Driving down speeds – how Liverpool is using the wisdom of crowds to change behaviour


I recently spoke about behaviour change at 20s plenty’s 6th annual conference.  It seemed to go down pretty well so I thought it may make a useful blog post.  I’d be keen to hear what you think.

How HMRC got people to pay on time

When I’m asked about behaviour change, one example always comes to mind.

It has nothing to do with 20mph but I am going to use it  anyway.  Mostly, because it neatly demonstrates that sometimes you only need to make a small change to create a big impact but also, because it helps explain the some key principles we use when designing a behaviour change campaign.

So, some years ago HMRC  were having problems getting people to submit their tax returns and then pay what they owed on time. They’d been trying to address this problem for a number of years by sending out a series of letters.   Most of the letters focused on the consequences late payers would face if they failed to respond.  For some people this traditional approach worked, but for the vast majority, it didn’t change a thing.

Then, something happened that was to change everything. In 2009 HMRC was advised by the newly established Behavioural Insights team, (the so-called “nudge” unit) to do something different.

It was a change that was to see HMRC collect £560 million out of the £650 million debt, an 86% success rate. To put things in perspective, the previous year just 57% people had paid their income tax before the deadline. This equated to a massive £270 million increase. So what was that difference? HMRC added the following line to the letter they sent out;

 “The great majority of people in [the taxpayer’s local area] pay their tax on time”.

So why did such a simple change influence so many people to pay what they owed before the deadline?  The answer lies in a principle called ‘social proof’.  Put simply, the wisdom of the crowd.

Social proof – the wisdom of the crowd 

Social proof centres on the premise that people’s behaviour is largely shaped by the behaviour of others around them, especially people they strongly identify with. Think about it, when everyone around you suddenly looks up at the sky do you do the same? When you go abroad to a place you’ve never been before and are at a loss where to eat ,  do you end up settling on  the one with lots of people sitting outside, the one everyone else has choosen?

The fashion industry relies on social proof to sell clothes, people promoting new diets or exercise regimes use testimonials as social proof.  Social proof is responsible for playground crazes, ranging from marbles to football stickers to loom bands, all of which which catch on seemingly overnight.

 Social proof has at its core three simple, yet powerful motivations.

  • to make accurate decisions as efficiently as possible
  • to affiliate with / gain the approval of others
  • to see oneself in a postive light.

By adding that one, simple line HMRC were now pulling on all three of those motivations

Making good decisions as efficiently as possible We are busier than ever before.  We are assaulted with facts, pseudo-facts, marketing spin, & even rumour, all posing as information. Doing what most others are doing in a similar situation can be a remarkably efficient short cut to a good decision. Whether that decision centres on what film to watch, restaurant to try or, in the case of HMRC, when to pay your taxes.   Think about it, if we weren’t influenced by our peers why else would online retailers let you sort choices according to popularity?

Affiliating/ gaining approval of others By stating that most people in the local area are responding in a certain way, we are more likely to do similar, perceiving it as the correct behaviour.  By telling tax payers what  people in the locality were doing there was an incentive to gain their approval by doing likewise.

Seeing oneself in a positive light It’s easier to be a drain on society if we think everyone else is at it too.   But the fact that so many people locally pay their tax on time….. people wanted to identify with the idea that they are part of a majority of people who do their bit for society.

I could tell lots of similar stories, but I’m not going to, because this post is about how in Liverpool we are applying these principles to change behaviour in relation to speed!


What traditional insight doesn’t tell us

But just to rewind a moment. In 2012 So-mo was awarded a contract to build community support for the introduction of 20mph speed limits across  70% of the city’s road network.  The local authority wanted to reduce the amount of road traffic collisions by making 20mph the default maximum speed limit in residential neighbourhoods.

We wanted to use the principles of social proof to;

  • create a favourable response to the idea of streets going 20mph (or at the very least to encourage people not object to TROs);
  •  following installation, to encourage people to comply with new speed limits

On day 1 of our commission we were handed a very comprehensive & extremely thorough piece of research that provided insight into people’s attitudes and motivations to the new scheme.  It was interesting and useful upto a point but did it tell us that people are most influenced by what others in their neighbourhood think?

It didn’t.  Instead, when people were asked what would motivate them to comply with the new speed limits they said:

  • “Present me with evidence that there will be fewer accidents, and I will change”.  Others said;
  • “If you can tell me that this will improve safety for children now and in the future then I will be supportive”
  • “Give me some hard hitting shock tactics”. Some people said simply;
  • If you can show us how we save money, then that will be the message to motivate to us

Nobody said –

“do you know what – if lots of my neighbours are positive about our street going 20 then we will probably be positive too – & if most other people keep to the speed limits – then we will too”

Because it turns out, that people are not actually that good at predicting those factors which are going to change their behaviour.  Steve J Martin author of several books on the subject put it really neatly when he recently suggested that in order to really understand how to change people’s behaviour  you need to be less like Micheal Parkingson – asking people questions & more like David Attenborough – observing people in their own natural environment.

So, one of the very first things we did was to go out & spend quite a bit of time just having coffee with mums at Surestart centres, sitting in in older peoples ‘knit and natter’ groups.  Sure, we chatted, but mostly we listened and we watched what people did and said when it came to speed limits.

Here’s what we found.

The more local the story – the more people care.   Whilst people identify with, ‘brand Liverpool’ people care most about what’s happening in the streets near to where they live.

Kids Count – peoples behaviour is strongly affected by children – but it’s their children, followed by the children of people close to them & finally children living in their city that affect them most.

People were generally not opposed to 20mph but in almost all cases felt someone else was the perpetrator in this case ‘scallies’.

(pron) skalli

popular term (in the north-west of England, especially Liverpool) a roguish self-assured young person, typically a man, who is boisterous, disruptive, or irresponsible.


Is it real? Finally people questioned whether 20mph was a real speed limit.  They also thought that the police wouldn’t be bothered to enforce.


The approach

So when we sat down to  design a community driven campaign we felt it was really important to do the following;

  • Consider who delivers the message In many ways this is more important than what the message says. We wanted  to amplify the voices of real people who were supportive of 20mph.  People who were perceived by the majority of drivers and their passengers to be credible & trustworthy.   Interestingly, the messages the public were most sceptical about were the ones that came from the public sector!
  • Make community support for 20mph as visible as possible   In an uncertain situation people tend to do what other people do.  You could almost describe it as ‘contagious’ behaviour.  So we co-designed high visibility, media friendly activity with communities. This meant finding and then scaling locally focused activity / stories that people in Liverpool could relate to, but design it well enough that the press and media would carry the story to a wider audience.   We then encouraged  people to share it on their own Facebook & Twitter accounts . We wanted to show the people of Liverpool that multiple, comparable others want 20mph in their street & in their city and were prepared to drive at 20mph when the signs are in.
  • Use loss-framed messages People respond to a message that sets out what they stand to loose, more than they do to a message that focuses purely on what they have to gain.   So, add to this the fact that peoples’ behaviours were powerfully motivated by their children, it’s not surprising that an article like the one below attracted a lot of attention. Incidentally, ‘kids court’ is one of the most successful engagement activities we deliver. We also highlighted what people could loose, or rather gain in terms of points on their license, by making the police and their commitment to enforce speed limits very visible.

13.07.12 - You Could Have Killed One of Us - Liverpool Echo

Get people at the right moment people’s emotions affect how they behave and more importantly how responsive they are to receiving a message.   When we do our roadside education we show  a video which often makes people cry.   We don’t mean to make them cry, its just a nicely shot piece  featuring local school children asking some powerful questions …. it’s simple but – boom!  That’s when the speed driver’s  body language changes and they become very responsive to the messages we give them next.

  • Help people to feel good – not bad about themselves my final point is that we want to people see themselves in a positive light. So even when we stop speeding drivers, as we do when we deliver roadside education, we also want them to them to see themselves as having been through an experience which has changed them for the better and that they can help others.  This makes them feel good – they can change lives. If we’d just handed out points it’s more likely that they would have felt ashamed about the fact they had just committing a crime or angry because they felt some kind of injustice. However they felt, it’s unlikely that they would then tell their mates about why 20 matters down the pub later that evening!
  • And that pretty much sums up what we are about. Helping local people to change how they behave and use the network effect to pass on their behaviour change on to others.


The million dollar question,  is it working ?

In some ways we don’t know yet!

In terms of speed – Liverpool are not releasing data until over 50% of the road network has been signed.  This about a campaign based on norms and for that to really work you need the whole of the city’s residential streets to be 20. However, early indications demonstrate that we are seeing a 2mph reduction in speed on the roads – which doesn’t sound much!   However, most of the pilots are demonstrating between and 1mph to 1.5mph reduction.

Response to informal consultation has taken the local authority completely by surprise. They were expecting a backlash, instead over 90% of respondents responded positively from a 20 % return rate, which is high for this kind of survey.

In many areas of the country Traffic Regulation Orders (TROs) have resulted in tens and even hundreds of objections.   Liverpool’s population is 467,000 .   So far 280,200 people have had their formal chance to object to proposed installation of signage.   In just under 3 years, only one person has ever raised an objection – saving the local authority thousands in officer time.

Are we there yet?

At the end of the day, it’s important  to remember is that change doesn’t happen overnight.    It takes lots of little nudges in the right direction, lots of time spent sharing positive messages, highlighting desirable behaviour.  It was  the same with drink driving and seatbelts and is still the case with mobile phone use and new speed limits.

And the goal we are all after?

Desirable behaviour that is self enforced, based on a shared understanding & acceptance of what is socially acceptable.

We are not there yet, but I think we are on the right road.


Here is the video I showed on the day – I think it gives you a flavour of how it’s going here in Liverpool.  Any questions?



2 thoughts on “Driving down speeds – how Liverpool is using the wisdom of crowds to change behaviour

  1. Great blog and vids
    I know you’re not in charge of policy (cllrs are) but don’t you think a higher than 70% 20mph road coverage would be better for driver understanding and compliance? Birmingham plan 90+% Edinburgh plan 80%. Islington 100%
    Liverpool’s campaigners are still lobbying for more

  2. Hi Anna, I guess it’s about finding the right balance and this is something that needs to be considered city by city. Islington is not Liverpool & vice versa. It’s a tricky one. Proportionally too few streets & you risk losing the ability to normalise, too many streets may lead to public backlash if these are not perceived to be in the public’s interest. Liverpool took the stance that it was important to prioritise residential roads but omit A and B roads. It’s an interesting question & only time will tell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>