Making It Stop
I was going to think a little about Virginia’s Bucknor’s latest brainwave of an Anti-Litter Campaign as announced at FDC Full Council a few days ago and immediately picked up by the local press in the usual fashion. Now I know that sometimes I would just poke holes in the idea and point out what I perceived were the motives behind it, but I thought i’d do something different today. As regular readers will know I do occasionally like to muse on the way policy is made and consider options. Given that many people are concerned about the prevalence of litter in our town I thought this would be a more positive way to approach the idea, such as it is.
I have talked previously about the importance of knowing the actual problem you are trying to solve before proposing a remedy for it. But if you don’t want to spend a lot of time deciding if the thing you want to stop is (1) People dropping litter, (2) Not enough people picking up litter, (3) There being too much litter, (4) Things being too disposable, (5) People not having enough respect for their community – all slightly different actually – then you can look at the problem in the round. In the case of an Anti-Litter Campaign you are usually trying to discourage people from dropping litter. Simple, right?
There are a limited number of ways of stopping a behaviour that you would like to curtail. You can; Educate, Persuade or Enforce. The middle one, persuade, breaks down into three more: Persuade by entreatment, Persuade by Incentives, Persuade by Threat. So our five methods are; Educate, Entreat, Incentivise, Threat and Enforcement. Although you can usually try all five, most things you are trying to stop have some that you immediately know will work less well than others.
Let’s consider what those things mean:
This is where you try and explain to the people doing the thing you want to stop why it is that they would benefit from doing so. So if the thing were “driving without a seatbelt” you might show them photographs of people who died after an accident without a seatbelt on and point out that, but for the twist of fate, that was them. For education to work they have to be able to see why choosing what you think is a more altruistic action would be better for them, either directly, or indirectly (for instance, by protecting the people they love, or making their environment better.) For this to work, the person must not already know or fully understand all the things involved. If they already know the facts you reveal to them but have chosen to take the action anyway then education will not usually work. It isn’t telling them anything new, so there cannot be a “eureka” moment which changes their mindset.
Entreatment is simply an attempt to charm somebody into agreeing to change their behaviour. You aren’t suggesting that they will benefit in any way from the change – perhaps because there is no way to do so or perhaps because they have already rejected your attempts to educate – instead you talk to them directly on a person-to-person basis. Or perhaps you are doing the same thing with a reverse tactic and trying to shame them into changing their behaviour, usually through the way others perceive them. For entreatment to work, the person has to be open to your charm or your shame or whatever other interpersonal method you are using to try and persuade them. If they don’t care what you think, or what others think, or if they value their old behaviour more than the one you are suggesting despite your entreatment, it wont work.
Changing somebody’s behaviour by incentive is simply offering them some reward if they make a different choice. “I’ll give you a pound every time you put your seatbelt on.” Any economist will tell you that human beings are immensely susceptible to incentives – more than you might ever imagine. In fact, we often respond to incentives we’d laugh at if presented directly. But for an incentive to work well it has to have more value than what we perceive as the value of our original behaviour. So offering £10.00 for every day somebody does not smoke might be effective for a person to whom £70.00 a week was a lot of money but would be much less effective to a billionaire. You also have to have some way to check the reward has been earned. For instance, offering £1.00 each time a seatbelt is put on would be ineffective if there was no way to check they had really done it. They could just claim £500.00 for five hundred journeys and perhaps have not truly done so even once.
A threat can be anything from: “A bunch of big fellas will come around and beat you up” to “if you do this you will be arrested and locked up for ten years.” So it can be a legal, or illegal threat. Either way, the purpose is to create a fear of the consequences of the action you wish to stop. When the person makes a (subconscious) cost/benefit analysis you want them to be thinking: “Nah, it’s not worth it.” As the severity of the threat grows, so the number of people who are prepared to change their behaviour does also. If stealing a loaf of bread has the punishment of a brief telling off, versus stealing a loaf of bread carrying the death penalty – you will get quite different numbers of prospective culprits willing to do so. How hungry the individual person is, or how many children’s mouths they have to feed, or whether or not this threat is ever enforced, or how good they are at not getting caught, or how great the bread tastes – all these things play a smaller or larger part in the subconscious cost/benefit analysis. (Note: I am not suggesting there are not millions of people who would never steal – of course there are – this analysis is looking at how to stop some form of behaviour that some number of people are doing.)
Enforcement changes behaviour in two ways; firstly by physically preventing the culprit’s behaviour happening, as it might by putting an electric fence around an apple field to stop scrumpers or posting security guards outside a trouble hotspot. Secondly, by leaving a memory of a punishment that the person does not wish to repeat and therefore works in a similar way to a threat, like D.N.A. testing dog poo compared to a Dog Database and then arriving at the owner’s door to deliver a big fine (or posting the dog poo into their letterbox.) When you physically prevent, fine, arrest, reprimand, or otherwise catch and punish a culprit in some way, that is enforcement. It only works if the person is caught and if they perceive the punishment to be in some way worse than the value of continuing the behaviour you are trying to prevent.
Education only works if they don’t already know the facts and consequences.
Entreatment only works if they care what you or others think.
Incentivisation only works if the incentive is greater than the perceived value of the behaviour to the culprit.
Threat only works if the perceived threat is greater than the perceived benefit of continuing the behaviour and if they believe the threat is real.
Enforcement only works if you can stop them, or catch them (if the personal cost of the punishment is greater than the perceived value of continuing the behaviour.)
There is a final consideration which must be made. Whether it “matters” or not depends on individual perceptions, but the issue is the cost of any action you choose to take. All five methods have a cost involved in time, resources, money etc. If the cost of preventing the behaviour is greater than the cost of allowing it to continue, then that must surely challenge the method of interaction chosen. So let’s say you print 50,000 flyers saying: “Please do not throw stones at the windows” in order to prevent your windows getting broken about three times a year. Putting aside whether that method would actually work and just presuming it did – If the cost of the 50,000 flyers is greater than the cost of repairing the window three times, was it worth doing? Maybe you think it was because that behaviour change has knock-on effects. Or maybe you think it wasn’t because you don’t have much money and every penny counts. But it’s got to be in your considerations either way if you want to be fully informed. Only an idiot or somebody with more money than sense (or somebody spending somebody else’s money) makes suggestions without at least considering the cost.
So there we have it. My potted logic for Making It Stop – whatever “it” is.
With that in mind, how does a “Campaign” to prevent littering by using some colourful new signs and a new logo fit in? Particularly one which claims it will “save thousands?”
Education: Signs may be considered to educate, for sure. But do the people who are littering not know they are littering? Do they not realise they shouldn’t do it? Do they not realise that it makes the environment look bad, encourages vermin, has health consequences? If they don’t have a clue, then a new sign and logo might work. If they know and just don’t care, it won’t.
Entreatment: Signs with a colourful new logo and some press releases and the like might be considered entreatment. They might appeal to the culprit’s sense of civic responsibility, or they might shame them into changing their behaviour. Do you think that prolific litter bugs are likely to have a strong sense of civic responsibility? Are they likely to be plagued with guilt when they see that sign after just dropping a chip carton on the floor? If you do think so, the campaign will probably work. If you don’t, it probably won’t.
Incentivisation: No incentive is offered as part of the campaign. It doesn’t say: “Pick up a bag of litter and bring it to the One Stop Shop to get a £2.00 voucher for Tesco” or anything like that. So this doesn’t apply.
Threat: The signs carry no additional threat beyond the ones which already exist. They don’t say: “£10,000 Litter Fine in this Hot Zone” or something. So this doesn’t apply.
Enforcement: The Campaign carries no additional enforcement that I’m aware of so far that doesn’t already exist. So this doesn’t apply.
Even if some degree of threat and additional enforcement were later added to the campaign there would be a cost involved.
So the final test – what is the cost compared to the result? A bit of free publicity in the paper doesn’t have much cost. A few signs don’t have an enormous cost, although if the Council is delivering them then they’ll probably cost more than you would expect them to. How many people would change their behaviour based on these new signs?
There have been plenty of signs in the past, and there’s no shortage of people trying to entreat and shame folks into putting their litter in the bin instead of dumping it on the floor or in a bush. So my strong suspicion is that the campaign – even if it were rolled out with new signs everywhere – would have a very limited success rate. But it might still have a marginally positive success rate by reminding people who are just careless (for instance) and with that in mind it could, possibly, have a greater benefit than cost. I doubt it. But it could. The idea that it will save “thousands” though? Seems desperately unlikely.
I can’t see it doing any harm so I certainly won’t be opposing it, as long as the costs of delivering it are kept in check. And even if I suspect that the timing – a few weeks before an election – is a mighty convenient way to get your picture in the paper again. I reckon just encouraging more people to join the excellent Street Pride folk would be a more effective solution, but what do I know?
I can’t shake the feeling that “pick up some litter” would be a better campaign than “stop littering.” Because I reckon the number of litterbugs is tiny compared to the decent folks who wouldn’t drop their rubbish. If every person picked up just one thing each time they went out and put it in a bin – we’d have zero litter and it wouldn’t cost the Council a penny. In fact, it might save the Council thousands. Have a think about it. Run it through my five methods above – and see if you don’t agree.