Can behavioural economics be applied to the case of Sweden? The Swedish government is trying this out by changing government policy in a way that may encourage its residents to change their behaviour.
People in many countries in the world live in what is often called a ‘throwaway society’. If something breaks, it’s often easier and cheaper simply to get rid of it and buy a new one. But with changes in government policy, including VAT cuts on repairs to white goods, the objective is to encourage consumers to repair their goods, rather than buying new ones. This is also contributing towards the wider objective of sustainable consumption, which is being promoted by the Swedish government.
Per Bolund, who is one of Sweden’s six Green Ministers, spoke about this policy commenting that:
“Consumers are quite active in changing both what they buy and how they buy in Sweden … We believe that getting lower costs for labour is a big part in making it more rational to repair rather than just to buy cheap and throw away …If we don’t change the economic incentives the change will never come.”
Whether or not this policy works will take some time to see, but it’s certainly an interesting test of how changing incentives affect consumer behaviour. You can read about other examples of nudging in the following blog A nudge in the right direction?.
Waste not want not: Sweden to give tax breaks for repairs The Guardian, Richard Orange (19/9/16)
Can Sweden tackle the throwaway society? BBC News (20/9/16)
Trendy now, trash tomorrow Huffington Post, Kirsten Brodde (29/9/16)
Hong Kong needs a strategy quickly for dealing with waste South China Morning Post (27/9/16)
- If VAT on repairs falls, how will this affect consumer behaviour?
- Do you think there would be an income and a substitution effect from this change in government policy? What would they be?
- How is the Swedish government using incentives to change consumer behaviour?
- If it is cheaper to buy a new white good, then is it rational to buy a new one rather than repair an existing one?
- How effective do you think this policy would be in encouraging consumers to change their behaviour?
- Find some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
Behavioural economists study how people’s buying, selling and other behaviour responds to various incentives and social situations. They don’t accept the simplistic notion that people are always rational maximisers. As the Livemint article below states, “According to behavioural economists, the human brain neither has the time nor the ability to process all the information involved in decision making, as assumed by the rational model.” Instead, rationality is bounded: people use simple rules of thumb in making decisions – rules they have developed over time in the light of experience.
So can people’s behaviour be altered by understanding their limited rationality? Advertisers are only too well aware of a number of psychological ‘tricks’ to change people’s purchasing behaviour. For example, wanting to be approved of by your friends is used by advertisers to sell various fashion products and toiletries. Often, people need only a relatively small ‘nudge’ to change the way they behave.
And it is not just advertisers who are using the insights of behavioural economics. Governments are increasingly trying to find ways of nudging people to behave in ways that are better for themselves or for society.
In 2010, David Cameron set up a ‘Nudge Unit’, formally know as ‘The Behavioural Insights Team‘. It has produced a number of academic papers on topics as diverse as tax compliance, incentives for university attendance, charitable giving in the workplace and using SMS reminders to reduce missed hospital appointments. The academic evidence can then be use as the basis for policy.
Another nudge unit has been set up in Australia (see second article below). The USA, Singapore and various other countries are increasingly using the insights of behavioural economics to devise policy to affect human behaviour.
Two recent pieces of work by the UK team concern ways of discouraging doctors from over-prescribing antibiotics and using encouraging text messages to FE students to reduce dropout rates. Another nudge has been used by the tax authorities (HMRC) who have been sending out texts to remind people to pay their taxes on time and to make them aware that they are being monitored. The message read, “Most people pay on time to avoid penalties”.
The articles below look at these recent initiatives and how human behaviour can be changed in a relatively low-cost way. In most cases this involves a simple nudge.
Nudge-unit trials reveal best ways to prod people Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (29/8/15)
Government ‘nudge unit’ to attempt to change people’s behaviours Sydney Morning Herald, Nick Miller (15/9/16)
New frontiers of human behaviour Livemint, Biju Dominic (15/9/16)
Doctors ‘nudged’ into prescribing far fewer antibiotics New Scientist (15/9/16)
GPs handing out fewer antibiotics after warning of over-prescribing, says study BT (15/9/16)
Study of colleges shows ‘encouraging’ texts dramatically cut dropout rates FE Week, Paul Offord (22/7/15)
The text messages getting teenagers better grades BBC Today Programme, David Halpern and Fiona Morey (15/9/16)
Ping! Pay your tax now or face a penalty. HMRC sends out ‘threatening’ SMS texts to taxpayers The Telegraph, Christopher Hope (15/9/16)
Publications of Behavioural Insights Team
Publications list BIT
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16: overview BIT (15/9/16)
The Behavioural Insights Team’s Update Report: 2015–16 BIT (15/9/16)
- Explain what is meant by bounded rationality.
- Give some examples from your own behaviour of decisions made using rules of thumb.
- Should we abandon models based on the assumption of rational maximising behaviour (e.g. attempts to maximise consumer surplus or to maximise profit)?
- Find out some other examples of how people might be nudged to behave in ways that are in their own interest or that of society.
- How might people be nudged to eat more healthily or to give up smoking?
- To what extent can financial incentives, such as taxes, fines, grants or subsidies be regarded nudging? Explain.
- Why, do you think, the message by an Australian hospital, “if you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not turn up” was successful in reducing missed appointments by 20%, while the message, “if you do not attend, the hospital loses $125” was not as effective?
Economics is about choices. But how can people be persuaded to make healthy choices, or socially responsible or environmentally friendly choices? Behavioural economists have studied how people can be ‘nudged’ into changing their behaviour. One version of nudge theory is ‘fun theory’. This studies how people can be persuaded into doing desirable things by making it fun to do so.
I came across the first video below a couple of days ago. It looks at a highly successful experiment at the Odenplan underground station in Stockholm to persuade people to make the healthy choice of using the stairs rather than the escalator. It made doing so fun. The stairs were turned into a musical keyboard, complete with sound. Each stair plays a piano note corresponding to its piano key each time someone treads on it. As you go up the stairs you play an ascending scale.
After installing the musical staircase, 66% more people than normal chose the stairs over the escalator.
The fun theory initiative is sponsored by Volkswagen. The Fun Theory website is ‘dedicated to the thought that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behaviour for the better. Be it for yourself, for the environment, or for something entirely different, the only thing that matters is that it’s change for the better.’
VW held a competition in 2009 to encourage people to invent fun products designed to change people’s behaviour. There were over 700 entries and you can see them listed on the site. The 13 finalists included the musical staircase, traffic lights with quiz questions on the red, a Connect Four beer crate, fun tram tickets (giving entry to an instant-win lottery), a pinball exercise machine, a speed camera lottery where a winner is chosen from those abiding by the speed limit, a jukebox rubbish bin (which plays when people add rubbish), a one-armed vending machine, a fun doormat, car safety belts linked to a car’s entertainment system, car safety belt with a gaming screen which turns on when buckled, a bottle bank arcade system and the world’s deepest bin (or at least one which sounds as if it is). The winner was the speed camera lottery.
The fun theory site
Fun theory videos
Piano Staircase – Odenplan, Stockholm (on Vimeo)
The Speed Camera Lottery (on VIMP.com, Kevin Richardson)
Garbage Jukebox (on YouTube)
The World’s Deepest Bin (on Vimeo)
Bottle Bank Arcade (on YouTube)
- Does fun theory rely on rational choices?
- Other than through having fun, how else may people be nudged into changing their behaviour?
- Go through some of the entries to the Fun Theory Award and choose three that you particularly like. Explain why.
- Invent your own fun theory product. You might do this by discussing it groups and perhaps having a group competition.
The UK and US governments face a conundrum. To achieve economic recovery, aggregate demand needs to expand. This means that one or more of consumption, government expenditure, exports and investment must rise. But the government is trying to reduce government expenditure in order to reduce the size of the public-sector deficit and debt; exports are being held back by the slow recovery, or even return to recession, in the eurozone and the USA; and investment is being dampened by business pessimism. This leaves consumer expenditure. For recovery, High Street spending needs to rise.
But herein lies the dilemma. For consumer spending to rise, people need to save less and/or borrow more. But UK and US saving rates are already much lower than in many other countries. You can see this by examining Table 23 in OECD Economic Outlook. Also, household debt is much higher in the UK and USA. This has been largely the result of the ready availability of credit through credit cards and other means. The government is keen to encourage people to save more and to reduce their reliance on debt – in other words, to start paying off their credit-card and other debt. That way, the government hopes, the economy will become ‘rebalanced’. But this rebalancing, in the short run at least, will dampen aggregate demand. And that will hardly help recovery!
In the following podcast, Sheldon Garon discusses his new book Beyond Our Means. He describes the decline of saving in the USA and UK and examines why other countries have had much higher saving rates.
‘He also seeks to explain why high interest rates didn’t encourage saving in the boom years and why current levels of relatively high inflation haven’t stopped savings rates shooting up again in Britain.’
Living beyond our means Guardian: the Business Podcast, Sheldon Garon talks to Tom Clark (2/11/11)
- Why have saving rates in the UK and USA been much lower than those in many other countries? How significant has been the availability of credit in determining savings rates?
- Why have saving rates increased in the UK and USA since 2008/9 despite negative real interest rates in many months?
- Explain what is meant by the “paradox of thrift”. What are the implications of this paradox for government policy at the present time?
- Why may it be difficult to have a consumer-led recovery in the UK and US economies?
- What is the life-cycle theory of consumption and saving? How well does it explain saving rates?
- Can people be given a “nudge” to spend more or to save more? If so, what nudges might be appropriate in the current situation?
- Why do countries with a more equal distribution of income have higher saving rates?
- What is the relationship between the saving rate and (a) the rate of inflation and (b) the real rate of interest? Why is this the case?
A two-week international climate change summit opened in Cancún, Mexico, on 29 November. But will the talks make any progress in tackling global warming? Will mechanisms be put in place to ensure that the previously agreed ceiling of 2°C warming is met?
After the largely unsuccessfuly talks in Copenhagen a year ago, hopes are not high. But a likely rise in global temperatures of considerably more than 2°C could have disasterous global consequences. Indeed, new evidence suggests that even a ceiling of 2°C may be too high and that, as temperatures rise towards that level, domino effects will start that may become virtually unstoppable. As Andrew Sims in the Guardian article notes:
This is the problem. Once the planet warms to the point where environmental changes that further add to warming feed off each other, it becomes almost meaningless to specify just how much warmer the planet may get. You’ve toppled the first domino and it becomes virtually impossible to stop the following chain of events. Honestly, nobody really knows exactly where that will end, but they do know it will end very, very badly.
The following podcasts and articles look at the importance of reaching international agreement but the difficulties of doing so.
Podcasts and webcasts
Post-Copenhagen, a Cancun compromise? Reuters (30/11/10)
Climate change ‘Dragons’ Den’: What are the options? BBC News, Roger Harrabin (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change summit seeks new emissions deal BBC News, David Shukman (3/12/10)
Can nudge theory change our habits? BBC News, Claudia Hammond (29/11/10)
Cancún climate change conference 2010 Guardian, (portal)
Q&A: Cancún COP16 climate talks Guardian, Shiona Tregaskis (8/10/10)
72 months and counting … Guardian, Andrew Simms (1/12/10)
Cancún climate talks: In search of the holy grail of climate change policy Guardian, Michael Jacobs (29/11/10)
Cancún and the new economics of climate change Guardian, Kevin Gallagher and Frank Ackerman (30/11/10)
Facing the consequences The Economist (25/11/10)
UN climate talks low on expectation BBC News, Richard Black (29/11/10)
Expect little from Cancun talks The Star (Malaysia), Martin Khor (29/11/10)
Don’t let us down: UN climate change talks in Cancun Independent, Jonathan Owen and Matt Chorley (28/11/10)
Cancun and Climate: Government Won’t Act, But Business Will Time Magazine: The Curious Capitalist, Zachary Karabell (28/11/10)
At Global Climate Change Talks, an Answer Grows Right Outside Huffington Post, Luis Ubiñas (29/11/10)
Cancun climate change talks: ‘last chance’ in the snakepit The Telegraph, Geoffrey Lean (29/11/10)
Climate Change Talks Must Deliver After Record Weather Year Scoop (New Zealand), Oxfam (29/11/10)
World climate talks kick off in Cancun DW-World, Amanda Price and Axel Rowohlt (29/11/10)
On international equity weights and national decision making on climate change Vox, David Anthoff and Richard S J Tol (29/11/10)
Climate treaties all bluster, no bite The Age, Dan Cass (10/12/10)
UNFCCC COP16/CMP6: Mexico 2010 Official site
- What would count as a ‘successful’ outcome of the climate change talks? Why might politicians interpret this differently from economists?
- What can governments do to internalise the externalities of greenhouse gas emissions?
- What insights can game theory provide into the difficulties of reaching binding climate change agreements?
- What are likely to be the most effective mechanisms for getting people to adapt their behaviour?
- Can nudge theory be used to change our habits towards the environment?
- Explain the use of equity weights in judging the effects of climate change. Are they a practical way forward in devising environmental policy?