Behavioural Change will be more easily obtained by appealing to the lowest common denominator

The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vices, Publick Benefits is an essay written in the eighteenth century suggesting that the best route to the public good is to exploit the tendency to vice of the general public.  It was scandalous in its day and its author Bernard Mandeville was prosecuted for its immoral tendency.

This is an early example of behavioural change theory.  I was prompted to think of the Fable the other day when I was invited to be part of a judging panel for Best Brand Activation at a UK festival by Rich Sutcliffe for Brand Republic.  The entry under discussion had done something rather interesting.  Coca Cola drove recycling at festivals this summer by exchanging bottles for merchandise made from recycled materials.  The discussion revolved around whether this had actually given anyone a taste for recycling, or whether it had simply appealed to the desire for free stuff in exchange for other people’s rubbish. 

It doesn’t matter much either way.  Instead of plastic bottles littering Hyde Park during Jay-Z’s gig this summer, you could barely finish your drink before someone swooped on your bottle and took it for a swap.  It clearly cut down on the tidying up cost.  This must have got some people to consider recycling who had never bothered before to do so.

It’s a good question to ask of any behavioural change project you might have in mind.  What about it would reward the subject in an immediately gratifying way ?  By giving them an immediate reward you might  have a chance of changing their behaviour than by merely offering the promise of feeling good from doing the right thing.

Or as Mandeville himself said “Private Vices by the dextrous Management of a skilful Politician may be turned into Publick Benefits.”  For “politician” read planner.

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