Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative. If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:
People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.
To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.
Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.
Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).
The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:
Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.
Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).
Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.
Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.
The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.
*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.