Dr Simon McCabe, Lecturer, Management, Work and Organisation, Stirling Management School
Leading up to COP26, the Behavioural Science Centre (based within Stirling Management School) hosted a one-day workshop featuring four experts delivering talks on their recent research pertinent to environmental behaviour change. Here, Dr Simon McCabe reflects on the contribution of panellists to this timely discussion.
Behavioural science draws on insights from economics and psychology to study how humans behave – often focusing on comprehending people’s psychological biases and blind spots, and then leveraging this understanding to consider how we might model or change human behaviour. Our presenters offered talks that provided a behavioural science lens on topics that ranged from how current weather conditions might bias the interpretation of energy efficiency ratings when purchasing a house, to how we might use various audit strategies to encourage companies to report more accurate waste emission statistics. The workshop featured an international audience comprised of current and former students, policy makers, environmental institute and charity members (e.g., Zero Waste Scotland), as well as other academics & researchers.
One of the core ‘take home’ messages of the day was conveyed by University of Stirling Ph.D student, Jayne Brown. Her presentation delivered a compelling series of findings gleaned from research she conducted as part of her master’s dissertation. One aspect of the work examined how presenting people with statistics about fuel taxes from across Europe might help boost support from increased petrol taxes here in the UK. The rationale was that by highlighting that our European neighbours pay substantially more fuel tax than UK citizens, we may be more receptive to paying more as we see that is the norm elsewhere, and that we are not following suite. Unfortunately, this study did not yield the anticipated desired results – participants were not more likely to support paying more for fuel tax when presented with stats from across the EU. This study and associated findings highlight how difficult it can be to try to steer human behaviour towards a greener orientation and the hurdles we face when trying to motive environmentally friendly behaviours.
Given almost everything we buy and / or consume has a cost to the environment, it is imperative we understand how humans behave when faced with environmental decisions and that we have a gauge for what interventions are most suitable and efficient at promoting pro-environmental actions. However, focusing on consumers and individual actors is only one approach we can take to try and avert environmental degradation – companies and manufacturers also have a role to play, and behavioural science can help here also.
Dr Tim Cason (Professor of Economics – Purdue University) delivered a compelling talk covering over a decade’s worth of research probing how we might get companies to comply with environmental regulations – specifically, concerning how we can nudge companies towards reporting accurate waste statistics. Given many companies produce waste as part of their manufacturing, and they pay a tax on the amount of waste they produce, there is an incentive to underreport waste produce to avoid paying the associated fee. Further, given audits are rare, this incentive to underreport environmentally damaging waste may appear all the more attractive. So, what can be done do to encourage accurate waste reports? Dr Cason suggested several approaches involving revisions to the audit approach. Currently, audits are typically done rarely and at random – they are expensive and take a considerable amount of time to conduct. If a company is found to be inaccurately reporting their waste production, and thus paying a lower fee, companies are issued with a hefty fine. But what if the punishment, or at least the threat of punishment, were greater?
Dr Cason argued, based on experimental data, for a system where companies found to be inaccurately reporting waste output are entered into a higher tier of monitoring, if entered into this higher tier they are more likely to be audited in the future. Dr Cason suggested that the mere presence of this higher punishment category could be enough to motivate companies to bring their reported waste production more in line with the reality of their waste output. Another suggestion was to use additional data to create a forecast of ‘expected waste units’ and compare this against ‘reported waste units’. If a companies anticipated vs reported statistics are too divergent, they are more likely to get audited. These suggestions provide a fascinating insight into how revisions to a system can leverage the threat of punishment to steer companies towards accurately reporting data and paying appropriate fees for waste production. The end goal might be that companies invest in greener production methods to avoid paying the fees, rather than proving miss-reporting of output to avoid paying the environmental tax.
Taken together, the workshop provided an exciting and stimulating take on important cutting edge behavioural science research that might be used to steer individuals and companies towards actions that would benefit the environment.
A link to a recording of the event is available here.