Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Litter’s Link to Racism, Other Behaviors and a Possible Cure

Why people litter is something behavioral economists such as Professor Dan Ariely here in Durham at Duke University may want to closely examine one day.

Research published last month by other social scientists in the Journal Science shows that people encountering litter may not only be more likely to litter themselves (broken windows theory) but the “environmental disorder” to which they contribute fuels condescending perceptions and other stereotypes that underlie discrimination such as racism and other anti-social behaviors.

By an unheard of ratio of 17 to 1 with little ambivalence, Durham residents say they are proud or very proud of this community, so you would think Durham wouldn’t have a piece of litter visible anywhere.

Typically, even communities presumed to have a high level of community pride, including Durham’s neighbors, run at best a 1 to 1 ratio with a full third ambivalent.

It has been twenty years since I read a paper published in a journal by a team of researchers in behavioral economics led by Nobel-laureate Daniel Kahneman, but I’ve been thinking about how an understanding of the behaviors that their experiments provided may apply to litterers.

I suspect there is some aspect of what they termed as the “endowment affect” that contributes to litter in Durham.  An extremely high proportion, two out of every three people working in Durham, is a non-resident commuter from another community.

They may be good and caring people but just as it seems to be human nature not to be as careful when they travel or rent, non-residents lack a sense of ownership for the community.  Part of the “endowment affect” is that people value something more once it becomes theirs.

The research noted above about forms of condescension coupled with the endowment affect may be a clue to the stubborn sources of virulent negativity about Durham still remaining in neighboring communities.

Another behavior at work could be the “status quo bias” which means that people tend not to change an established behavior like littering until the incentive is compelling.

But people are shown in studies to be 50% more successful at change when motivated by the risk of losing something, say in the case of litter, a substantial fine or their driver’s license.  This is why traditional bonus or incentive compensation plans misfire when they don’t also put some existing or base pay at risk.

Failing to understand what behavioral economists term as “loss aversion,” Durham’s failure traditionally to enforce no litter laws compared to peer communities is contributing to the inability to change the behavior of litterers.

Only by studying “why” can we change the behavior of littering.  Maybe the solution is in the new book and website entitled Change Anything as illustrated by this humorous 6-minute video showing what it takes to get kids to adopt another behavior, washing their hands.

By applying the findings to litterers we should expect that when:

  • jumpstarting personal motivation by providing good rationale…no change
  • add making it easier and more obvious such as vehicle trash bags… still no change
  • adding “deliberate practice” as in drivers training and license exams…. 3 of 12 will change behavior
  • adding peer pressure… 11 of 12 change behavior

I haven’t been able to find any research behind “Litter is Wrong Too”, the new trendy and thoroughly-executed social media campaign by  Keep America Beautiful.

The agencies that created it for KAB may have forgotten the advice from a peer, Laura Ries, at this link.  “Social media is a communication tactic, not a strategy” best used for new subjects with news value.  But regardless, in isolation, the campaign has little chance of changing behavior anyway.

According to the authors of Change Anything, there must be at least three more sources of influence added simultaneously to this peer pressure before the likelihood of changing the behavior of litterers will increase 10-fold.

My bet is changing the behavior of litterers will require all six shown in the image with this blog.

p.s. Don’t worry.  If you checked out the link to the new KAB campaign and saw a cute little billboard still at the top.  It won’t be there for long.  In consideration for a sister-organization, Scenic America, KAB realizes the incongruity of including billboards, aka littler-on-a-stick, in a campaign to show that litter is well, wrong.

5 comments:

Rob said...

Hi Reyn,
Keep America Beautiful checking in here.

We absolutely agree with the you – there is no single “magic bullet” to changing a behavior. It certainly can’t be done by messaging alone. Social media IS absolutely a tactic rather than a strategy. And certainly peer pressure is an very important and effective influencer.

That’s EXACTLY what we’re trying to shape with "Littering Is Wrong Too," and you can consider this campaign a first shot across the bow in a longer, sustained messaging effort.

The campaign uses traditional media messaging channels, to be sure. But as we’ve stressed in our affiliate webinars and planning resources, to be fully successful it requires direct engagement with individuals (we highly recommend the “street team” approach at public events).

Essentially, every interaction shared through the social media channels becomes a “pledge” made public to peers, friends and family. Also an important strategy.

There’s little we can do to shape or influence the “ownership” effect through a public messaging campaign, but the work of affiliates to engage volunteers (including corporate volunteerism to engage all the commuters) is a strong supplement to the messaging.

Thanks very much for covering this important topic.

-Rob Wallace
VP Communications
Keep America Beautiful, Inc.

Sheldon Galloway said...

I hope you don't mind but I referenced your blog in my blog title "I dig Durham".

Reyn said...

No problem at all. Thanks for pointing me to your new blog Sheldon. I'll be reading. RB
http://idigdurham.wordpress.com/2011/06/09/durham-pride/

Timothy Takemoto said...

Shame this research has been retracted. The data was made up. But I think that it would have worked had the experiment been carried out.

Anonymous said...

Research published last month by other social scientists in the Journal Science shows that people encountering litter may not only be more likely to litter themselves (broken windows theory) but the “environmental disorder” to which they contribute fuels condescending perceptions and other stereotypes that underlie discrimination such as racism and other anti-social behaviors.

I've perceived a bump in littering (like whole bags of trash) after the Ferguson and Garner unpleasantness. If you want a nice, safe way to stick it to society, littering can't be beat.