Novelty values

In our never-ending search for innovative behaviour change ideas we recently stumbled on a little experiment on YouTube. A car manufacturer might be seen as an unlikely champion for the environment, but Volkswagen thinks they can challenge our perceptions of socially responsible behaviours simply by making them more fun. Their “Fun Theory” campaign shows videos of behaviour experiments including converting the stairs of a subway in Stockholm into a giant keyboard (66% more people took the stairs instead of the escalator), and putting a fun sound effect gadget inside a bin which plays when rubbish is put in it (into which 56% more litter was dropped).

Now they’re enticing us with the promise of an upcoming experiment to encourage recycling, which opens up the question of whether the so called fun theory could be used more generally to make people act ‘greener’. Maybe we can change the habits of a lifetime by dressing up the options a little differently: change the everyday experience, and people might change their everyday actions. In economics terms this would probably be justified through a change in the net benefit, suggesting that there might be more to the concept of ‘novelty value’ than meets the eye. I can’t help but feel this might be spoiling the fun theory, which surely goes some way to showing how irrational our rational economic man can be. However, encouraging people to ‘good’ behaviour through gimmicks and fun may have unexpected results when people start creating extra waste to fire in the bins, or break an ankle trying to re-enact a little Beethoven on the stairs. In any case that novelty (whether valued or not) is likely to wear off and we can’t ensure people will change for the long term.

Can we save the planet through the power of fun? Much of the research into behaviour change, including some of our recent work, looks at the psychological aspects of behaviour and the barriers people face; a silly gimmick might be able to break some people out of their comfort zone. The marketing team at Volkswagen are hoping their campaign can be extended to electric cars – if so, could it be extended to our trains and buses, or even to bicycles and those long forgotten feet? It could be a refreshing change from the perception that saving the environment requires us all to stop doing all the things we enjoy, but may be harder to apply to other kinds of behaviour, for example: using less water, buying fewer goods, or sorting through your kitchen waste. The fun theory may not have the solution to all our problems, but can certainly get people talking about and engaged with their environment, which can’t be a bad thing.

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