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Anti-littering nudge #2: the “Green karma” nudge

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A littering paradox

Every time we give a talk on litter we ask the audience how many find littering behavior “strongly inappropriate”. Usually almost everyone raise their hand. This is consistent with a recent survey finding that most people (90%) in Copenhagen find – not just litter – but littering behavior “strongly inappropriate”.

Given that this percentage has been steadily increasing year after year it seems that the many millions of public Danish Kroner channeled into information campaigns run by expensive advertising companies and their ‘creative’ networks are finally paying off.

But think again. While the attitude against littering has been on the rise, so has the problem of littering!

Copenhagen Distortion Festival is one of the events that have drowned the city in litter. The festival faces the possible threat of being expelled from the city as was the case with Copenhagen Carnival several years ago.

This is an expensive paradox. This year alone Copenhagen will use a record sum of 150.000.000 kr. (approximately $25.325.000) on keeping the city clean (well, to the extend that you can call it clean today).

Since I have written elsewhere about the nature of this paradox and why people may litter while holding strong attitudes against their own type of behavior, let’s return to our talk.


Next question, please

Having asked how many in the audience find littering behavior strongly inappropriate, the next thing we usually ask is how many in the audience occasionally throw litter on the street.

Since a talk on littering is usually given to “the already converted”, very very few hands go up, and when they do, it’s with some particular point in mind.

Final questions

Then comes our two final questions:

(1) how many feel they have a “clean conscience”.

Given the aforementioned context the number is usually a full 100%. Quickly followed by:

(2) how many of you pick up other people’s litter on a regularly basis?

The answer to this one is almost always close to none… well, that is when we are not talking to an audience of people working in renovation.

What these answers reveal to me is that our conscience and thus our motivational resources closely track our behavior relative to the pro-social norm against littering. That is, if you’re not littering you’re entitled to a clean conscience – if you’re littering you’re not. This categorisation of behavior may be illustrated by simple T-Shirts.

Usually our littering behavior is categorized relative to the pro-social norm. The category of inappropriate behavior is here represented by a red T-shirt, while appropriate behavior relative to the norm is represented by a green T-shirt.

Targeting behavior

In addition, behavior change measures, including various nudges, are not surprisingly aimed at the transgressors of this norm. But obviously, this is also likely to be the most difficult group to motivate.

Without ignoring the importance of motivating this group  it does seem to me that

  1. this group are likely to be the least suited for nudging since their behavior is at worst consistent with fundamental preferences, and at best in need of a connection to more fundamental preferences from which pro-social behavior may be deduced; and that
  2. those with “clean conscience” are much better candidates for nudging.

Not just because the survey numbers on littering indicate that lots of people in this group actually litters without admitting this into their self-portrayal, but also because this self-portrayal actually provides a strong readily available resource of motivation.


From clean to green-conscience

So how do we nudge those who want to do their best to do better?

The nudge we suggest here is one based on Thaler’s theory of mental accounting. The basic idea is to change the frame of conscience by offering a new way of categorising behavior – a way that tracks your contribution to the environment rather than your compliance with a littering norm.
To be specific we suggest a categorisation with three categories:

  • negative contribution,
  • neutral contribution, and
  • positive contribution.


In the new frame behavior is categorized relative to environmental impact rather than the norm. In particular, there are now two categories for those not transgressing littering norms.

If you throw litter and thus infringe with the existing norms, your contribution will not surprisingly be a negative one within the new frame.

However, the change lies with regard to those complying with the pro-social norm with regard to littering. Those who perceive themselves as “non-litterers” are usually entitled to a clean conscience within the old frame. That is, they might loose a cigarette butt on the ground, but immediately pick it up, while at the same time leaving another cigarette butt on the ground only few inches from their fingertips, only because it wasn’t ‘theirs’ – yet retain a clean conscience.

Within the new frame, though, they are only entitled to a neutral conscience. Although picking up their cigarette butts and never litter, their contribution is still only neutral, though. To become entitled to a green conscience,, they would have to seriously consider picking up that additional piece of litter just a few inches from their fingertips – and if acting on this, thereby positively contribute to their environment.

Implementing Green-karma

Basically what all this boils down to is a kind of ‘karma-principle’ with regard to ones environmental impact. If we could successfully implement this nudge just in a fragment of that majority of people usually entitled to a clean conscience, it might ultimately make a substantial difference in the aggregate.

But how do we implement this nudge? While enjoying the Copenhagen afternoon sun with Rani Saad from Ideas42 last week we came up with at least one idea. Inspired by the successfull app Zombies, Run! – and in accordance with current trends – we thought that a “green karma” app might just be the right thing. In fact, back at iNudgeYou we’ve got everything laid out for this.

Still, we would like to hear if you have any additional or better ideas? And what do you think should be included in the app? Please let us know in the comments.

OOH! – and don’t forget to “socially like” this post – so we won´t miss out on all the potential good ideas!


Next read Nudges:

Anti-littering Nudge #1: Why littering bins should be orange! Not green!

Green nudge: Nudging litter into the bin



2 Responses

  1. Pingback : Nudge your trash can: 5000 € prize competition | iNudgeYou

  2. In this country (UK) people always say ‘well it gives someone a job’ or ‘I hardly ever do it’ when they litter. How about some information on how much money they just saved their council and, hence, themselves in the app or on the bin? Not sure if this could be classed as a nudge. Happy small critters would be an obvious nudge type symbol, it is how I taught my son not to litter – ‘it kills little animals’. Each piece of litter can add up to huge environmental cost, could that be gotten across? Maybe paving slabs covered with drawings of litter could be used to see if people litter more when they see litter there already, and how much has to be there for them to add to it (or not add to it!)?

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