When push comes to nudge – behaviour change lessons from social distancing
Well, that escalated quickly. From a simple message of “wash your hands” and “stay inside if you have a cough/fever”, now everything is closed, our time in the public realm is strictly rationed and many of us are undergoing a crash course in teaching. This has been accompanied by howls of abuse on social media for those deemed to be panic buying or congregating in public places. While these behaviours have had serious negative impacts on the most vulnerable in our society, in a way they were predictable responses to the circumstances.
- If you tell people they may have to self-isolate for 14 days, of course they’re going to stock up on food. Added the fact we are all now eating all meals at home (= more shopping needed) it’s not really surprising the shelves have emptied (OK there are a small number of people who have gone waaaay overboard, but they appear to be a tiny minority).
- If you close all confined spaces, of course people are going to head to familiar outdoor spots, only to find everybody else has had the same idea and by that time, it’s too late to turn back. Given all kids were at school with their pals just last Friday, I’m not surprised that the message didn’t sink in instantaneously – this is a new world for us all.
- Most importantly, all our systems are set up to work under non-pandemic conditions. Towards the end of last week, I joined what looked like a well-spaced queue in a chip shop, but when more people, including a frail elderly couple, entered the door, there was no way of escaping the now crowded space without coming very close to the vulnerable people, so I was stuck in the middle of it. Likewise the narrow paths in our park make a 2m passing distance impossible, so going for a walk turns into a game of chess. A simple message can quickly become difficult in practice when our systems are designed for business as usual.
When it comes to Sustainability, I always preach that we can’t expect people to change their behaviour until the wider system changes to allow them to do the new behaviour easily. For example, if you want more people to cycle, you need to provide safe cycle routes, secure storage etc – imploring them to take up cycling in a system designed for the motor car just won’t work.
When I’m doing behavioural change work, I usually find that identifying structural barriers to change and eliminating them can have a massive impact. In the same way as we are seeing innovations to encourage social distancing, we need to be designing everything to enable and encourage Sustainable behaviour.
Stay safe everyone!