Conference material

Nudging pro-social behaviours

Plenary session 2 consisted of 3 presentations, followed by a Q&A session with the audience and speakers. Read on for the summary of the presentations and discussion points during the Q&A session. For more details on the presentations, you can follow the links to the presentation slides.

Date Posted

1 Jan 0001


Issue 17, 14 Jun 2017

Plenary Session 2: Nudging pro-social behaviours

By Professor Lorenz Goette, Associate Professor Leonard Lee, Mr Huang Jianyun and Dr Joanne Yoong (Moderator)

Presentation #1: Directing Attention Towards Resource Use

Professor Goette wanted to explore how the attitude-behaviour gap was hindering an individual’s attempt to conserve resources despite expressing pro-environmental sentiments. One of the prevailing hypothesis was that people experienced difficulty translating their attitudes into behaviours due to unavailability of real-time data that would help them make the behavioural change while engaging in the activity. Currently, consumers only receive feedback on their monthly aggregate energy consumption, which is not the most salient way to present information.

To test this hypothesis, Professor Goette designed an experiment to examine if behaviour-specific and real-time feedback, such as water volume and duration of the shower, could influence people to spend less time showering. Furthermore, some of the participants were given water conservation goals to determine if actionable feedback could reinforce conservation effects. The findings were as follows:

  1. NUS-PUB Field Experiment: Participants reduced their water consumption when they were provided with real-time feedback. This effect was further reinforced by the water conservation goals. In addition, it was noted that a targeted and realistic goal had the largest effect on participants.
  2. UTown (NUS) Field Experiment: To test if the findings could be replicated in settings where participants were not required to pay for their water consumption, the experiment was repeated at UTown (NUS). Similar to the previous study, participants reduced their water consumption when they were provided with real-time feedback and this effect was reinforced by the water conservation goals.

Results obtained from the field experiments had re-affirmed the hypothesis that people would make better decisions when they had more accurate information on resource usage. Professor Goette is in the process of conducting a policy pilot (Smart Shower Programme) to assess if the findings can be replicated outside of an experimental setting.

Link to Professor Goette’s presentation slides

Presentation #2: Competition-Based Energy Campaign Targeted at Children

Associate Professor Lee and his team launched WE-Hero, a competition-based intervention programme targeted at young children to maximise their influence in affecting energy consumption in their households. The team hypothesised that such a competition would spur children’s desire to conserve energy at home, and the energy-conservation knowledge they acquired in the workshop would permeate to their families.

The preliminary results suggested that ‘public recognition’ enhanced the effectiveness of such a competition-based intervention programme. Furthermore, social rewards were more effective than financial rewards when it came to habit formation for both water and electricity conservation.

Link to Associate Professor Lee’s presentation summary

Presentation #3: Household Food Waste Recycling Pilot

Mr Huang, from the Ministry of Environment and Water Resources (MEWR), presented on a pilot programme to encourage households to recycle their food waste. In order to design an effective intervention, the agency used Journey Mapping (see slides) to understand how residents handled their food waste and they identified 3 key phases; (a) generation, (b) segregation and (c) disposal of food waste, with the latter taking place outside the residents’ homes.

Several steps were taken to facilitate new habit formation:1

  1. Disrupt existing behaviour: Singaporean households were currently conditioned to throw their waste down the chute because it was convenient to do so. To disrupt this status-quo, there was a need to make people aware of their unconscious actions and provide them with a viable alternative. As part of an outreach programme, MEWR partnered with the local Residents’ Committee to organise a block party as well as conducted door-to-door visits to raise awareness about the importance of recycling food waste. The food waste recycling bins were placed at convenient locations to reduce the potential barriers.
  2. Activate the new behaviour: Explicit cues to trigger the new behaviour were located in both public as well as private spaces. For example, there were visual cues on the kitchen caddy, food waste bags and information card to remind residents to segregate their food waste within the confines of their homes. Furthermore, stickers were placed above the public rubbish chutes to serve as a last call to action for residents to segregate their food waste for recycling.
  3. Reinforce the new behaviour: Residents were provided with immediate feedback on their performance; the waste recycling bin would display both the weight of their food waste and encouraging message to thank them for their participation. The saliency of such information should boost recycling efforts. In addition, monthly feedback cards were also mailed to residents and packets of fertilisers were distributed during outreach visits to visually illustrate the end product of their food waste recycling efforts.

Some interesting findings were noted:

  1. Based on the participation patterns of the households, they were categorised into three groups; serious, casual and novelty recycler. These participants differed mostly in their (i) participation rate, (ii) environmental attitude and (iii) motivation.
  2. While the weekly participation rate was downward trending, the participation rates increased slightly during the weeks when residents received their monthly feedback. This highlighted the importance of sustained communication and ‘feedback mechanism’ to reinforce their commitment.
  3. The post-pilot survey revealed an increase in environmental centrality, defined by MEWR as the centrality of environmental attitude to an individual’s identity, and responsibility among the participants. Furthermore, there were significant improvement in knowledge of food waste recycling, regardless of whether they actually participated in recycling food waste. This indicated the importance of a visual closure of the information loop to the residents through the distribution of packets of fertilisers during the house visits. However, there was a drop in “acknowledgement of environmental issue” and it was hypothesised that residents might choose to ignore the issue once they had done something to address it.
  4. There were indications of habit formation as 25% of the households continued to recycle their food waste even after the pilot programme had concluded.

These findings offered invaluable insights into food waste segregation and recycling behaviour at the household level, which will help inform the development of future household recycling programmes.

Link to Mr Huang’s presentation slides

Plenary Discussion

The plenary discussion spanned across three key themes. Read on for a summary of the key insights.

Cost-effectiveness of behavioural intervention

  • The cost-effectiveness of a behavioural intervention hinges on how its ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ are computed. Practitioners can understate the ‘costs’ of the intervention if they fail to account for the opportunity cost of labour. On the same note, the ‘benefits’ can be understated if the long-term and sustainable effects of the behavioural intervention are omitted.
  • Furthermore, it is important to consider the intangible benefits arising from such interventions. For example, government agencies can gain valuable insights into citizens’ behaviour and these insights can be used to refine future policies.

Possible heterogeneous treatment effect on various subgroups

  • Certain subgroups, such as senior citizens might differ greatly from their younger counterparts in the areas of social dynamics, historical context and biological cognitive process. Hence, practitioners should be mindful of possible heterogeneous treatment effect. For example, senior citizens might value social recognition less than their younger counterparts and this can introduce statistical error.
  • To address this issue, practitioners should actively seek to obtain a more representative sample. Alternatively, they can rely on the use of data analytics and/or machine learning to identify such heterogeneous treatment effects among various subgroups.

Deterring non-social behaviour

  • Current literature had explored the effectiveness of demonstrating empathy to diffuse tense situation. In one such study, telephone operators were able to appease the callers if they were shown to be empathetic.2 This helped to de-escalate the tension and telephone operators were able to expedite call resolution. To deal with conflicts in person, front-line employees could relocate difficult customers to a private space; otherwise people might refuse to de-escalate the situation in fear of being at the losing end in a social space.
  • Interested parties should refer to studies on narratives and empathy in the field of social psychology for more information.


  1. Sublime Behavior Marketing. (n.d.). ”A marketing strategy that works with both sides of the consumer mind is the key to long-term success” .
  2. C. M. Clark, U. M. Murfett, P. S. Rogers and S. Ang, “Is Empathy Effective for Customer Service? Evidence from Call Center Interactions,” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 27(2012), 123–153, doi: 10.1177/1050651912468887.