Subtle path to ensure sustainability

Humans care about sustainability. Data from market research firm Nielsen shows that on average, 70% of people across the globe are ‘concerned or very concerned’ about issues such as air pollution, water pollution, use of pesticides and water shortages. Well, it is a kind of paradox. People, when asked about sustainability issues tell us that they are concerned, but when it comes to acting on these concerns, they usually fail to do so. There is a clear intention-action gap.

What could be the reasons for this? Behavioral economists have thought about combining this idea with the dual process of thinking. One such account is the work of Nobel Laureate Richard Thaler with his colleague Hersh Shefrin. They proposed a model of decision-making, in which each individual is basically two entities: ‘the planner’ and the ‘doer’.

  • The planner, as the name suggests, looks at the future and plans the best course of action to maximize long term success.
  • The doer, on the other hand, lives in the moment and is myopic, and pushes the individual to pick what is best for them at the moment.

Because of this dual process of thinking, many times people with the best intentions of using recyclable bags end up using single-use plastic bags from the supermarkets. Consumption  (especially sustainable consumption) might be the sole goal of the ‘planner’, but when it comes to the actual act, the doer switches into an automatic habitual model and this might involve the un-ideal consumption. For example, someone might intend to eat more vegetarian food — but when they are hungry, they go for the first thing they see, which may not be vegetarian.


Enter: The theory of decision points

So what can be done to reduce this? The theory of decision points can provide some answers. According to the theory, a decision point is any intervention that is designed to get an individual to pause and think about the consumption they are engaging in.  The idea is, by making people reflective, we can ensure that they follow through on the decision they made in the ‘planner’ mode.

Decision points can take a few forms:

  • Inserting transaction costs: By ensuring that the unsustainable activity is more expensive (in money terms, difficulty of the task, or time required), thus dissuading the motivation to do it.
  • Providing reminders: By drawing attention to a neglected activity, thus providing the impetus to do it.
  • Creating interruptions to the consumption activity: By providing gaps in consumption, it allows the consumer to think and deliberate.


The following case studies outline the strength of the theory of decision points: 

Case study: Getting students to use reusable cups at the university cafe

Techniques: Inserting transaction costs, creating interruptions

Todd Rogers and his colleagues from Harvard University found that a large number of cafe users used disposable cups instead of reusable cups. To check if transaction costs (in terms of added inconvenience) could make an impact, they altered the layout of the cafeteria such that disposable cups were placed a small distance away and in a smaller area. They found that the number of patrons taking the disposable curbs reduced significantly by almost 65%.

Rogers and colleagues added a third condition where they kept the original layout but added a sign “Reduce Waste by taking a reusable cup” (i.e. providing reminders).

Result: The usage of disposable cups fell by 75%!


Case study: Reducing fuel consumption

Technique: Providing reminders

Erdal Aydin, in 2014, conducted a field experiment involving about 150 households on the Dutch island of Texel. It used an in-home display of fuel use to provide much-more immediate feedback to the consumers.

Result: quickly achieved (and sustained) a reduction in fuel consumption of around 20%


Case study: Prudent use of international calling cards

Technique: Creating interruptions in the consumption journey

In a series of experiments by Dilip Soman and his colleagues, they found that by providing points of interruptions, participants made decisions that were congruent to their long term goal. For example, in their study, they gave vouchers to participants to make international phone calls. A set of participants received $50 directly and another set received $50 in the form of five $10 cards. They found significant differences in consumption patterns. The first group with $50 cards, on average, took 5.7 weeks to consume all cards whereas those who had received $10 finished their allowance in about 10 weeks.

Result: Users used their international calling card allowances more prudently.



Decision points are an intuitive and simple idea which can be easily incorporated. They are specific enough to give policymakers an idea of where to apply them (i.e. near the decision-making moment) but also general enough to apply in many circumstances (and across cultures).

More applications and interventions need to be explored to see how sustainable ideas can become top of mind for consumers. These could be in the form of putting reminders at shop entrances, or by simply sending out text messages each morning to remind citizens of the need for sustainable behavior. Will these definitely work? Well, that’s the topic for a Randomized Control Trial that’s yet to be conducted.



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