Behavioural insights Q&A with environmental engineer Katie Patrick – transcript

Environmental engineer Katie Patrick's keynote presentation at our behavioural insights conference highlighted how gamification design can be integrated with behavioural science to ‘nudge’ people’s behaviour in response to the climate emergency. This is the transcript of our Q&A session with Katie.

The following questions (in bold) were put to Katie Patrick by our moderator Tom Denman. Katie's responses are listed below each question.

There have been a lot of questions from the audience. So I'm happy to go through those now with you and you can just provide us with your response and we'll share that more widely with delegates. So the first question we received was – are there any studies which measure sensitivity to the data being shown? That is, are people more or less likely to participate in, say, recycling if the metric is a positive or negative?

OK, if I'm understanding the question correctly, how I'm going to interpret this is, are you telling people that they're doing, like just giving people a message saying that they're doing a good job and you should do more of doing a good job, or are you letting people know that actually you're not doing quite good enough? You need to be doing a better job. This is often called using pride or using guilt. I may not be interpreting the question totally correctly, but this is how I'm going to understand what you're asking. It works both ways – but it seemed – but it's a little bit of a grey area because different studies showed different results, but it often seems to work better that you're telling people that they did worse than average. One of the most powerful things I've noticed in my own work and also reading in other studies is when you tell people that they are doing badly, for example, if you tell people, they're doing like 20 per cent, 22 per cent worse than average, that really motivates people. People intensely do not like to feel that they are doing worse than average. Whereas if you told people they're doing better than average, they feel like they can sort of take a bit of a break and kind of take it easy. This especially happens when you tell people that they're definitely doing the best, like they're in the top 10 per cent in all my own experimentation with this, I asked people so how motivated do you feel to reduce your carbon impact now that we've you've heard that you're doing the best in the group, and they’re like, I'm totally not motivated because, I'm already doing the best, and perhaps that's OK because they really are doing a good job, but then you get into this concept of moral licensing, which comes up a lot in the environmental psychology literature. I haven't been a particular sort of deep fan of this space, but it does seem to show that giving people more reward mechanisms and more positive feedback and telling people you're always doing a great job for every single green thing you do. Although that kind of feels emotionally nice for us to design that into the system. And I do talk about the reward. Designing for the reward system – it is possible, just putting it out there as a hypothesis, it's possible doing too much of that can let everybody – they'll start to take it more easy. Whereas giving them a little bit more of the stick approach works a little bit better, but I think all these things you really need to put them into your own model through your own problem and design for both and test them both and sort of work out the best result. I don't think there's a clear black or white answer.

Moving on to another question – how long do participants need to engage to create a sustainable change and what gamification developments are needed to keep people interested long enough to create a sustained change?

Ah, that's a really interesting question. And it's something that comes up a lot. I think there is a proper term for it. It's like I can't remember it now like substance and so longevity. I've got to try and remember the exact term. Now a problem with a lot of these interventions possibly is that they're going to be a novelty for a short amount of time. So these, I mean, these questions are complicated, right. So in part of the research, it shows that if you give what's called like extrinsic incentives for people these can just be like badges, like financial incentives, something that's fun, you know, like a free veggie burger or a free gift or something. There's – and a lot of gamification tools do come in – what is considered to be the extrinsic type of rewards.

That they work a short term and as soon as you take the reward away, the person stops doing it. That is, if you're working with somebody that doesn't have a deep intrinsic environmental attitude or belief system. So this gets into this really interesting territory of how much people really do deeply care and are, really deeply moved to do things just for the environment because they believe in it because it's deeply embedded into who they are. Now the problem is, is that you can have people with a lot of an environmental value system. A lot of a belief system really, really care about the planet, and they don't do anything because the action design hasn't been done well enough. So basically the magical formula that you want is to have somebody who really, deeply cares about the environment that's hard to manifest. You need to have someone who's reasonably educated, wants to read climate books, wants to go and watch documentaries. That is no small thing to manifest that inside somebody. But however, it's happening all over the place. And then if you add the gamification and the extrinsic motivations to those people who are already intrinsically motivated, they work really well. There's super sticky, obviously, if you're already into something and then you get some little reward your like, oh my god, I'm already into this stuff. How great, and then they do stick around long term. You can gamify somebody’s long term behaviour. So anyway, that's one part of the answer. And the other part of the answer, just in terms of just my hunch to do with how to design this stuff, this has never really been designed before, but it's my aspiration to design this in my lifetime is that we need communal goals.

A lot of the way environmental behaviour change is designed is we're looking at people like they're an individual, like they're an island like you're just a household. Here's your carbon footprint or your waste footprint or your, you know, meat footprint. And that sounds creepy, doesn't it, a meat footprint? Nobody should use that phrase. I take it back. We’re sort of looking at people like their individual islands. What we need to have is something that, like the way it gets done in football, is that we have like a group goal. So if we had a group goal for the entire UK, the entire UK’s climate impact. We need to know what that number is. It's up there on the wall, that's why so much of my design work is about these big public numbers and we are all players in the game. We are all members of the football team playing in the game towards the goal. So your individual footprint is a puzzle piece towards this one central goal and my hunch is when we get really good at having these communal goals for our country, for our state, for our local council, for our local city, and then for our individual, and we can nest these goals in to each other, that will keep people focused on goal directed behaviour, on achieving the goal, and that's one of the big, that's what my hunch is that, that is the keystone that is missing from all of our climate campaigns is that community based, neighbourhood, city, country goal. And that will overcome the short term novelty sort of behaviour where people sort of get bored of it and fall off the wagon.

I appreciate the football reference for the Brits that are going to be watching this. Associated with the first part of your answer from that last question, somebody asked about how much the data-driven communications and tools that you spoke about in your presentations are likely to cost to establish and get up and running. So do you have a look at, a bit of an insight into, how councils in the UK are able to kind of fund that and what the rough costs would be for cracking on with the initiatives you mentioned?

I don't think any of these initiatives necessarily need to be that expensive. I think what they need to have is people that are really talented at delivering them. I've seen so many projects over the years. They have enormous budgets, multi million dollar budgets given to government given to established not for profits given to big design agencies like IDO, you know and they just develop junk that doesn't work because the teams who are working on it haven't really deeply thought through the issues or perhaps don't have the talent to deliver it. So, in terms of looking at these things like - a good team can do a lot with a small amount of money, but if you're going to give those – you can give a billion dollars to a bad team and they will not be able to deliver something, something that works. So in terms of the, I mean the products that I'm trying to produce, these are just like public digital screens. We already have public digital screens. I mean they only cost like a couple of thousand dollars in terms of the hardware to have ones that are outdoors in terms of developing the applications, these are not that hard to build. We just need the APIs. The real grunt work from my end is actually just like getting it out to individual people, it's not the development of the technology, it's the, each individual person has to sign up. They have to be engaged. They have to get a text message and email account and they have to be able to see it. They have to know about it. So the ground work is really getting out to people. And this is one of the biggest challenges for cities and councils. As often, they just don't have like the email addresses of their communities, like, even utilities don't even have an easy way necessarily, of contacting everybody. So this is, this huge gap in terms of actually like just getting it out to everybody in New York like in your local city, I mean that's the hard thing we have to hack. I mean the technology stuff I design is it's kind, it's kind of easy, it could just be done for a few thousand dollars.

There was a comment and question from Sarah, who said: "I love the idea of encouraging social norms by using comparisons" but then went on to say: "Could this backfire if you have neighbours who say can't afford the green measures that you've been proposing because in the UK we often have mixed housing areas with some affluent households right next to less affluent households and which could inadvertently cause a kind of disparity and backfiring of the intended consequence or outcome of the nudge?" So how can we avoid doing that when doing the comparison by social norms?

I think what you want to have is just different social norms used for different demographics. You know, if you're asking people to go and get an, you know, like a nicer electric car, like a boutique style of product, there's a whole demographic that, that is perfectly suited for. I mean, I also think that we don't need to worry too much. I think it will – those of us who work in sustainability are usually very like sensitive to negative emotions. We’re usually very, very nice people try to be very politically correct. We want everybody to be happy and it's OK if there's like a little bit of friction in the system. Like if you're asking people to eat less meat and some people get annoyed by that, like it's totally OK like we're actually trying to change people and change the world as long as we're not shaming people or being nasty about it, like having those little bits of friction in those little resistance and someone saying why are you telling me to get an electric car? I can't afford an electric car. That's not fair. It's OK if these conversations, you know emerge.

But we also, you know, want to be like specific about the demographics that could be if you're dealing with like a very low-income community. I mean where the average car price or, you know, people are dealing with like very, very like the lowest lowest end is the kind of like cars people driving because spending any more than $3,000 or $5,000 – sorry I'm talking in dollars, not pounds – on a car. It's not suitable like, of course, you wouldn't be asking those communities to do something, you know like that. So you would want to be working on social norms that are the most characteristic of that particular community and some people the conversation comes up with green things that get perceived as being boutique and being expensive. And I mean, the reality is, doing the green thing is doing like basically the thing that doesn't cost any money or worth like that, kind of like, you know, you just have no car is the best way to do it. You know, you eat less food we eat less expensive food, less packaging, all the green stuff to do is usually the cheapest thing.

However, there is a branch of boutique products, and I was thinking about this the other day that when I started in sustainability 20 years ago, everything that was green was considered to be absolute junk like it was like you feel there was a vegan restaurant, it was the worst restaurant in town. If it was an electric car. It was a terrible car. You'd never want to drive the fuel-efficient car, it was a terrible car. Like if it was an eco-friendly house, it would be cold. I mean anything that was considered green or eco was being, considered terrible, low-quality junk. Right? And so this was a terrible problem for us. And my first start-up was completely built on trying to rebrand this image, and then this wave happened about 15 years ago where all of these boutique products came out because the brand of being green was so bad. And then there were these super fancy vegan restaurants and these elite products. And these elite cars. So, sometimes people say that there's been this branding image. Well, the thing was, in regular conventional consumer products, they have luxury products as well. I mean, there are Porsches, there are fancy houses we take for granted that they're all these fancy products. I mean, there's no reason why they shouldn't also be a boutique branch of green products.

So if we can see it through this lens, it's quite a wonderful thing now that there is a branch of luxury and boutique eco products and its branding has sort of happened. And that we've been able to turn around this whole space so much. So let's just not sort of judge the more expensive sort of fancier eco products. And just remember that they just have their niche in the market just the same as all luxury products and the true sustainability examples that we really want to be bringing to people are the ones that are basically the free and the less expensive ones that it really is truly where the eco footprint is.

I've just condensed a couple of questions down, so there's a few people who commented around how mental health considerations are taken into scaling these solutions. Somebody said that smart meters have been proven to increase stress and anxiety in lower income groups, older generations with lower technical capabilities. So is there a way of getting around implementing those solutions with those other cohorts of society that may be a bit apprehensive again, but this person said: "great technology though" and "love the solution" so they were bought in but just worrying about the impact of the solution on society. So, what do you think about that?

Well, I don't know exactly what they're talking about, so I don't think I could probably answer it that well because I have not heard that before. But I think we also just need to get sort of like what I was saying before, like the changes that civilization needs to go through. I mean, they're going to be huge. Like, if we actually want to achieve a sustainable society, I mean, the changes do have to be massive and changes can be uncomfortable for some people. And that's kind of like the way it is. If we want to live exactly the same way we live now with all of the consumer products and all of the temperature control and everything being really, really nice. I mean, there just is not a way to do that within the boundary of the earth's ecosystems right now. So I mean some of it's going to change, it's going to be hard and that's OK. If somebody who's not used to technology endures a little bit of stress by being able to see how many kilowatt hours or how much carbon emissions they use I think that's fine, that's a reasonable expectation of people that they're doing it to take on a little bit of (inaudible) and consideration, maybe some technology and maybe some change. I mean we can it's, I think it's OK for us to expect something of people.

Lastly, we had about five variations of this question, but a lot of people in the audience were asking about the templates and where they're available to download or be distributed from. It was, in particular, somebody talking about the 'earth imagination toolkit' that you went into the primary or school setting for. So do you want to just give people a bit of a plug of where they can find some more of those resources online?

Oh, great. Well, it's at my website, its and then you can sign up and you can download the template there. And you can also join the Imagine Group if anybody is interested in hosting an imagination workshop with schools or in the cities, I'd love to be involved. We’ve held a couple of them already. They're enormously successful. I have a hunch that they're incredibly powerful we’ve only just started doing this thing. And I think it's a really exciting way to engage people and engage schools. And my email address is if you want to message me to discuss more environmental imagination stuff. It is one of my favourite things to talk about, so always happy to hear from anybody about that.

Perfect, thank you, Katie, and thank you for your time in doing this Q&A and for your presentation at our behavioural insights conference. As you've told me already, you've had quite a bit of a buzz already on Twitter, so I'm glad that everyone is being quite receptive to it. So thank you for your input on this conference.

Thank you for having me. And yes, anyone can DM me on any of the social media platforms – I'd love to hear from you.