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Resistance: how to encourage uptake of new innovations 

Cécile Chamaret
Cécile Chamaret
Lecturer in marketing and consumer behaviour at the Management Research Centre of the Interdisciplinary Institute of Innovation (I³-CRG*) at the École 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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