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Resistance: how to encourage uptake of new innovations 

Cécile Chamaret
Cécile Chamaret
Professor in Marketing and Consumer Behaviour at Ecole Polytechnique (IP Paris)
Etienne Bressoud
Étienne Bressoud
Head of Marketing Science at Institut BVA
Key takeaways
  • 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.

Adopting innovations 

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. 

Targeting consumers

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.

Marina Julienne

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