Recyle But Don’t Re-use Old Motivation Theories

Privacy campaigners “The Big Brother Watch” group have raised their concerns that councils are gearing up for “pay as you throw” rubbish charges.  In attempts to get us all recycling more, several local authorities are said to be introducing microchips in to bins, and this they say, will allow them to offer incentives to those people who recycle.  But many are fearful that councils will introduce penalties too.

In the ten years up to 2007/08 household waste recycling grew from 7.5% to 34.5%.  During this time, people’s behaviour has been driven by awareness campaigns (such as those which Unison Media have been involved in) and people personally valuing the activity and believing in the goals.  Their autonomous activities have brought local authorities closer to their Waste Strategy target. 

Why then, do some councils believe that a carrot and stick approach – a way of motivating people first described in the 19th Century by philosopher Jeremy Bentham – will reduce the amount of refuse that residents send for recycling?  People may respond to such strategies, but this is not how long-term behaviour change should be facilitated.

To illustrate the point, let me recount a story I heard Adrian Furnham, Professor of Psychology at University College London, once tell: A man working from home was disturbed by some children playing noisily outside his window.  The man went out to the kids and told them he’d give them some money if they came back the next day and made some more noise.  For several days he paid them, then one day he stopped, so the children approached him and demanded their cash.  He told them he couldn’t pay them anymore.  They replied that they weren’t going to make the noise for free and walked away – never to disturb him again.

What this tale tells us is that if we start rewarding behaviour which is already intrinsically motivated, then our attitudes to that behaviour are changed.  If the rewards are then removed, we lose interest in the activity.  Isn’t this the danger with the micro-chip in bin recycling schemes?  Surely the best strategy would be to keep on reminding and encouraging householders to recycle – after all, we know it works!

For the article ‘Warning of bin microchips rise’ see:


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