Pull the Right Motivational Levers

Policies and programmes that offer financial incentives might in fact dissuade certain individuals from engaging with the desired behaviour.

We list a number of techniques below that are less prone to backfiring than using financial incentives.

Link the target behaviour to personal and social values

Adapt your policy or programme so that the behaviour you want to promote is linked to your target audience's identity and values.

People are more likely to adopt a new behaviour and perform it over time if it aligns with their personal and social identity and values. First, you should conduct research (e.g., review academic papers, interviews, or focus groups) to understand the values that your target group supports. Then, frame your policy or programme such that it is coherent with your target audience's identity.

For example, framing an energy-efficient appliance as a tool to reduce ones' carbon footprint might be more effective with citizens who identify themselves as environmentalists. While presenting it as a cutting-edge technology might be more effective with businesses that pride themselves on being innovative.


Case Study
Backpacker Group Identity is Associated with Sustainable Behaviours

A recent study investigated the impact of the social identity of backpackers in Ghana, West Africa (2020).

The researchers observed not only that the label "backpacker" is a strongly held identifier among this population, but also that social identity among backpackers is associated with sustainable behaviour. Further, backpackers' social identity had a negative impact on unsustainable behaviour.

These findings highlight how identity can impact how and to what extent individuals' adopt sustainable behaviours.

Highlight consistency with past actions

When promoting a new behaviour, tie it back to a similar action your target audience has performed in the past.

People strive to act consistently. Realising that there is a discrepancy between one's actions (and the underlying values) can lead to an uncomfortable feeling, which people seek to avoid. Start by identifying behaviours that your target audience already performs and that are consistent with the behaviour you are promoting. Different behaviours might seem consistent because they share the same underlying values (e.g., efficiency, frugality, freedom or altruism). Then, highlight the connection between the two behaviours in your communications.

For example, citizens who have previously installed a smart meter at home to reduce their carbon footprint can later be encouraged to switch to a renewable energy plan by highlighting that it will also help them safeguard the environment.


Case Study
Making Environmental Information Salient Before Behaviour Can Influence Food Choice

A 2021 study found that a proportion of environmentally-concerned individuals purposefully avoid information about the emissions associated with their behaviour to avoid feelings of guilt.

The experiment also demonstrated that informing these individuals about their potential carbon impact before they made behaviour choices (e.g., the emissions associated with choosing a beef vs. plant-based meal in a restaurant) helped to shift their preference towards the environmental choice.

Incorporate prosocial incentives

Create opportunities for citizens to share their energy-efficient actions and receive acknowledgements from their peers.

People are strongly motivated by the approval and recognition of others. Receiving social rewards, such as being appreciated by others, helps reinforce one's behaviour over time. Think of how you can allow citizens to share their efficiency achievements with peers and receive social recognition.

For example, citizens who own electric vehicles can join groups where they can share and compete over how energy-efficiently they drive to motivate and reward green behaviours.


Insights from another field
Incentivizing Blood Donation with Variable Rewards

A 2010 investigation conducted in Italy studied the behaviour of blood donors in response to different reward-based incentives.

The researchers observed that individuals increased the frequency of their blood donations immediately before reaching the reward threshold but that this pattern only held true when the rewards were announced or presented publicly, giving the recipients public recognition.

The results indicated that concerns about social image were a key motivator of prosocial behaviour and that symbolic rewards were most effective when they were presented publicly.

Show that others care about the target behaviour

If there is already a significant proportion of citizens who engage in the desired behaviour, highlight this fact to motivate others to follow suit.

People are strongly influenced by what others do and think and tend to conform to the social norm. However, they often have an incomplete and sometimes misleading view of what others do or think, especially in new and unfamiliar environments. Informing people about the social norm can help them readjust and align their thoughts and behaviours with that of the majority. This approach can be particularly effective if you use a reference group that your target audience considers relatable.

For example, companies can encourage new hires to start cycling to work by initially informing them that 60% of existing employees cycle to work.