These people do exist

This blog post is going to be a little different than usual. I’m going to tell you about several people, then ask you questions about them. Feel free to take notes.

Ready?

Let’s begin.

First, I’d like to introduce you to Oliver. He’s 32 years old and works as a manager in a telecoms company. One of the highlights of his week is playing 5-a-side football with his colleagues; the rest of his free time is dedicated to motorsports racing. Most of his disposable income goes to fitting out his own car or attending rallies. He’s single and doesn’t have any pets. He regularly throws rubbish out of his window at red lights because he doesn’t want to get his car dirty; there’s already litter by the kerb, so he just adds to it.

Or maybe you’d like to meet Rich. He just turned 15. His two goals in life are to spend time with his mates and get a girlfriend, more or less in that order. His friend Doug likes to make fun of the students who bring a reusable bottle to school and tells them that climate change is a load of crap (except Doug doesn’t use the word crap). After school, Rich, Doug, Tony, and Luke like to sit in a secluded corner of a local park, scoffing cheap meal deals, downing energy drinks, and talking about football and music. On weekends, they get high on whip-its* or weed. Their corner gets a little messy with everything they leave behind, but the rubbish usually disappears after a few weeks, so it never gets too grotty.

This is Sandra. She’s a 29-year-old financial advisor. On the last bank holiday weekend, she and a handful of friends met up at the beach for sun, sand, and lots of food and drink. Everyone brought something to add to the pile—cans of lager and soda, sandwiches, crisps, biscuits, even a few bottles of wine. They had a blast. When it came time to pack up, the nearest bins were overflowing and everyone in their section of the beach had left their rubbish behind, so they piled theirs up and left it too.

Then there’s Frederick, who goes by Freddie. He’s 21 and has been smoking since he was 16. He always tosses his cigarette butts on the ground when he’s done with them, just like he saw his old man do while growing up. He usually tosses his cigarette carton when he’s done with it as well. His father left years ago, but Freddie still remembers him saying this is what he paid council tax for: keeping street cleaners gainfully employed.

Now a quick quiz about everyone we just met:

  • What anti-litter campaign—either the specific slogan or the imagery—is going to resonate with every person mentioned and change their behaviour?
  • How many of them are likely to participate in a litter pick? 
  • Will posters like this have any impact on their actions? If not, what will?

These particular people do not actually exist: their photographs are from the website this-person-does-not-exist.com, which uses artificial intelligence to generate images.** However, the behaviours and attitudes they represent are all too real in the UK. This is what we are up against when it comes to tackling litter.

I don’t say this to be overly negative, but rather to call attention to the false consensus bias. This cognitive bias means we tend to believe that other people think and feel like we do for similar reasons. For example, we know we would feel guilty if we littered, so therefore others must feel guilty too. But none of the people we just met feel guilt or shame for their actions. None of them see anything wrong with their behaviour. Ditto concern for the environment or wildlife. None of these issues factor into their decision-making process or lifestyle.

When it comes to any type of behaviour change programme, we must be aware of this bias. We cannot expect everyone to think, feel, or behave in the same way that we do. We cannot expect everyone to act logically, rationally, ethically, or morally, at least based on our own definitions of these terms. Instead, we have to think about things from a different perspective. Are people littering based on context? Or is social pressure involved? Do they have motivations that make sense to them, even if we disagree with them? What specific lever will shift their mindset?

This is why addressing the problem of litter requires a layered approach. Why we must look beyond only educating primary school students or running litter picks, and instead consider changing an entire culture. Why we must be willing to try different things in the battle against waste. While the Putting Litter First series has ended, please stay tuned: I’ll be sharing more potential actions you can take in your own community over the next few months. Please sign up to be notified when the posts are ready:

Whip-its are silver cannisters containing nitrous oxide (laughing gas); they are often found in conjunction with balloons or rubber gloves, which people use to inhale the gas from.

While useful for illustrating blog posts like this, it’s a good reminder that not everything you see online is genuine.

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