We are all human, and as humans we crave to be liked and included by other people, seeking praise, attention, and admiration, while vehemently shielding ourselves from judgement and social exclusion. Research participants, as we've discovered, are no different.

Keeping it real

As much as we tell our participants that we are interested in their REAL behaviour, and advise them not to change their behaviour for the purpose of this project, there is no doubt that all participants do, in fact, adjust their behaviour and skew their reporting to behaviours they believe are desirable to the researchers (even if only a little bit!).

So, what happens when the behaviour we’re interested in is inherently a socially undesirable act? What about a socially undesirable act that has legal financial penalties attached? This was the challenge facing our government client; looking to reduce fare evasion on public transport in NSW, Australia, in particular on trains and buses.

The challenge of understanding fare evaders

Fare evasion is a major source of revenue loss for the Australian government but little is currently known about why people don’t pay their fares. The role of qualitative research in this project was critical to understand what influences people to not pay their fares and how to reduce it. A research program consisting of a combination of contextual observations, stakeholder workshops, and ethnography was designed specifically to answer this question.

The challenge was, however, to understand the motivations and behaviours of fare evaders, given that it’s a behaviour that’s frowned upon. We looked to Behavioural Science to inspire a more accurate approach for studying socially undesirable behaviours.

Drawing on the insight that people often find it very difficult to identify problems in themselves, but are extremely good atidentifying errors in others, we designed an ethnographic approach with people who have evaded fares in the past. We first asked our fare evaders to observe fare evasion behaviours in other people, before looking more deeply at their own behaviour.

Poacher turned gamekeeper

For an entire week, on every single day of their commutes, our fare evaders recorded other people’s behaviour, describing what they thought led to them fare evading and the events that happened. Just within this first week alone, we boosted our sample by three to four-fold as our fare evaders became our eyes and ears on the ground.

Going with the grain of natural human tendencies, people enjoyed pointing their fingers at others and speculating about the reasons that led them to behave in that way. Importantly, what this first week achieved was creating a perception that it’s not uncommon to fare evade, giving them license to report on their own fare evasion behaviours.

Context trumps personality

What we uncovered with this methodology transformed the way our client looked at fare evaders. Consistent with Dan Ariely and the insights reported in his book "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty", we found that it’s not about how honest a person is that makes them more likely to fare evade, but what’s happening in their environment. Intentional fare evaders are certainly out there, but what is more common is people "cheating just a little bit".

In a rush to catch the train, but realise you don’t have sufficient funds on your travel card? What’s easier? Do you miss the train and wait another 15 minutes while you line up at the machine to top up your travel card and be late to your important meeting? Or do you rationalise not paying this one time as you always pay "won’t hurt"?

Triggers to action

People often underestimate the likelihood of them engaging in a particular behaviour, when in a cold, rational state (i.e. as you are reading this now). But in a hot state, in the context of being in a rush, with crowds of people behind you also rushing, it’s easy to see how people end up not paying their fares just this one time. We observed that everyone is influenced by these situational factors that can make them more inclined to not pay their fares.

Rather than targeting individuals who were previously erroneously characterised as fare evaders, it’s about targeting behaviours rather than individuals; changing the environment to make it easier for customers to comply and making it harder for customers not to comply.

The interventions work

These insights led to the development of a program of over 75 interventions, across communications, systems, environment, and enforcement, all leveraging Behavioural Science principles to increase fare compliance. These interventions were highly practical, often very simple, and directly addressed each of the barriers identified to fare compliance.

Early results from these interventions indicate that it is already saving the government millions of dollars in revenue loss, demonstrating the tremendous impact that a simple, yet behaviourally informed methodology can have.