On a fine April day in 2017, Mr A was rushing through a park near Liverpool Street Station, London, when he accidently spotted a bright yellow disposable coffee cup lying on the street. "This yellow cup is really attention-grabbing"- he thought, about continue hurrying to his next destination when the cup suddenly spoke and urged him to pick it up. He shrugged it off and stepped away, but the cup called after him again, pestering to be place it inside a giant yellow bin. Half-annoyed by the cup's persistence, he gave up and decided to follow the cup's instruction to drop it into a yellow giant bin just a few steps away. His action was returned by a thank you message from the cup, leaving him smiling happily while returning back to pursue his busy schedule amidst the bustling city of London. (Hubbub, April 2nd, 2017)
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Before you leave this essay thinking "That is a funny story I have just read!", I would like to first clarify that the story above is actually from a real experiment (from hereby referred to as the "talkingcup experiment), conducted as part of the a campaign called "Square Mile Challenge". The Challenge aimed to raise awareness about paper cup recycling, as less than 1% out of 7 million paper coffee cups currently used per day was properly recycled, even when they are placed in mixed recycle bins. This extremely low recycling rate is due to the complex recycling process for paper cups. A paper cup is normally consisted of a plastic lining, which requires needs to be separated and specially treated. Contamination from dregs of coffee also further complicate the recycling process for coffee cups. (Square Mille Challenge, 2017).
To address the complexity in this recycling process, the challenge organisers collaborated with city of London, as well as some major coffee retailers to install a network of specialised recycling bin for paper cups on the busy streets in the centre of London and inside coffee shops. The "talking-coffee cup" experiment aforementioned was thus set up as part of the campaign to educate consumers to use these unique bins. The experiment mirrored on one of the popular learning theories in psychology, namely "Operant conditioning" (Skinner, 1953). According to Skinner, a behaviour strength could be modified by different responses from the environment, with reinforcement being one type of responses that increases the likelihood of a behaviour. In the "talking-coffee cup" experiment, removal of the negative reinforcer, i.e. the persistently whiny talking by the coffee cup successfully influenced several passer-byes to put the cup in the right bin. On the other hand, the thank you message from the cup after being placed in the bin acted as a positive reinforcer, encouraging future repetition of the recycling action.
At this point, it is probably questionable how effective this experiment will be at changing the public behaviour with regards to paper cup recycling in the long term. While the experiment was fun and drew attention from passer-byes, it is likely too costly and impractical to use these "speaking" coffee cups to reach a wider population. Additionally, without a frequent reinforcement schedule for the positive post-behaviour remarks (i.e. the thank you message), the freshly strengthen behaviour may just rapidly extinct (Skinner, 1953). The passer-byes in the video may forget about the paper cup the next day or within a few weeks. Certainly, alternative realistic reinforcers could be devised to boost the newly learned action, for e.g. by giving reward coupon to participants. These reinforcers could also be scheduled by various intervals (for e.g. a reward every 10 cups recycled), rather than continuously to improve resistant to extinction (Skinner, 2014). Nevertheless, once these reinforcers are withdrawn, the recycling pattern, again, may slowly fade. Therefore, operant conditioning alone will could be good as a method for the early stage of concept learning, but not as a mean to achieve long-term impact.
To inspire people to adopt this paper coffee recycling pattern, it would be essential to understand why people were "amotivated". A notable theory with regards to this topic is the self-determination theory (SDT) (Deci & Ryan, 1985), which differentiated motivations by the degree in which they were internalized. By SDT, amotivation, lying on the far left of the continuum, is defined as the state of "lacking the intention to act" (Ryan & Deci,2000). In general, amotivation arises due to various reasons, such as non-valuing (Ryan,1995) or incompetence (Bandura, 1986).
Here, most people were initially "amotivated" as they were simply unaware of why coffee cups ought to be recycled separately (therefore "non-valuing") and how do they properly recycle those ("incompetent"), resulting in a lack of action. Square Mille Challenge tried to address these issues firstly by making the recycling action attainable. Bright yellow colour bins were installed on streets, coffee shops, offices in London centre so people could easily spot the bins and recycle their cups, thus stimulating a sense of competence to perform the task. In addition, social and print media were utilized to inform consumers of the complexed recycling process among consumers. For example, posters with the messages "Less than 1% of coffee cups gets recycled, even in recycling bins" were displayed at various coffee shops, on the streets as well as in offices. Informational YouTube videos about coffee cup recycling (Hubbub, April 17th, 2017) were also circulated around offices. Consequently, people became more educated about the topic, hence more likely to value the action, eliminating certain degrees of amotivation.
While it is important to consider why people was "amotivated", it is probably equally vital to learn how to motivate people. Ryan (1995) found out that if a person is intrinsically motivated i.e. when they perform an activity for their own interest, an enhance in persistence (Deci & Ryan, 1991) is observed. Intrinsic motivation, contrary to amotivation lies at the extreme right of the selfdetermination spectrum and is regulated by internal needs such as autonomy or relatedness (Ryan & Deci, 2000). By setting a communal target that requires people's unification (i.e. to achieve 0.5 million recycled cups in one month), Square Mille challenge drew on people's need to feel connected to others and thereby intrinsically motivated participation. Furthermore, a notable point about Square Mile challenge is that there was a complete absent of external rewards or punishments in the campaign. Instead, Square Mile Challenge purely used an educational campaign to help people become more informed whilst allowing them to make their own choices. Careful messages were also selected to deliver the campaign goal. For example, instead of pressurising people to recycle, the key campaign messages simply revolved round a fact about the current recycling rate or recycling process. As a consequent, people participated were given full autonomy of their decisions. Hence, they were most likely to attribute their action to an inherent interest and have more incentive to pursue the action later on.
Moving forward, it might be interesting to highlight the contrast between Square Mile Challenge approach to certain policy campaigns that relied on to motivate behaviour change. An example would be "Vietnam helmet law", a social policy implemented in 2007 (South China Morning Post, 2017) with the aim of increasing helmet wearing rate for motorbike riders in Vietnam. In contrast to Square Mile Challenge, the policy chose to enforce a strict punishment i.e. traffic fine for non-helmet wearers. While this policy significantly improves compliance rate, it was found that 80% were simply wearing helmet-like plastic caps, which do not protect from head injuries, just to bypass the polices and compliance rate remained low among children (<40%) (South China Morning Post, 2017). This stems from the fact that the policy aims to facilitate behaviour change through external forces. As a result, people did not identify the action with their internal self. These people then failed to adopt the behaviours (as punishment is not strong enough) or tried to find shortcuts to reach the outcome despite costs to keep the punishment in place (Moller, Ryan and Deci, 2006). Given this, it might be more helpful and less costly for the policy maker to intrinsically motivate non-compliant into wearing helmets. For instance, rather than enforcing strict punishments, education campaigns or promotional advertisements could be used to raise awareness among riders while giving them the opportunity to choose the right options for themselves.
All in all, it was seen that both operant learnings and self-determination theory could be used by policy maker to influence people. While installing reinforcers or punishments could be a suitable measure could yield compliance for policy, it has major drawbacks as people may stop responding once reinforcers or punishments are no longer in place. People may also become resistant after a period of time. Instead, by allowing people to have autonomy over their own choices, people will generally be more "intrinsically motivated" and hence more likely to happily change and maintain the behaviour for a prolonged period. As a consequent, it may be a better strategy for policy makers to consider satisfying people's internal need rather than using external forces to reach their goal while devising their next social policy.
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In R. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on Motivation: Vol. 38. Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237-288). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Hubbub. (April 2nd 2017). Talking Coffee Cups for #SquareMileChallenge| Fun Theory In Action| Hubbub Campaigns. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=97&v=N0osJ1z-nQg&feature=emb_logo
Hubbub. (April 7th 2017). Coffee Cups 2: A New Hope #SquareMileChallenge | Hubbub Vlog. Retrieve from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TFn47W98Nq8
Moller, A., Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2006). Self-Determination Theory and Public Policy: Improving the Quality of Consumer Decisions without using Coercion. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 25(1), pp.104-116.
Ryan, R. M. (1995). Psychological needs and the facilitation of integrative processes. Journal of Personality, 63, 397-427.
Ryan, R. and Deci, E. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), pp.68-78.
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Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. SimonandSchuster.com.
South China Morning Post. (2017). The lessons from Vietnam's helmet law. Retrieved from: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2124931/lessons-vietnamshelmet-law
Square Mille Challenge (2017). Retrieved from http://www.squaremilechallenge.co.uk/
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