Resistance: how to encourage uptake of new innovations
- If individuals perceive risks linked to an innovation, however small, then resistance and opposition can become a barrier.
- People tend to overestimate the losses rather than the gains that an innovation is likely to bring them.
- This is what happened with the Linky metres, which met with strong resistance in France and across the EU for economic or ecological reasons.
- A nudge is an incentive, which can be visual or auditory, that leads an individual to opt for one product or behaviour rather than another.
- With nudges, it is possible to achieve up to 20-30% behavioural change in a given population.
What are the reasons why people adopt or reject an innovation? Can we encourage people to follow a specific behaviour rather than one that is adopted “naturally”? This is the research topic of Cécile Chamaret, lecturer at École Polytechnique (IP Paris). She is interested in the mechanisms of resistance to innovation by individuals, but also by larger scale organisations such as local authorities.
Linky, a textbook case
Cécile Chamaret has published a study on the reasons why nearly 1,000 municipalities in France refused, under pressure from their constituents, to replace conventional electricity metres with Linky “smart” metres. The latter are designed to be more efficient and provide new services such as remote activation and daily monitoring of energy consumption. “We looked in detail at the reasons behind nearly 450 decrees issued by municipalities to prohibit the installation of these new metres,” explains the researcher.
Some town councils put forward the risk of data piracy (and therefore of non-respect privacy), some insisted on the economic risk such as higher bills, and others feared the physical effects on consumers’ health, linked to the waves emanating from these metres. Finally, ecological arguments were also put forward such as what is the need to replace 50 million metres, which are still functional and expected to last 50 years, with metres with a life span of 15 years? And what’s more, without knowing what was going to be done with the old metres!
As Cécile Chamaret points out, if people or public authorities perceive risks linked to an innovation, however small, then the phenomena of resistance and opposition will be very significant. Because the various risks associated with the new metres were not considered, well-founded or not, « positive » communication efforts by the public energy company installing them, Enedis, did not convince the recalcitrant – arguments which included free installation the ecological benefits. “Adopting a new product represents financial costs for the individual, but also the psychological costs of learning and giving up the previous product”, she points out.
The dishwasher is a good example. Described as a disruptive innovation, because it provided a service that did not exist before its invention, it nevertheless had a hard time gaining acceptance. At first, people only saw the disadvantages! It was expensive, required a lot of handling and adapted products (rinsing liquid, salts, specific dishwashing products); it made noise, took up space, and moreover it endangered the social role of the housewife! Faced with the outcry, manufacturers quickly changed their strategy, and rather than targeting private individuals, they sold dishwashers to kitchen designers, who were responsible for introducing them into the daily lives of private individuals…
“Contrary to what you might think, people tend to overvalue what they have and overestimate the losses rather than the gains that a new product is likely to bring them,” adds Cécile Chamaret. If your innovation is just a little better than what already exists, it is unlikely to be adopted. It’s a balancing act between a cost and a benefit: what will this new product bring and vice versa?
If your innovation is just a little bit better than what already exists, it is unlikely to be adopted.
Today, Cécile Chamaret is working on a new research programme on sobriety to better understand an individual’s motivations for changing or not changing their behaviour. She is also studying « dropouts », drivers who have adopted the electric vehicle only to return to the internal combustion vehicle. In the United States, this represents 20% of electric vehicle buyers! This shows that innovation is never easy…
But it is always possible to influence consumer behaviour so that they go for a particular product, particularly through what are known as “nudges”. Étienne Bressoud, deputy director general of the BVA Nudge Unit, is the specialist in France the nudge – incentives that can be visual or auditory, and that will lead an individual to opt for a behaviour, or for a product, rather than another.
The influence of nudges
To study the issue, Etienne Bressoud uses behavioural sciences (cognitive psychology, social psychology, neuroscience), which show that human beings are not as rational as we might think in their decisions and that they are greatly influenced by the physical and social context in which they find themselves.
For example, if you are with your colleagues in a room where there is a free coffee machine and a small sign tells you to put 20 cents in a piggy bank when you have a coffee, you will certainly put the 20 cents if your colleagues are present, but if you are alone, you will tend to “forget”. To check this, researchers used a visual nudge: they stuck a poster above the coffee machine showing a pair of wide-open eyes fixed on the potential coffee consumer. With the poster, the money donated was three times greater!
Richard Thaler and Catherine Steen are the two American co-authors of the nudge concept, which they published in 2008. Having become an advisor to David Cameron in England in 2010, Richard Thaler first used nudges in public policy to encourage the English to pay their taxes more quickly, by sending out a generalised letter stating that 9 out of 10 people paid their taxes as soon as they received their tax notice. To comply with this social norm, more English people paid their taxes quickly! In France, from 2013 onwards, nudges have also been used by the tax authorities to encourage more people to switch from paper to electronic declarations.
Nudges help people move from intention to action.
“Finally, the nudge allows us to help people move from intention to action,” says Étienne Bressoud. It’s not about getting them to adopt behaviours that they don’t want to do. Applied to consumption, nudge is not going to make a customer buy a product he or she doesn’t want. But nudge can guide certain purchasing behaviour.
For example, manufacturers have developed compressed deodorant bottles that have exactly the same content as traditional bottles but are more environmentally friendly (same amount of product transported with fewer trucks, less space on the shelves, etc.). “But no matter how much you explain to the consumer that they have the same content in a classic deodorant as in a compressed deodorant, they will have the impression that they are paying the same price for a less interesting product, » explains Etienne Bressoud. “Because in the supermarket aisle, the individual is in an almost automatic, non-reflective purchasing system. The nudge in this case will consist of modifying the physical environment of the consumer, by playing on the shelf layout: by placing the small deodorant on a wedge, it will be at the same height as the large one, so that the consumer will more easily buy the compressed deodorant.”
Can the nudge be used to manipulate individuals? “If the company uses nudges for its own purposes at the expense of the consumer, this is called the dark nudge,” says Etienne Bressoud. For example, many companies use default choices (pre-ticked boxes, for example) in mailings sent online to their customers to force them into their databases and then force them to receive promotional offers, sometimes daily. This method of choice by default is so powerful that the legislator has seized upon it and prohibited its use to protect personal data. “But if I explain the reasons why I have set up a particular nudge and the person agrees with the motives (to encourage the purchase of more ecological products, for example), then we are very far from a purely commercial approach,” argues Étienne Bressoud.
Depending on the individual and the type of nudge, the effectiveness will be more or less important, but it is possible to obtain up to 20 to 30% of behavioural changes in a given population.