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Empowering citizens to become agents of behavioural change

Dr Sanchayan Banerjee recently completed his PhD in Environmental Economics at LSE. He explains the focus of his research, which led to the development of the Nudge+ framework, and the impact of financial support for early career researchers.  

When I started my PhD, there was a debate about whether nudges – which are quick fixes to our behaviours – were strong enough to lead us thought the structural changes needed to address climate change. This immediately piqued my interest because my research focus was on the environment.   

A nudge is a way of presenting choices to people differently. So, you can actually stick with your own actions but, because the choice environment has changed, you are steered towards making better decisions. For example, if you're a person who always orders more food because you can't estimate the right portion for you, a nudge could be reducing the size of the plate. That would direct you towards serving a smaller portion, wasting less food, and reducing your environmental footprint.  

However, nudges can be very top-down approaches of changing people's behaviours; they bypass people's agency and are not always transparent. And that raises a lot of concerns: is it ethical to change your behaviour without having your consent? Is it really the right thing to do?  

I started thinking about how we could bring citizens into this whole concept of nudging, I wondered what would happen if we made people reflect on their own behaviours before nudging them. That would definitely improve autonomy and agency as people would have more control over their choices, but would involving citizens in the process of nudging improve its effectiveness too?

Nudge+ as a tool for transformative change

The Nudge+ framework proposes incorporating reflection into behavioural public policy to guide citizens towards better decisions with nudges at their own disposal. It suggests that when we are encouraged to reflect upon our own choices or their consequences before we are nudged, we are empowered to adopt better behaviours.

I initially applied this thinking in a food setting, because what we eat contributes almost 15 percent to global greenhouse gas emissions. I've done two large-scale experiments in the UK and compared the outcomes of these nudge+ interventions against those of standalone nudges without any reflection. Both experiments confirmed that when people are encouraged to reflect on their own dietary preferences, or on the nudge itself, the efficacy of the nudge goes up. In the first experiment efficacy of a green nudge which defaulted people into climate-friendly diets went up by 30%, in the second it almost doubled the effectiveness of a social norm nudge to eat greener. In both experiments, results suggest that people were more empowered to make much better environmental food choices.

A woman deliberates over two boxed products in a small organic grocery store

I’ve applied Nudge+ to other settings too. In the final year of my PhD, we received a British Academy grant to test Nudge+ in promoting vaccination intentions across the G7 countries. Here, we found that allowing citizens to reflect on default vaccination appointments allowed them to reduce their support for this otherwise ineffective nudge. In my current work, I am working on decarbonising energy demand in the Netherlands using such citizen-oriented, tailored behavioural policies.

I think we sometimes underestimate human beings and their capacities to address the big challenges we face, such as climate change, global health problems, or misinformation. Human beings are unique – rather than irrational – and trying to simplify them with a model, which typically a lot of neoclassical economics tends to do, seems a bit redundant today. Crediting people for what they can do is much more empowering than trying to belittle them and undermining their agency. Agency in behavioural public policy is therefore very important.

Confronting the world’s most pressing problems requires systemic large-scale changes, and citizens will have quite a big role to play in that. Challenges such as climate change call for collective action responses; we all need to act together. My research is helping us understand people's behaviours and how they respond to policies, which in turn leads to better policy making. It fits in with this growing idea of how citizen-oriented policies can be a powerful tool for change, how bringing citizens into policymaking can have a positive impact in our future.

My research is helping us understand people's behaviours and how they respond to policies, which in turn leads to better policy making. It fits in with this growing idea of how citizen-oriented policies can be a powerful tool for change, how bringing citizens into policymaking can have a positive impact in our future.

Supporting early career researchers to reach their full potential

Receiving the Robert and Dilys Rawson Scholarship was a lifesaver. During my PhD we were hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and people were losing their jobs. The scholarship gave me stability and the certainty that I needed to continue with my research without having to worry about how to make ends meet. It allowed me to focus all my energy and thoughts on my research and give it my best shot.

LSE is a wonderful environment for early career researchers; it’s always open to unabashed new, radical thinking and people really listen to your ideas. All my colleagues at the Department of Geography and Environment were very friendly and collegial, and I had an amazing team of supervisors. Susana Mourato was my first supervisor, and she gave me the space to look for other supervisors based on my interests. After my first year, I reached out to Matteo Galizzi, Associate Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, and Peter John, Head of the School of Politics and Economics at King’s College, who then became my second supervisors. A lot of the research I developed was because of my supervisors and colleagues, and thanks to the room I was given to be curious and to explore my interests.

The Robert and Dilys Rawson Scholarship was set up thanks to a generous legacy gift from former lecturer Bob Rawson, who joined the Geography Department at LSE in 1945, and his wife Dilys, who was also an academic and taught Biology at Queen Elizabeth College. The scholarship supports students embarking on postgraduate study in LSE’s Department of Geography and Environment.

Interested in leaving a legacy to LSE?