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Carrot or stick

Carrot or stick

Photographer:Fotograaf: Observant

Morning symposium on behavioural change

Most attempts to change behaviour fail, like the UM's unsuccessful measures to separate waste into three bins. That is what Gerjo Kok, UM professor of Applied Psychology, said in a debate during the morning symposium in the auditorium, organised by the Green Office.

For years, students have been in the lead when it comes to sustainable development goals, stresses the first speaker Lukas Figge, lecturer at the School of Business and Economics. He points to a sheet with eight local student organisations that have been putting great effort into it for years, such as UNSA, Oikos, Enactus and Novum. When addressing the question ‘what can you do to contribute towards the development goals’, Figge remains vague. Be a global citizen, follow your curiosity, be proactive and become engaged. Whether these tips help, is the question.

Fortunately, four students take the floor to pitch concrete project ideas. SBE student Daan de Bresser presents the ‘takeaway coffee cup’. UM Students will pay a one-euro deposit for a takeaway cup, which has a life span of approximately one year. That would bring down the UM cup waste from 4.64 tons now to 0.6 tons in the future, calculates De Bresser (together with SBE students Luca Löw en Clarissa Boeker). At the university, 422,240 paper cups are used every year, while a mere 3,248 takeaway cups would be sufficient, saving the UM 12,402 euros a year.

The other three initiatives concern implementing e-health interventions for informal caregivers of people with dementia (PhD student Hannah Cristie), fighting antibiotic resistance (student organisation UAEM) and creating a food cooperative where students can buy organic vegetables and bread (UCM student Liza Gordin). At the end of the symposium, the audience and a jury will choose a winner, who will pick up 3,000 euros.

Interesting initiatives, but how do you get people to start living a more sustainable life, how do you get them to change their behaviour? Behavioural change is a tough nut to crack. Most attempts to do so fail, says Gerjo Kok, professor of Applied Psychology, who enters into debate, in the auditorium, with Stef Kreemers, professor of Prevention of Obesity.

For instance, the new UM measures of waste separation using three separate bins has not been a success, Kok says. “A student checked what students and employees think of the measures and what they actually do. They all support the idea, but what they do is a disaster: 50 per cent of the waste ends up in the wrong bin. Paper in the plastic bin, plastic in the general bin, et cetera. Moreover, many people were irritated by the waste measures, which appear not to be cost-effective. So why are we doing this?”

Waste separation has put the issue on the UM agenda, says Kreemers. “And that’s important, you have to change social norms, the culture. Often, a little fix will do. When you hang up a note saying ‘most’ people reuse towels, then 39 per cent of hotel guests do reuse them, an experiment showed.”

Kok: “It worked, but I’m not sure if this intervention is preferable, because the researchers lied. Most guests don’t reuse their towels. We have lots of scientific knowledge, why not use that to make a good policy?”

The audience is invited to react. Ingrid Wijk, director of the University Library, wants to know if it’s about seducing or punishing people?

Kreemers: “We call it the carrot or the stick. Both can be useful, but I prefer the carrot.”

Kok: “The problem with the stick is that you need a control system.”

Often, both are useful, illustrates Dag Rune Olsen, rector of the University of Bergen (speaker in the afternoon). “In Norway, many people bought electric cars, which is a result of carrot and stick, for tax exemption and high fuel prices. These cars also look good, so they represent high status. But at the same time we have a dilemma: Norway exports lots of oil. So, it’s complicated. In the end it comes down to facing and discussing these kinds of dilemmas.”

Then the four students step forward. The audience (by phone) and the jury have chosen the best sustainable project idea. And the winner is… Daan de Bresser and his takeaway coffee cups.



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