Behavior Change at Scale Lydia Howland, Michael Phillips Moskowitz

Converting public policy into personal action

Today’s global challenges (climate change, economic doldrums, food safety, et al) constitute a none-too trivial threat to modern life. Yet, we’ve faced equally daunting challenges in the past, and have always marshalled the ingenuity and dedication to overcome these tests.

So what’s different today? Perhaps it’s the breadth and complexity of what we’re facing. For the first time, policymakers are forced to confront what might otherwise be considered “individual choices.” In the aggregate, these personal choices become a very public cluster of problems.

It’s time for individuals to play a role as agents of change — to understand the very “public” consequences of their private actions. Policymakers can help make this happen by crafting and broadcasting messages that reach the masses, yet still connect with deeply personal motivations.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

The ‘I’ in Environment

Kalpana, originally from Chennai, India, was inured to seeing trash in the streets — it was a fixture of life. She struggled to believe recycling could make a difference.

When Kalpana moved to London in 2005 she discovered that her indifference was out of sync with her neighbors. Even her kids — inspired by what they learned in school — lectured her about recycling. When Kalpana read about government proposals to charge households for nonrecyclable waste by weight, her resolve strengthened — money was involved. This combination of forces helped Kalpana change her beliefs and behavior.

Now, 90% of households in the UK regularly recycle at least two materials, and recycling and composting rates have been steadily increasing from 2000/01 through 2007/08:

Household Waste Recycled9%26%
Municipal Waste Recycled8%22%
Municipal Waste Landfilled72%53%


How might public policy use social pressure, visual triggers, and economic incentives together?

Public welfare via personal wellness

Julia was a long-time smoker from Cardiff, Wales — and a proud one at that. Then, her father was admitted to a renal ward for treatment of kidney failure. Many of the other patients were receiving care for conditions tied to alcoholism. Julia sympathized, but couldn’t help feeling frustrated:  why were they eligible for the same treatment as her dad? Hadn’t they brought these problems on themselves? This led her to realize that one day, it might be her there, siphoning care from more deserving patients.

When the U.K. outlawed smoking in restaurants and pubs, Julia got the final nudge to quit. She signed up for both an employer-funded financial support program that helps people stop smoking, as well as an NHS smoking-cessation program. She attended a Stop Smoking Group, and took advantage of services from the NHS: online literature, 24-hour counsellors, even a smoking-cessation savings calculator. Julia began to save her cigarette money for a holiday with her father. They eventually vacationed in Spain.

How can policies and services connect to help individuals grasp the larger consequences of their actions? How can organizations work together to provide a system of personal support?

Policy gets personal

A fourth-generation native of San Francisco’s troubled Bayview District, Utuma witnessed her family and community endure decades of social, economic, and environmental hardship. In 2005, Utima was shot in gang crossfire and spent months convalescing and exhausting her small savings.

Utuma dreamed of opening a consulting business, but didn’t think she could raise the necessary capital. Enter EARN, a domestic-equity microfinancier dedicated to breaking the cycle of poverty. The nonprofit requires participant commitment through an investment of both time and money.

Utuma resolved to change her future — and that of her family and community by extension. She enrolled in EARN’s program and leveraged her experience in construction and sustainable building to found Sustainable Futures, a consultancy that develops environmentally sustainable projects and creates opportunities for underserved communities.

How might programs help people aim for lofty goals and give them support for new behaviors?

Winning hearts, minds

US-run detention facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan incarcerate large numbers “suspected militants,” many of them innocent. Trial-less and interminable detention fosters resentment, and long-term internment can increase the likelihood of radicalization. Recognizing these risks, Major General Doug Stone launched a program, first in Iraq, to train, rehabilitate, and progressively release low-risk prisoners. Education and training are program cornerstones, offering hope for post-release employment and for ideally keeping former prisoners out of combat operations. Winning Hearts and Minds (WHAM) is central to the coalition’s larger strategy in Afghanistan, but personal (entrepreneurial) initiatives — executed with an intimate knowledge of local customs, values, and existing social pressures — are the keys to success.

Cleaning up — the local way

“Don’t Mess With Texas” is a 20-year campaign that harnesses Texan pride to lessen littering along the state’s highways. There’s a coalition among the Texas Department of Transport, Adopt-a-Highway, and Keep Texas Beautiful, and its single-minded goal is to reduce litter. The effort seems to be working: roadside litter has dropped by a third since 2001, and the campaign has received praise for leveraging local values and attitudes to avert a “tragedy of the commons.” 

Other resources

The Tragedy of the Commons, by Garrett Hardin, was first published in 1968 and describes the dilemma in which multiple individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource.

The Politics of Public Behaviour, edited by Duncan O’Leary, is a collection of essays by British politicians that asks where do personal freedoms stop and mutual obligations begin?

Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, introduces the concept of “choice architecture,” which means designing “choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society.”



January 25, 2010

The most inspirational behavior change stories I have heard is from the TED talk by Kiren Bir Sethi

In the past 2 years the Destination Imagination has added a category of projectOUTREACH. The challenge requires the team to identify community need and use creative problem solving tools to select at least one need.

Empowering younger kids to be able to open their minds to community needs or issues will allow us to see a behavior change in not only our future generations but all the people they would be able to influence during their life time.

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February 12, 2010

I completely agree, Kiran’s TEDtalk was so inspiring and really brings to light the design opportunities in the educational system creating a more engaging and encouraging environment to learn how to have confidence in doing something meaningful and beneficial to the quality of life for all.

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September 17, 2010

Great insight on the younger generation. You hit the nail on the head and I think more posts like this could open up the eyes of the older non believers.

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September 19, 2010

What a well written article and you have a very valid point when you said that even earlier we did have pressing challenges which have been tackled with dedication and commitment keeping in mind the larger interest of the people where as now that is not the case! Decisions are made for personal gains where it has far reaching repercussions of the people at large!! What can we do to bring home this fact to our leaders?

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October 19, 2010

Being responsible is what people should be all the time. We don’t need a law just to obey what’s needed to be obeyed.

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