Why and how it works
In modern society people is bombarded with messages that try to influence them in different ways. In order to cope with this we tend to unconsciously filter out some information and select what is relevant for us. Typically we are drawn to messages that are easy to understand, correlate with our consisting values and beliefs and that are presented to us in an attractive way. Furthermore, we are significantly more likely to react to a message when given to us at the right time. The Green Footprints example illustrates the power of using a visual and easy to understand reminder of throwing the trash where it belongs.
To attract attention to sustainable behaviour clearly has its limits, not the least due to the strong competition from commercial actors whose budgets generally speaking are much larger. Furthermore, since people tend to avoid messages that challenge their current beliefs there is also a limit to what can be achieved, no matter how clear we try to be or attractive the message is.
Recommendations for implementation
The experiment with green footsteps is fairly easy to replicate in other towns and communities. The same principle could be used to remind people of other green choices such as guiding people to organic products in a food store and to prompt the green alternatives on a food menu. The strategy is more likely to be effective in situations where the attitudes towards the behaviour are positive in the first place, as they then may work as a reminder of the social norm. Another area where the potential is huge is to develop and implement smart design that reminds people of their energy consumption. The Interactive Institute in Sweden and its Energy Design department has developed several concrete examples of products that visualize energy use, such as the award winning Flower Lamp and the Energy AWARE Clock.
Example: Nudging litter into the bin using green footprints
Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, is considered to be one of the cleanest in the world. Nevertheless, the town has long been faced with a problem of littering. Studies have showed that one third of the Danes occasionally leave trash on the streets and in parks. Danish behavioural researcher Pelle Hansen and his students at Roskilde festival wanted to test whether a small and simple reminder given at the right time could affect the littering behaviour.
Pelle and his team came up with the idea of painting green footsteps on the ground guiding people to the bins. The team started of the experiment by handing out free candy wrapped up in paper to pedestrians passing by in a street. The students then counted the number of candy-wrappers that ended up on the street, in the garbage can and in bicycle baskets. The experiment was repeated a second time after painting the footsteps on the ground.
The experiment showed that the amount of litter that ended up on the street was reduced by as much as 46 per cent after having painted green footsteps on the ground. Due to this strong result, the municipality of Copen- hagen decided to imple- ment the experiment in practice, guiding people to the bins with green footsteps all across the town, as part of its program ”Clean Love for Copenhagen”. There is evidence to suggest that the Danish example proved successful, because of strong positive attitude towards keeping the street cleans in Copenhagen. The example has inspired the market town of Sutton-in-Ashfield in England to test the footprint nudge in three different locations around the town, including a public park.