Easy 'Nudges' Aren't Enough To Save The Earth

Photo: Arek Socha

We all love to do our part to fix big problems, especially when our part is something easy and feel-good. But nudges can backfire, leading us to believe that our small actions were basically good enough when they’re not.

A recent study found that big-picture solutions like a carbon tax (considered one of the more potentially effective ways to reduce carbon emissions) seem to compete with green energy nudges in our mind. In one part of the study, people had the option of choosing between a policy that would default residents to a green energy company (the nudge), a carbon tax policy, or both or neither. Fewer people supported the carbon tax in that scenario than when people were presented with a simpler choice: carbon tax or no carbon tax.

This agrees with previous research that finds that people tend to slack off once they’ve taken an easy action. For example, reminding people that they’ve reduced their water use makes them less likely to reduce their energy use.

Fortunately, the study also found a way to get people to support the easy thing and the important thing. As social psychologist Alexander Maki writes in a commentary on the study, “being honest about the incomplete but complementary nature of any given policy approach may help people appreciate why support for multiple policies is important.”

So if you want people to join you in small actions, like using less plastic or eating more environmentally friendly food, don’t forget to also spread the word about the harder, big-picture solutions to the problems you’re hoping to solve.


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