The hidden persuaders, by Ann Rossiter

3 Jul 08
How do you persuade people to stop behaving badly, or to do things for their own good? Not by bribing them or banning the activities, says Ann Rossiter, who argues that reinforcing social norms is the secret

04 July 2008

How do you persuade people to stop behaving badly, or to do things for their own good? Not by bribing them or banning the activities, says Ann Rossiter, who argues that reinforcing social norms is the secret

There is a strain of 'initiativitis' running through Whitehall. First, a leaked memo suggests schools are to be graded by Ofsted on their success in tackling teenage pregnancy. Meanwhile, the police will be asked to arrest under-18s who are 'persistently' caught drinking alcohol. What both these policies have in common is a lack of practicality – it is not clear how schools can prevent teenagers having sex, or how the police can effectively monitor children's drinking, or indeed what 'persistent' actually means in this context.

The latest policy of this kind to emerge is a prime ministerial drive to increase social mobility. 'Hard-to-reach' parents in deprived areas will be rewarded with child development grants worth up to £200 to perform basic tasks, such as ensuring their young children are booked in to receive vaccinations.

This policy fails for several reasons. First, the payments will act as a disincentive to parents to perform these tasks – why organise health check-ups for your baby on your own initiative, if the government will pay you to do so?

Second, a sense of unfairness will be keenly felt by those struggling, low-income parents who have been conscientious enough to arrange such care already.

Third, it presumes that parents will make decisions based purely on some kind of cost-benefit analysis. This ignores the reality of how people behave and make decisions, and the underlying reasons why they act or fail to. If people are neglecting to ensure their children receive the free care available to them, the reasons are likely to be a complex mix of lack of knowledge about the available services; a wariness of such services; and a lack of belief in their value. It is not clear that this can be overcome by a financial bonus.

Ministers would passionately defend these measures, I am sure, but for the average citizen, they suggest a lack of common sense. In the first case, a clear link between cause and effect is absent. After all, schools do not have the power to stop young people having sex. And most parents would prefer that the business of teachers is teaching. In the second case, there would seem little realistic chance of enforcement. One result is that we have a number of rather ill-judged laws on the statute book, not to mention a sometimes confusing plethora of schemes and projects.

However, this tendency is storing up bigger problems for government. First, it tends to overshadow the good work that it does – for example, extending a right to maternity leave for a full year, or devolving power over target-setting to local authorities.

Second, it plays into an increasingly dominant political narrative which says that politicians and officials lack an understanding of the 'real world' and the experience of those running our public services.

Third, it is grist to the mill of critics who point out that the government has passed more than 3,000 laws since 1997 – a critique that is powerful because it feeds a common belief that much of what has been done has been expensive, ineffective or both.

As a result, there is growing scepticism among the British public about the power of government to change things. Where policy is ill thought out, or effective implementation is impossible, the government leaves itself open to attack. And if government is not competent, it is a small step to argue that the less there is of it, the better. In other words, we run the risk of the country returning to a belief in small government. This is the traditional Thatcherite world view which sees no role for an 'active' state.

This should ring alarm bells both for the progressive Left, and for the Cameronian Right, because both believe in the power of government to help address the problems of equity and social justice, however differently those problems and their solutions are conceived. When it comes to issues such as climate change and social exclusion, both main parties now share the view that the rules that government sets and the environment it establishes have an important impact on society.

A developing literature offers politicians an alternative to the simple 'bribe or ban' approach. The core problem underlying the child development grants is that people do not always (or even usually) make decisions on an economically rational basis. This is a key insight of behavioural economics, which looks at the actual drivers of people's behaviour.

Policies based on these insights have been simple yet highly effective. It is therefore not surprising that books that discuss how people really behave, and what can really persuade them, are flavour of the month with politicians. A study on the subject, Influence: the psychology of persuasion by Robert Cialdini, is credited with inspiring Conservative Party leader David Cameron. At the Social Market Foundation, our own contribution, Creatures of habit? The art of behavioural change, brings together the insights from Cialdini's book and others, and places them firmly in a policy context. This learning is starting to show up in some areas of government policy.

For example, policy makers are seeing that visibly reinforcing social norms can provide a new solution to a very old problem: crime. The findings of a year-long government review on how best to involve communities in the fight against crime were published last month, and recommended that offenders sentenced to community punishment should wear high-visibility bibs. Louise Casey, the former head of Tony Blair's Respect task force, claims that increasing the visibility of non-custodial sentences is one way of cutting antisocial behaviour and increasing public confidence in the justice system. Her proposals are understood to have won the support of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears.

Even when there is the scope for using a more prescriptive policy, such as the idea of arresting teenage binge drinkers, we need to have greater clarity about policy objectives and the broad social impact the proposal is designed to bring about. The use of antisocial behaviour orders is a case in point. Asbos were developed in response to the harassment of families and communities by certain individuals or groups.

The then prime minister Tony Blair rightly identified the anger, fear and helplessness that communities felt in those situations, and it was always clear that one objective was to make explicit the kinds of behaviour that were socially unacceptable, thus reducing crime through changing behaviour rather than through mechanisms such as investing in crime detection.

In light of this, the debate we are having about the efficacy of the policy is somewhat confused. The fact that around half of those who are given Asbos re-offend is not only unsurprising but also could be seen as a measure of success, rather than failure. Every time an offender is prosecuted for breaching an Asbo, it is a victory for the community that they are persecuting, because it puts power back in the hands of the silent majority. Given that the primary objective is re-empowering cowed communities, a more sensible approach would be to measure the sense of confidence and of control of the local communities affected. The same thinking is clearly behind Casey's latest policy suggestion on bibs.

Visible indicators of action have been shown to be effective in other policy areas. In Canada's Nova Scotia province, households can encourage their neighbours to help the environment by displaying a window sticker that declares that they are part of a composting scheme. The frequency of such stickers is a visible reminder that a new 'social norm' of composting is now prevalent, which in turn inspires more people to join.

Another policy that seeks to affect social norms is the decision to name and shame companies that employ illegal workers. Clearly, announcing the names of companies and directors who have already been caught and fined does nothing to reduce the number of illegal workers in the short term, but it sends out a powerful political message that this type of activity is socially unacceptable. The intention is to transform the practice of hiring illegal workers from 'something everyone does' into something that is socially unacceptable.

Not only will this inspire more friends and colleagues to report transgressors, but there will be fewer employers who choose to take the risk of employing illegal labour in the first place. It is an almost revenue-neutral policy that could nevertheless have positive outcomes in the long term.

However, the design of initiatives to influence social norms is critically important. The recent proposals put forward by the Scottish Executive to curb binge drinking show that poorly thought-out proposals can be counterproductive. Politicians suggested that the purchase of alcohol be limited to those over 21 years of age, despite it being legal to drink from the age of 18. Many people objected to this proposal on libertarian grounds, but it would also have been ineffective in changing social norms. It is teenage binge-drinking that MSPs seek to curb, not the consumption of alcohol per se. The over-21 policy impedes the latter activity, while doing nothing to stigmatise the former.

So, although deploying the insights of behavioural economics is something of an art form, it provides an alternative to 'initiativitis' on the one hand, or a counsel of despair that leads to a small government, free-market approach to policy-making on the other. It provides policy-makers with a new set of tools, but it also demands that they work with the grain of human nature and with other parts of civil society. This will present politicians and Whitehall with a new challenge, but one that promises real rewards if it can be met.

Ann Rossiter is the director of the Social Market Foundation


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