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  • Jesse Basset and Philip Corr

On Yer Bike: the psychology of getting people to cycle more.

Updated: Feb 3, 2021

Investing in the green economy has moved up the political agenda. There is consensus across political parties and amongst most citizens of the UK that change is needed to limit our negative impact on the planet and to avoid destructive climate change. While organisational and societal change is important, changing individual behaviour is vital. We only have to look to the pandemic to see how we need big institutions, individuals and their social groups to behave well to have effective outcomes – even for people to survive. We’ve seen how public communications plays a crucial part in both helping and hindering this behaviour change.

In a similar way, green investment and communications need to work in harmony to drive positive change. Without a coordinated approach, initiatives are unlikely to succeed. For example, governments can invest millions in creating a cycle network, but if we stick to our cars, and bike lanes remain underused, it will be wasted money. People need to feel motivated to cycle. This is where communications can play a central part in altering behaviour. But for communications to be effective, we need to understand properly the psychological factors that are driving behavioural intentions and actions.

At Well Behaved we’ve conducted research for a project called On Yer Bike that looked into the psychological drivers behind cycling. We’ve gone beyond the insights you will see in traditional research: we have dug deeper to understand the psychology that is driving current behaviour in order to define how it can be changed, so people cycle more. We employed a combination of psychology and behavioural science research techniques, using our own proprietary method. The steps in this method are summarised in the diagram below.

Defining the key psychological drivers behind cycling

After constructing and running our research study online, sampling people who currently own and use a bike, we conducted detailed factor analysis that looked at all aspects of cycling – the aim was to uncover the deeper motives that are not obvious in people’s behaviour when analysing single items on a survey, or asking them directly.

This analysis found two major factors that define the psychological ‘space’ in which people think, feel and intend to act in relation to cycling: one positive in nature, the other negative.

We’ve labelled the negative factor the 'Apprehensive Cyclist' - those high on this factor have many concerns and doubts that inhibit their frequency of cycling, e.g., road safety, lack of confidence and the perceived hassle of maintaining a bike.

We labelled the second positive factor the 'Responsive Cyclist' – those high on this factor derive many benefits when they are cycling, including clearing their head, enjoying the experience and thinking positively about the environmental benefits.

When then ran an analysis of the emotions that relate to these two factors. The Apprehensive Cyclist feels anxious and fearful when on their bike, whereas the Responsive Cyclist feels exhilarated, satisfied and full of life.

However, interpretation of these factors is not straightforward: people do not align to only one of these factors. It is possible for people to have different combinations of positive and negative attitudes towards cycling. In fact, you can have both high positive and negative attitudes that co-exist and shape your behaviour. For example, the highly Apprehensive Cyclist who is negative about owning and using a bike can still get great benefits when they are cycling. This finding is an intriguing insight in showing that people can hold what, on the face of it, seem opposing attitudes. In our case, the Apprehensive Cyclist factor is more about the practicalities of cycling, whereas the Responsive factor is more about the positive emotions when cycling.

Creating and defining audience segments

By looking at these two factors we were able to create the following meaningful segmentation that helps us prioritise audiences and target communications.

The audiences on the left-hand side will be hard to influence. The negative attitudes towards cycling outweigh the positive, so they are ‘Reluctant and Demotivated’ or they have a low correlation to both the positive and negative attitudes of cycling, and so are ‘Apathetic and Disengaged’.

It’s on the right-hand side of the quadrant where we can make a difference.

There are the ‘All-in Enthusiasts’ who only have positive associations with cycling - they are the keen and frequent cyclists. We don’t need to talk to them, as we would be preaching to the converted.

It is the ‘Reluctant Enthusiast’ audience where we have the biggest opportunity to have an impact on behaviour and get them to cycle more often. They are an audience who have a combination of both negative and positive associations with cycling. We needed to unpick their deeper psychology traits and how they respond to communications messages, to hone a more precise strategy that gets them to cycle more frequently.

We did not simply guess what the underlying psychological drivers of these different factors and audience segments might be – we tested them using well-established personality traits that measure fundamental systems of motivation and emotion.

When we analysed the ‘Reluctant Enthusiast’ audience, we found it was positively correlated with the personality trait of Neuroticism (i.e., low emotional stability). So while they enjoyed the experience of cycling, their reaction is rooted in the negative emotions that come with worrying about themselves and the wider world. Cycling helps them cope with and resolve some of the worries they have. It clears their head, helps them be sociable and gives their mental wellbeing a boost. The long-term benefit of helping the environment added to this positive afterglow.

Mapping audience segments against behavioural messages

We then tested a range of the messages rooted in human behaviours, heuristics, biases and decision making. We measured how respondents felt and thought about a message, and how likely it was to change their behaviour. For the ‘Reluctant Enthusiast’ audience, we found that they responded best to messages that focused on the environmental benefits framed around altruism and social desirability:

Altruism – ‘By cycling you are improving the quality of air that others breathe’

Social desirability bias – ‘Cycling shows you care about yourself, other people and the environment’

When the ‘Reluctant Enthusiast’ processed messages, they were prone to more considered and thoughtful System 2 thinking focused on the longer-term benefits to the environment.

The messages help reduce their uncertainty about the future and make them feel good about themselves. This System 2 thinking accompanies the more intuitive System 1 thinking that motivates people to cycle in order to experience immediate benefits to their mental wellbeing.

Communications that shift behaviour for good

It’s through influencing System 1 and System 2 thinking, separately and in combination, that we can shift the ‘Reluctant Enthusiast’ to cycle more. By promoting the immediate mental health benefits and the broader environmental benefits, framed around helping others (altruism) and showing you care (social desirability), we can tip the scales in favour of a far more positive attitude towards cycling. Knowing that this audience are prone to worry helps us shape communications, as we can position cycling as a problem solver to daily anxieties – we can communicate how cycling helps the planet, and how they feel and think about themselves. We can also provide subtle messages that owning and maintaining a bike is not too onerous and well worth the effort.

Helping you be well behaved

Investing in the green economy means investing in effective public communications – this can only be achieved when we understand the underlying drivers of behaviour, and these are not likely to be obvious (although they may sometimes seem so). An effective public campaign to promote cycling, informed by psychological and behavioural insight, in combination with infrastructural investment, will make a real difference in shifting people away from car travel to cycling. We hope this is something that both national and local government embrace.

We have commissioned and run this study unfunded, as we are passionate about making a real difference, which we believe can come only from scientifically-guided insights – this is why we formed Well Behaved. Our approach shows that a combination of psychological and behavioural research can provide the basis for communications that can make a positive change for good. We are on a mission to help green brands and initiatives grow, by providing the insights that can be applied to get people to behave well and adopt their products and services.

If you want to be well behaved then join us to change the world for the better.

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