses »

  1. Small changes can bring large effects. Something very similar, the Danish “Fat Tax” have not yet managed to bring any change at all, probably because the added tax is not a salient component of the total price but just a part of the bundled price.

    For those interested in more, I have written a little bit on the subject of incentives and nudge theory here:

    • Good piece on your site Andreas – will write more there but I think you are right, salience is an important component – people need to be able to see that there is a choice (you can bring your own carrier bag to the supermarket, not sure how you manage it with a Danish pastry!).

  2. I realise that I run the risk of being branded the tightest shopper in Wales. But am I the only one who has noticed that since normal plastic carrier bags became 5p chargeable that their quality has been reduced? I think I end up using more of them due to breakage related paranoia.

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