Nudges can backfire…
In Sweden we have an alcohol monopoly, where only the store called Systembolaget is allowed to sell alcohol. Stated at Systembolagets webpage, it exists for one reason: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” During Christmas this year, they have a campaign with a message on their plastic bags stated as follows:
“ The fact that we are the only one that sells beer, wine and liquor is a bit uncomfortable for you. But this is what you contribute to this year:
About 2000 saved lives
About 20 000 less violence crime
About 11 million less sick days”
Now… From a behavioural perspective, how does this make you feel? Perhaps I’m the only one, but this text actually puts me in a mood that make me feel – Yay, I just bought something for a good cause! Great, this justifies my alcohol shopping… Well, let’s be frank, I don’t think that’s the intention with the message.
Research led by Prof. Robert Cildini at Arizona State University proves that nudges can indeed backfire. In a national park, the research team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”. But, with this warning, theft rates still stood high. So they changed the sign: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”. Surprisingly, this warning influenced theft – but not in the intended direction: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent. The researchers concluded that the message people received was not “don’t steel the petrified wood” but rather “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behaviour.” This research proves that the intended effect the nudges can truly backfire. It emphasizes (as always) the importance of experimental testing thus, behavioural response to nudges can be unpredictable and very context depended.
I assume, that the intentions behind Systembolagets campaign are in line with the reason of why they exist, again: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” Maybe the campaign does work, we don’t know, as it’s most likely not tested.
But… According to me, from a behavioural perspective this is not a responsible campaign as it gives you a positive feedback holding a bag of alcohol. Hypothetically, this type of nudge may backfire making consumption of alcohol unintentionally justified as a good cause and consequently increase those numbers stated on the bag for next year…
“Systembolaget wishes you a very merry christmas”……
Cialdini, R. B., Demaine, L. J., Sagarin, B. J., Barrett, D. W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social influence, 1(1), 3-15.