Thursday, 15 November 2012

Forget fines, use peer pressure

by Richard Hartung, Published TODAY, 14 Nov 2012

"Do the Right Thing", the well-remembered Australian anti-litter campaign from the '80s and '90s, has been called the most successful behaviour-change campaign in Australian history and some credit it with reducing littering by 70 per cent.

And when Texas wanted to reduce its litter problem, the state turned to a professional ad agency that built the award-winning "Don't Mess with Texas" campaign, roping entertainment world stars into a campaign that is still going strong two decades later and has changed Texans' behaviour. The ads are so successful that the Irish government has said it will fund a new campaign modelled on the Texas experience.

Here in Singapore, there has long been a different approach - high fines and a decades-long Clean & Green campaign. Yet penalties up to S$5,000 seem to have increasingly less effect, and four decades of Clean & Green ads have not instilled a culture of not littering.

"Some of our public spaces have become increasingly dirty," Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said recently.

Over 30 per cent of Singaporeans in a National Environment Agency (NEA) survey said they would litter if they could get away with it.

While the NEA is reviewing penalties for littering, there's also a recognition that the entire approach towards litter needs to change if Singapore is to become clean (and not merely cleaned) again.

The key is to instil a culture of cleanliness. Indeed, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the launch of the latest Clean & Green Week that it is "each person's own responsibility" to keep the country clean.

The way forward, Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Vivian Balakrishnan has said, is for local communities to promote cleanliness, with MPs and community leaders creating peer pressure for a clean environment. Keep Singapore Clean Movement head Liak Teng Lit suggested giving citizens the power to issue summonses to offending litterers as well as setting up a "Shame On You" website for people to upload photos and videos of bad behaviour.


While the concepts may sound good, the question is how to make the change happen when the public has gotten used to the Government taking responsibility. Few peer groups have made a big impact and the nation relies on thousands of cleaners.

One solution that has worked, both in other countries as well as here in other contexts, is peer pressure. Where it has worked, though, it has more often been independent peer groups rather than government-led ones that succeeded.

A multitude of stories in Pulitzer prize-winning author Tina Rosenberg's book called Join the Club show just how well peer pressure can work. One story starts by relating how several government-led campaigns to reduce teen smoking in the United States had little effect. After the Florida state government changed tactics and gave funds to a professional ad agency, which in turn helped develop a peer-led anti-smoking campaign by teens for teens, teen smoking dropped 47 per cent.

Similar peer-pressure campaigns have worked elsewhere, Rosenberg explained, for everything from improving healthcare in India to learning math in university. And the increasingly successful campaign to eliminate shark's fin shows how well peer pressure can work here too.

Giving incentives to independent peer groups passionate about clean communities could similarly bolster their efforts here. Hiring a professional ad agency like Ireland and Texas have done, and tasking them with supporting peer groups to champion the initiatives, might work far better than standard campaigns.


Second, respondents to a US National Transportation Board survey have called the "Sponsor a Highway" programme - where a community group takes responsibility for cleaning up a stretch of highway and gets publicity in return - one of the most successful anti-litter practices.

Here, for example, a number of primary schools such as Bendemeer, Fuhua and East View have adopted reservoirs or rivers, resulting in both a cleaner waterway and greater understanding of cleanliness at the schools. Enabling groups to adopt parks or neighbourhoods and keep them clean could similarly instil a responsibility for cleanliness.

A third option is to figure out how to "nudge" residents towards behaviour changes. University of Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein have shown that "nudges", signals that change people's behaviour without specific prohibitions or economic incentives like fines, actually work.

As one example, Draftfcb's John Kenny said telling guys their mums hated videogames like Dead Space 2 nudged them into thinking the games are cool. And a study by University of Southern Denmark Professor Pelle Hansen showed that stencilling a prominent trail of green footsteps leading up to trash bins nudged people enough to reduce litter by 46 per cent in Copenhagen. Figuring out the right nudges for Singapore could reinforce peer pressure.

Instead of simply using variations on old themes or relying on Government, new approaches like handing the anti-litter programme off to professionals, giving incentives to real peer groups, enabling peer groups to adopt neighbourhoods and figuring out nudges to support the efforts could work better.

The Zero Litter Footprint Movement in the South East District, for instance, is one place to start - the idea is to get 50,000 residents to personally pledge to keep the environment clean, and rope schools in to conduct patrols and perform skits at malls and town centres.

Using these or other new tactics which have worked elsewhere may be what's really needed to make Singapore cleaner.

Richard Hartung is a consultant who has lived in Singapore since 1992.

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