Nudging people towards more sustainable residential choice decisions: an intervention based on focalism and visualization

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

place - urban, planning - surveys, ridership - behaviour, ridership - mode choice


Travel behavior, Choice modeling, Urban, Intervention


There have been numerous behavior change studies focused on sustainable travel mode choices. In this study we focused on the residential choices that in turn influence travel habits. We designed and implemented two interventions, which we term the “focalism” and “visualization” interventions, based on literature in psychological economics. The focalism intervention was motivated by literature that suggests people make suboptimal choices when looking for a new home. While focus is given to immediately tangible features like the quality of the house, important but less tangible factors like access to transportation are relatively overlooked. The visualization intervention was based on literature showing that providing information at decision points when long-ingrained habits are vulnerable to change, such as at the time of a residential move, can be influential on choices. We designed both interventions to be interactive so that the intervention was “discovered” by respondents rather than presented directly as information. With the focalism intervention, we pointed out differences in how respondents ranked their search priorities for new housing and neighborhoods, versus how they ranked what they reported makes them happy. With the visualization intervention, we explained to respondents that moving is an opportunity to make changes in one’s life, and we prompted them to think through what they desired to change. We evaluated the influence of these interventions on residential housing decisions by surveying respondents about their priorities in residential search before and after the interventions, and by collecting information about their housing, neighborhoods, travel patterns, and reported well-being. The surveys were web-based, with one survey conducted before respondents moved and a second survey conducted afterward. Participants were randomly assigned to a focalism treatment group, a visualization treatment group, or a control group. 380 respondents answered the pre-move survey, and 184 of these answered the post-move survey. In the pre-move survey, we found that both the focalism and visualization interventions resulted in a significant increase in the fraction of people who planned to travel more sustainably relative to the control group. More importantly, we found that after the post-move survey, respondents in the focalism group, but not the visualization group, significantly reduced their travel time to work and increased their cycling, walking, carpooling, carsharing and transit use in comparison to the control group. Meanwhile, those in the visualization treatment group had significantly higher reported well-being after the move; those in the focalism treatment group also improved their stated well-being, though less significantly; and there was no change in the control group. These results suggest that it might be relatively easy to nudge residential choices towards both more sustainable travel and greater well-being.


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