NTA hires behavioural scientists to look at how status quo bias affects opposition to active travel

— System change, not just individual action, needed for climate action, says behavioural expert.
— Communication, including everyday conversions, key to helping people switch modes of travel.

Behavioural scientists are working with the National Transport Authority on how the effect of status quo bias influences the public’s perception of walking and cycling projects.

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As a guest on the Brendan O’Connor Show on RTE Radio 1 last Saturday, Pete Lunn, the head of the Behavioural Research Unit at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), said that how changes to our streets are proposed can make a large difference to the reaction to it.

Lunn said Ireland has very few outright climate change deniers and, when people are asked open-ended questions on their top concerns, the issue of climate change registers highly after health and housing.

Asked by O’Connor about presence bias and status quo bias, Lunn said: “Presence bias is the easy one, that where we tend to prioritise now over the future, we tend to find it much harder to give much weight to outcomes in the future as we do [for outcomes] now. I think we all know that we are fundamentally a bit impulsive even if it is the case for some more so than for others.”

“Status quo bias is a little bit different, it’s quite fascinating actually. It sounds like a fancy piece of academic language to say that people don’t like change, and there’s a bit of truth in that, but it’s more subtle than that, he said.

“It’s like this — if you say to somebody ‘We’re going to change the way your town is laid out, we’re going to make it more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists,’ let’s say and you say there’s a plan to do it. A lot of people instinctually resist that. Actually, these sorts of policies are typically fairly popular but there’s a substantial minority who will really quite resist it,” he said.

Lunn said: “If instead of telling them that it is a plan you say ‘oh, there is this town that has this layout, do you like it or not?’, you get completely different responses. It is as if when something is a plan for change we instinctually, psychologically react to it more negatively.”

He said that if somebody else is proposing a plan some people will look for the negatives while they are less likely to do so if they are being asked a question in a more open way.

Lunn said: “We are actively researching at the moment, with the National Transport Authority, status quo bias. We are trying to say what can we get people to do to look more evenhandedly at the pros and cons of change. And we know some things already — demonstration really does make a difference… a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Utrecht where a very large percentage of the population cycle everywhere instead of driving and it is absolutely remarkable when you actually see it with your own eyes and see what it can be like.”

“I’m reading all of the articles about it and I’m looking at all of the numbers, but when you actually see it you really do see what’s possible,” he said.

He said on average when change is implemented that people who had objected quietly accept afterwards that the change is better than the situation before. He said that he’s not saying that plans are perfect or that things don’t sometimes go wrong.

Lunn said that when it comes to climate action “generally speaking” we’re not very good at understanding what kind of actions are more impactful — he says that it can be hard and complex and people are exposed to contradictory messages in the media.

He said that people think plastic shopping bags have more of an effect than changing what you eat, which is wrong. He said that younger people are generally no better than older people at figuring out where emissions are coming from.

“For me, what that means is that it has to be system change, we cannot rely on individuals because what you’re asking them to do is too damn hard. So, you have to give them systems and incentives to do what will help them lower emissions.,” he said.

Ask then if democracy is set up for the change needed, Lunn said: “That gets really interesting, because there is the difference of view of democracy of the degree of which democratically elected politicians should attempt to do what’s popular in the name of the people or if they should attempt to influence what’s popular.”

“What’s interesting here is that we have another collective action problem, just like we had in Covid. None of us wants to be the mugs that make all of these changes if we watch other people not doing it. We need to feel that we’re all doing it together,” he said.

When people see others acting in greener ways, they will feel more comfortable doing it themselves he said.

Lunn went on to say that a difference between Covid and climate action is people were being asked to do the same thing during the pandemic but climate action involves differences in how people are expected to act, including based on where they live. That leads to questions of fairness which is harder to communicate.

He said that communication with each other and bringing the issues into everyday conversions. He used the example of a person driving a short distance of who might already be receptive to change.

“I think communication with each other about it is the really important thing. I mean, it’s hard, here we are lunchtime on a Saturday talking about damn climate change when I’m not sure everybody will want to be hearing it. But can we get it into the everyday conversation? If we can manage to talk about it on a daily basis I do think it can make the difference.”

He said that the viral effect will only work if there’s communication.


  1. That’s encouraging – he’s absolutely right. Seeing things working well in practice makes them realisable & attractive. I think there’s too much negativity in how people are surveyed re climate change eg asking people to ‘cut down’ on car usage/eating meat/flights. Instead of framing it as positives – do ‘more’ plantbased food/ staycations / sustainable transport…


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