INTERVIEW — Inspiring Green Consumer Choices
Michael E. Smith is a scientific and business advisor to CloudArmy, an online implicit testing firm. He is the author of ‘Inspiring Green Consumer Choices’. In this interview, we discuss his extensive experience at the intersection of neuroscience, behavioural science and sustainability.
BEHAVEN — Hi Michael! Could you please introduce yourself and your area of expertise?
MICHAEL — Sure, and thanks for having me. My name is Michael Smith and I’m based in Southern California, I trained originally as a researcher in social and experimental psychology, and cognitive neuroscience, many years ago. After graduate school I worked initially in an academic career track and then eventually moved into the private sector to work on applied research. For the last decade and a half I've been working in the field of consumer neuroscience. This field entails applying methods, insights and tools that come out of the cognitive, behavioural and brain sciences to better understand consumer behaviour. I have worked in both startup companies and in a large multinational market research firm, serving as a domain expert and management consultant to brands, companies and organisations interested in optimising their marketing communications using brain-based approaches.
Some of the organisations I had worked with in this capacity were public service organisations focused on environmental problems. Those engagements highlighted to me the need to also help such organisations improve their messaging in the same way that many large consumer brands have started doing. And through that work I developed a strong interest in the general area of sustainability. So I've done some retraining, completing certificate programs in sustainable business practices and sustainability and behaviour change.
I've also completed a lot of self-guided systematic literature reviews on the topic of how the field of consumer neuroscience can inform sustainability-related behaviour change efforts, and last year published a book on that topic. So I feel like I'm pretty much up to date on the field. More recently, I've been collaborating with an online testing firm called CloudArmy to help them implement a focused sustainability practice within their organisation so we can be better prepared to serve clients who are interested in that area.
How would you say a field like neuroscience fits into the picture of sustainability and sustainable consumer behaviour?
I grew interested in this topic because of the underlying notion that consumers are really bad at self reporting what drives their behaviour, and could see the potential that methods from neuroscience could perhaps help us to better understand underlying motivations to consume sustainably and to optimise the way brands can talk to consumers about product propositions.
And this problem is really fundamental to shifting consumer behaviour in more sustainable directions because I think the tools neuroscience has to offer can provide insights into the fundamental intention-action gap that exists within the sustainability literature. That is, most people will say yes to the notion that they need to conduct their life in a way that has less environmental impacts, but then when the rubber hits the road, they may fail to actually make substantive changes.
And so my ambition as a consumer neuroscientist is to use the tools and perspectives to better understand why that is to the extent that's possible, and to also use the tools to maybe help better position products and services in ways that make it easier for consumers to adopt ones that are more environmentally friendly.
You mentioned the intention-action gap, are there some interesting insights from your line of work that shed light on this, especially regarding sustainable behaviours?
Well, it is certainly pretty clear both from the psychological literature and from what we know in neuroscience that there are multiple systems underlying behaviour. Some of them are more directly and consciously accessible and some of them are relatively automatic and people have very little conscious insight into the impacts those automatic processes have on behaviour. Consequently, a large part of the intention action gap, I think, derives from the fact that when people introspect on themselves, they may recognise a personal intent to engage in some sustainable behaviour, but what they don't fully understand is that those intentions may not be enough to override existing habitual and automatic behaviours.
For example, for the longest time I tried to encourage sustainable behaviour in my own household, telling family members to turn off the lights when they leave a room. And that got me nowhere despite the fact my family members are very environmentally-friendly and conscientious people. So one insight then is that it’s hard to fight automatic brain processes that people don't have direct control over or fully understand regardless of their intentions. I could spend all day telling people to turn off lights and get nowhere and there are good reasons to understand why that is the case. What we really need are solutions that accept the fact of behavioural automaticity and that better align with implicit attitudes.
Would you say the use of neuroscientific insights and tools, for instance neuromarketing, is growing in the sustainability space? If yes, what are some of the challenges that might come in the way?
The field of neuromarketing as a whole has grown to the extent to which essentially all large multinational brands have at least experimented with consumer neuroscience tools and approaches. And as a result, they're already familiar with them. And many have adopted such tools as part of their typical communication optimisation efforts. And some of those communication optimisation efforts will dovetail with sustainability initiatives. So to the extent to which such companies want to make their products better and want to effectively communicate those improved benefits, they're likely to adopt these tools. While we're still at the fairly early stages of this, I think there's very likely to be a great deal of growth in this area in coming years.
I could give you a few examples of some ways through which methods from behavioural science and consumer neuroscience can be utilised in the context of marketing optimisation. I used to work for the Nielsen Corporation, and one of my jobs was to manage a portfolio of research that focused on optimising the messaging for nonprofit organisations, many of which had some environmental agenda. Some of that messaging would look at communications related to, say, reducing food waste or encouraging recycling. Those communications were, in terms of format, video advertisements for the most part. Our approach would be to bring people into the lab and measure their brain activity while they watched draft versions of public service advertisements promoting these issues.
Through this effort, we could identify parts of those ads that were particularly engaging for the consumers, and parts that might be less effective, and provide feedback to the creative teams involved with making those ads. In cases where things aren't working very well, one wants to, as a consultant on these things, provide input about approaches that might be more effective and that usually comes down to providing insights based on the behavioural science literature about framing conversations or otherwise optimising communications in one way or another. So that's one way in which behavioural science, complementing neuroscience tools, could be leveraged to help those communication strategies.
A challenge with broader adoption of such laboratory-based research though is that it can be both slow and expensive. Currently we can do something quite different, say for example the work with CloudArmy. There we directly use behavioural science tools such as online reaction time testing methods to identify ways of communicating with the target audience that are relatively more effective or less effective, say, in terms of what type of wording you as a client are looking to incorporate into your messaging. This kind of research can be performed both quickly and inexpensively.
Another way in which these behavioural testing tools can be utilised and have been utilised by organisations trying to understand more sustainable consumer behaviour is through segmentation research. By looking at the speed and confidence with which people agree with various statements about environmentally friendly behaviour, you can identify segments of the population who very confidently agree with certain statements and segments of the population who are much less confident or may disagree entirely with such statements. This can be used to identify communication strategies that appeal most effectively to one or the other segment.
So, for example, a direct appeal to something being environmentally friendly might work for someone who's already convinced that they should be behaving that way. But for someone who may be less environmentally-focused who is considering a product proposition, you might need to use a different type of appeal.
For example, let’s take an electric vehicle such as Tesla. You don’t see ads making claims promoting the notion that a Tesla is an environmentally friendly vehicle. Instead the product is positioned as a cool looking vehicle that provides a fun driving experience that's intrinsically superior to driving a typical internal combustion engine vehicle. Now that positioning can appeal to a whole different demographic than someone who is just interested in having an electric vehicle for environmental purposes. Analogously, you can use tools from consumer neuroscience and behavioural science to both help identify different segments of the population and optimise ways to communicate to those segments specifically.
We’ve talked about the use of neuroscience and behavioural science tools largely within the industry, what is your view on these being utilised across governments and other organisations to encourage sustainable consumer behaviours?
One thing that is clear when looking at government attempts to influence consumer behaviour or the behaviour of their citizens in a more positive fashion, is that it is often much slower compared to the industry due to policy changes being politically challenging. That said, we know from behavioural science literature that if you want people to change their behaviour, you have to reduce barriers to that change and sometimes you need to increase barriers to undesirable behaviours. This is an economic principle, but it's also a neuroscience and behavioural science principle. So as a starting point, I think policymakers need to understand all of that and try to make changes that are going to drive behaviour in more positive directions. You can call that as being inspired by economics, behavioural science or neuroscience, but it really comes down to a fundamental understanding of human behaviour.
For example, recently where I live, the California Air Resources Board voted to stop the sale of internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles in the state by 2035. Now that would create a barrier to continuing having ICE vehicles on the road if you just can't buy them at all - that's the stick approach, increasing barriers to undesirable behaviours.
However, there are also policy directives that are more of a carrot approach. For example, after decades of trying, the federal government in the United States has just implemented a very large program to provide financial incentives to consumers to reduce their carbon footprints by making it cheaper to adopt sustainable behaviours. Targets included incentives to make it cheaper to adopt electric vehicles, to install solar panels, and to switch their heating and cooling to heat pumps, among other things. And while the desired types of changes are at the system level and are large scale, there's also a communication aspect to them.
Obviously, if you provide the financial incentives, but people don't know about them or they don't understand how to approach making those changes without a lot of effort, nothing will happen. So you're still going to need to optimise communications. But the mere fact that barriers to adoption have been decreased will make a huge difference in and of itself. And that's something no amount of laboratory testing of people looking at ads can accomplish.
As an academic who has been working in the industry for a while now, what are your thoughts on academics and practitioners coming together to address challenges in sustainability?
I endorse such collaborations hugely. I came from an academic background and became a bit of a practitioner, and there's a great deal of value from the two sides fertilising each other. Of course, practitioners are working with an understanding that’s largely originating from academic literature and applying it to real-world settings. Academics are very good at setting up toy problems and evaluating the potential efficacy of new methods and promulgating those methods in a way that then improves the work that practitioners do.
To give you an example, one very common principle that's used in behavioural science is invoking social norms of one form or another, to encourage people to align their behaviour with what might be normative. The problem with a lot of new things though, is that they're counter-normative. If you cite an existing social norm in the context of promoting a counter-normative behaviour, the strategy might backfire as the audience might feel licensed to continue to do what everyone else is doing.
To address this, there emerged the notion of dynamic social norms where you don't communicate that most people do X, you communicate that an increasing number of people are doing X and that the consumer doesn't want to be left behind. So it's relying on appeal to a social norm but with a different spin, and that concept grew directly out of academic research.
On the other side of the equation, a lot of academic studies aren't realistic in terms of the constraints that exist in the real world, and practitioners are often painfully aware of those constraints. What does it take to actualise a body of research in the context of real-world behaviour change efforts? So I think that the feedback and collaboration between the academic world and the practitioner world in the area of sustainable behaviours is particularly valuable.
And from my own experience, when consumer neuroscience was a young field, there was skepticism on the part of the client organisations because they weren't used to the methods and the purveyors of the methods. The vendors might be perceived as lacking either expertise or potentially lacking legitimacy for being good actors in the space. Having collaborators who are strong academic scientists not only provides an aura of legitimacy but also assurance that the science coming out from the practitioner’s side is well grounded.
Are there any relevant academic sources or books you would recommend for our readers to learn more about the intersection of neuroscience, behavioural science and sustainability?
I cover these core concepts and insights in my new book ‘Inspiring Green Consumer Choices’. What I would recommend actually is not just reading the book but to go through the references that are cited because there are literally hundreds of primary citations within the book that takes you to the original literature. Some of which are very user friendly and many of which are suitable for academics trying to grow into this space because it's primarily derived from the peer reviewed literature. It also has lots of insights from the practitioner’s point of view of how behavioural and brain sciences can inform efforts to promote sustainable consumption.
‘Inspiring Green Consumer Choices: Leverage Neuroscience to Reshape Marketplace Behavior’, Michael E. Smith: https://www.koganpage.com/product/inspiring-green-consumer-choices-9781398601000