Overcoming behavioural bias is key to electric vehicle uptake 

Jane Leighton argues that the biggest barrier to EV uptake is the quality of government messaging and information for the general public

The growth in electric vehicles (EVs) seems almost unstoppable. EV registrations in the UK in 2020 saw a 125% growth and leading auto manufacturers such as Ford have announced plans to increase investment in EVs. Globally, too, the signs look promising as reports find that sales of EVs across the world grew by 40% last year.

However, if EVs are going to become the norm, more needs to be done. A significant number of consumers are still unsure about the practicalities of these vehicles and haven’t yet switched their gasoline or diesel car for an electric one. In fact, research carried out by Ofgem found that 38% of people in the UK have concerns about short battery life and range, and 36% are worried about having nowhere to charge their car.

Planned infrastructure and technological improvements will, therefore, help pave the way for mass EV adoption. Battery technology that reduces range anxiety, a network of charging stations that speed up and simplify charging, and vehicle prices that compare favourably with internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles will all undoubtedly nudge people towards electric.

Changing people’s behaviour is less about changing their minds and more about changing how you frame a choice so that it aligns with how people’s minds work

Improvements in infrastructure, however, can only do so much. Consumers’ decision making is not entirely rational and they will need more than a few new charging stations and an increased battery range. Automotive companies will also need to overcome their biases in decision making and how they embrace, or don’t embrace, change.

How consumers make decisions

Human decision-making is biased by unconscious mental processes, or shortcuts, that typically allow us to make fast, smart decisions but can sometimes cause us to make seemingly irrational choices. One of these biases is the status quo bias, which is our preference for the current state of affairs. Our intuitive response to new technology like EVs is often to ignore or reject it, rather than take a risk on a new, unknown option.

Understanding biases like this can help explain the choices people make and can even help us influence those choices. Because we don’t always act rationally, changing people’s behaviour is less about changing their minds and more about changing how you frame a choice so that it aligns with how people’s minds work. Automotive makers need to make the decision of buying an EV an intuitive and emotionally rewarding choice, not just one that ticks the boxes on range numbers or CO2 emission comparisons.

Simplifying the process

One of the reasons we prefer the status quo is that we’re ‘cognitive misers’, with limited time and energy to focus on every decision. In other words, it’s easier to stick with what we’ve always done without considering other options.

Anything that can be done to make decision making easier can have a positive impact. For example, helping consumers navigate the complex world of electric cars is likely to be helpful, especially for those that are not tech-savvy. Take Nissan’s Foolproof Guide to Electric Driving campaign—the campaign used comedy to helpfully inform consumers about EVs.

Renault EV Centre Sweden
The Renault Electric Vehicle Experience Center in Sweden

Focus on reference points

Another feature of status quo bias is the use of reference points. We tend to use our current state as a reference point and view any deviation as a potential loss. Driving gasoline vehicles has been the norm for decades, and as such it’s natural that consumers compare EVs to their experience driving a conventional car.

It’s important to help consumers make easy comparisons between ICEs and EVs on key metrics like performance, durability and range. Ideally, standardised metrics should be used to familiarise consumers with EVs, using terms and concepts they understand. Over time, this will help drivers become familiar with EVs, and enable better judgement of which vehicle best fits their needs.

This approach could also help address another bias known as the present bias, where we tend to overvalue things that are closer in time, and undervalue those that are distant in the future.

Consumers’ decision making is not entirely rational and they will need more than a few new charging stations and an increased battery range

In the car market, many consumers make their purchasing decisions based on the upfront cost of the vehicle, often overlooking future expenses such as running costs, tax and insurance. The challenge in the case of EVs is that many of the financial benefits are incurred over its lifetime rather than at the point of purchase. Better communicating long-term costs to support accurate lifetime cost comparisons between ICE vehicles and EVs will allow consumers to make informed decisions, rather than being put off by the up-front cost of an EV.

Highlighting social norms

One of the most powerful drivers of choices is social norms. We intuitively take other people’s behaviour as a guide to how we should behave. On the whole, it’s a good strategy—following the crowd is a quick and efficient rule of thumb for our brains, and often leads us to choices that are safe and acceptable in terms of physical and social consequences.

Using the power of social norms by communicating the increasing number of people who are adopting EVs is likely to be an effective strategy to boost EV uptake. MG, for example, is embracing this idea with its “electric for everyone” slogan. Likewise, the UK government has recently introduced green number plates so that people can signal their ‘badge of honour’ for clean vehicles and to increase awareness of the growing popularity of EVs.

Behavioural scientists in the Department for Transport also ran a trial to investigate messaging to best encourage EV uptake. One of the best performing messages appealed to social norms by highlighting the number of drivers who switch to EVs every month. It’s unlikely that there will be one silver bullet that will drive the mass adoption of EVs. However, by understanding the full range of influences on human behaviour, we can make it easier for people to adopt new, greener technology in the future.


About the author: Dr Jane Leighton is Head of the behavioural consultancy behave 

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