An alternative to nudging: travel behaviour change through coaching


In response to the current emphasis for “nudge” methodologies, an alternative method has recently been put forward by behaviour change practioners Liz Ampt (Concepts of Change, formerly SKM) and Colin Ashton-Graham. The two have worked together on a number of large-scale behaviour change projects, looking at influencing travel, water, waste and energy behaviours.

As presented by SKM Colin Buchanan’s Jo Boyd-Wallis at the recent Envecon 2013 Environmental Economics conference, the practioners’ on-the-ground experience has led them to the conclusion that “ask is the new nudge”. The premise is that nudge is limited in its scope and potential audience, because it focusses on changing just one behaviour. Instead, their projects have evolved to involve a number of coaching-style conversations with the participants; the participant is not informed of the potential changes they could make, they are instead asked questions to identify one thing, personal to them, that they would like to change and then helped to find their own solution.

One difference between these projects and traditional large-scale behaviour change projects is that they do not use segmentation. This is not to say they are generic information/marketing campaigns (which have been proven time and again not to be cost-effective) but instead use a conversation approach that allows the advice to be both open to everyone and personalised. Behavioural psychology literature demonstrates that attitude is a poor predictor of behaviour, so segmenting people by demographics can limit the potential audience without guaranteeing results. In fact, people from a wide variety of backgrounds and attitudes can make a change; evaluations often do not find a common demographic factor between those who have taken part, with theoretically unlikely participants having made a change. An open, facilitated, coaching-style conversation means that every participant household has the potential to participate and make a change that is relevant to them.

Crucially, the participant is not being told what to do (or what not to do) but instead has the opportunity to solve their own problem, helping to overcome the gap between a pro-environmental attitude and actual behaviour. The changes may not be conventional or predictable, and may just involve one small action, but cumulatively over a large community they can add up to a significant shift in behaviour.

Some real life examples of these changes include:
 A mother who drives her son to school every day identifies that she wants more time to herself in the mornings. Through the coaching conversation, she identifies that she doesn’t know anyone to car share with, so the facilitator helps her realise she could ask her son to find a family to share with, therefore enabling her to share the school run.
 An art dealer who is often late to pick up art work due to not being able to find a car parking space. Through realising that it would only take 5 minutes longer to walk into town but the journey time would be reliable as he didn’t have to drive around to find a parking space, he improved his reliability for clients, reduced his stress levels and even improved his asthma through more exercise.

The coaching conversations finish by closing the “social contract”: the participant commits to making that change and the facilitator promises to follow up and check their progress with more phonecalls over the course of several months. During the follow-up phonecalls, the facilitator checks what has been changed and congratulates the participant, making them feel good to help instigate further good behaviour changes (the “spill-over” effect). They can also note any success stories for use in case studies and conversations with future participants.

By applying our practical experience and real-life case studies to the theories of behaviour change and behavioural economics we can encourage real behaviour change in communities – without telling them what to do, or even having to give them a nudge, but by helping them to help themselves.

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