"We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience." -John Dewey
Above: The Skinner Box, an artistic rendition of a behavioral modification experiment conducted by B.F. Skinner in the 1920s or 30s. Skinner believed that the root of most behavior was the perceived consequences of action.
The New York Times recently reported Britain’s successful efforts to guide the behavior of its citizens. Using theories developed in the United States, the government effectively decreased the number of citizens collecting unemployment benefits. They also won in their efforts to cut down on tax evasion and increase the number of participants in a house insulation subsidy program.
What’s the secret? The government appealed to human nature. Rather than fill out piles of forms, job seekers were asked to write journal entries about their feelings. Tax evaders were sent gentle reminders and told that their neighbors and others had already filed. Home owners received contact information for an attic-clearing service.
These methods show how a more empathic approach to social policy can enhance public participation. The more you understand the people you’re trying to reach (and in some cases, the more you encourage them to understand themselves), the more successful the initiative.
These techniques, if adopted more widely, might also enhance sustainable behaviors in consumers. Environmental psychology is a field of behavioral study that explores the relationship between human nature and ecological systems. With more awareness of Britain’s success, perhaps more government and NGO workers can employ similar strategies in their own projects.