From recycling clothes to stopping smoking and behaving in public, incentive tickets are making a difference. But are we losing the ability to do good for its own sake?
It is a shrewd psychological tactic that all parents will be familiar with: instead of berating an errant child for their wrongdoings, focus instead in rewarding them for good behaviour.
Now the idea is catching on outside the nursery, with implications for everything from recycling clothes to policing. Put simply: to get people to do things, throw away those sticks and invest in a prodigious quantity of carrots.
Take the modern phenomenon of “fast fashion”: determined to keep prices artificially low for consumers, clothes companies exploit workers and use shoddy materials. The scale and pace of production and distribution is disastrous for the environment, and consumers end up with piles of unwanted clothes. Every year in the UK, 300,000 tonnes ends up in landfill – 235 million individual items.
Now however, apps such as ReGain, Regive and Stuffstr are making it simpler – and more worthwhile – for people to return their unwanted clobber.
The ReGain app can be used to find one of 20,000 drop-off points. In return, the diligent consumer earns rewards such as discount coupons for high street retailers. Stuffstr works in partnership with John Lewis to help people get cash in return for unwanted items from the chain.
“Possibly the one prediction that we economists get right is that if you incentivise a behaviour, you will get more of it,” says Dr Matthew Levy, a lecturer in economics at the London School of Economics (LSE).
He cites research, including his own, showing that financial incentives encouraging regular exercise, stopping smoking and losing weight effectively promote healthy behaviours and that there is no backlash when the incentives are removed. “If anything, the incentives can be used to jump-start a healthy habit that keeps going,” he says.
In the four months after its launch, the ReGain scheme received almost 17,000 parcels containing 47 tonnes of used clothes and shoes, of which 95% could potentially be reused, according to its founder Jack Ostrowski. There’s one obvious criticism of ReGain: if fast fashion is the problem, is it helpful to give people discounts to buy more fast fashion? Ostrowski argues that vague notions imploring people to save the planet don’t work.
“We need to find a way to influence behaviour, and discount coupons help,” he says. The platform is also working with brands and retailers to find ways to divert used clothes from landfills and into the production of new clothes, he adds.
Other reward schemes have had success in encouraging behavioural change.
When police in Canada issued “positive tickets” – coupons for free food or movie tickets – to reward good behaviour among young people, they reported an almost 50% drop in youth-related service calls.
“The ticket is the gateway to the relationship,” says Ward Clapham, the former superintendent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Richmond, British Columbia. “If you want to build up an environment of trust, cooperation, collaboration and support, you have to have a relationship; and its a lot easier to start that in a positive environment than in a negative one.
“My officers would say ‘In the old days we’d drive up in the police car and the kids would run away from us, now they run to us’.”
Similar ticketing schemes have been trialled in the UK, and rolled out in Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, the US, and elsewhere, as police forces look at new ways to build trust within communities.
In a similar venture, Hull city council have announced plans to launch a digital reward token – the HullCoin – that can be earned by volunteering and spent at local retailers.
Elsewhere, a study on the recruitment of health workers in Zambia found that highlighting economic incentives during the recruitment process caused future employees to be more motivated and task-focused.
The new health workers went on to conduct 29% more household visits than previous staff, twice as many community meetings and oversaw a 25% reduction in the amount of underweight children in the treatment areas.
“Emphasising the economic incentives led to the recruitment of more effective, and more devoted, health workers than emphasising the societal benefits,” Levy explains.
Conversely, if the deterrent for a particular action is not substantial enough (ie if the stick is a twig), people may view it as a licence to break the rules.
When two behavioural economists conducted a study at a daycare centre in Israel and introduced a small fine of around £2 for late parents, the amount of latecomers increased. According to the researchers, this was because they could now avoid being guilty by paying the small fine. However, “this is less important when we are talking about rewarding good behaviour,” says Levy.
Nava Ashraf, also a LSE economics professor, says that the more that people engage in altruistic acts, the easier it becomes. “We humans notoriously underestimate how happy it makes us to give to others,” she says.
Ashraf’s research looks into the long-term impact of incentivising good behaviour. “Giving can become a habit and something people want to continue on their own, even if it isn’t rewarded. Platforms could induce people to start something that they may not otherwise do and in the process, they may learn how much they enjoy it, creating a craving for it,” she says.
“We know from neuroscience that the more we do something the more easy it becomes,” she explains. “It goes from something we have to think about to becoming second nature.”
Or as Aristotle put it: ‘We are what we repeatedly do.’
But Ashraf does caution that getting rewarded for one type of charitable giving “might also make people feel entitled” to get paid for other good deeds, something her research is hoping to shed more light on.
For now, the rate of people regularly doing formal volunteer work hasremained stable since 2001. If schemes such as ReGain go on to see long-term success, volunteer organisations might consider getting in on the act.
“Obviously different groups are motivated by different factors,” says Ostrowski. “For some, the ‘feel good’ factor is enough, and for others, that reward stimulus is required.”