How the Science of Behavior Change Can Help Environmentalists

By Les Robinson

The same questions about behavior change seem to come up again and again. Here are some answers I hope are useful.

How do you change people’s behaviors?

It’s a delusion we can change peoples’ behaviors. Instead, people change their own behaviors. Our role is to create an enabling environment and provide opportunities for people to become inspired by what their peers have achieved. When we offer people a chance to take a step closer to the lives, businesses or farms they dream about (and we make that change feel safe) then they’ll do the changing for us.

How to you move beyond “the converted”?

The converted want to change the world. The majority just want incremental improvement in their farms, businesses, lives, families, health etc. There’s nothing wrong with that and we can’t transform the majority into the converted. Instead we have to respect their hopes and enable them to achieve the things that matter to them.

That’s why successful farm sustainability programs improve the look and productivity of farms, why effective exercise programs are enjoyable and sociable, why effective climate change programs give people comfortable homes they’re proud to show their friends, and why effective bush care programs give people fun, pleasure and the feeling of being part of a family.

So, instead of asking “How can I make the public share my passionate concerns for climate, road safety, domestic violence etc?” we need to ask “How can I be of service to the concerns they already have?”

Which behaviour change theory is best?

The best theory is the one you make yourself by intimately knowing your audience and understanding their needs. Generic theories are, however, useful in expanding our thinking as change agents. Theories like Diffusion of Innovations, Social Learning Theory and Self-Determination Theory are powerful because they challenge conventional “carrot and stick” assumptions about behavior change.

What if people just aren’t interested?

Don’t blame them. Instead, act more like a designer. Immerse yourself in their lives until you figure out how to create solutions that answer their real needs.

Imagine if the inventors of the first mobile phones (known affectionately as “bricks”) just sat around blaming the public for not buying them. Instead they set about evolving the phone into something that met more and more people’s practical needs. The same applies to, for instance, a climate change project. If you want people to reduce their energy use then get to know your audience and work with them to innovate solutions that are a good fit to their real life needs. A nice example of this approach is the Low Carb Lane project in the UK.

One of the biggest changes to the practice of social change in recent years has been the entry of design professionals into the field. They bring a system of thinking based on immersive research, wide ranging inspiration, prototyping, piloting and redesign. This is an incredibly healthy intrusion. It reminds us that “It’s the product, stupid.” Good behavioral products sell themselves, but no amount of persuasion or wiz-bang marketing can sell a behavior that provides no advantages for the adopter. For those familiar with Diffusion of Innovations this will be no surprise. Design thinking + Diffusion of Innovations make a very powerful system for understanding how to change the world.

Do threats work?

Rarely. After all, when was the last time you changed your behavior because of a threat? Threats create waves of denial and resistance. Yet campaigns based on threat appeals are common in areas like climate change, alcohol and tobacco control, and road safety. The failure of threat-based appeals results in a common marketing syndrome, the Just Shout Louder Effect. If people aren’t responding to the threat, then Just Shout Louder! A classic example was Deutsche Bank’s giant Climate Change clicker in Times Square.

Do incentives work?

Incentives are a two-edged sword. Sometimes they help, sometimes they don’t. There’s an unresolved decades-long debate between economists and psychologists about the effectiveness of incentives. Many psychologists argue that, although an incentive may have short term benefits, withdrawing it is likely to reduce the actor’s motivation to lower than it was before the incentive was offered. In fact, there’s empirical evidence both ways.

Probably the best answer is that incentives tell receivers a story about themselves. Sometimes it’s a story that dignifies the receiver, sometimes it humiliates them. So, the question we could ask is: what story does our particular incentive tell the receiver? Does it say, “We recognize your extraordinary motivation.” Or, does it say, “We doubt you really care, that’s why we’re paying you.”

How do you create great messages?

Marketers typically overestimate the power of messages, a syndrome that could be called “message fetish.” People are rarely convinced by messages. Usually they are convinced by the inspiring real life examples of their peers. Nevertheless, we always need to communicate, and stories (rather than messages or slogans) are our best tools. A great book on this subject is Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Basically, they say that stories should be short, emotional, surprising, concrete and believable. It’s a very useful formula.

Can marketers persuade people to do absolutely anything?

We humans resent unwanted advice, especially when it threatens our comfort zones. Denial and resistance are driven by fear and the worst fears are social fears. What will our friends and family think? What if we fail? How will we look to others? It may seem silly but one of the big barriers to women cycling to work is their fear about how their hair will look. We trivialise these fears to our peril. Behavior change is therefore rarely achieved by persuasion or marketing but almost always requires modelling how to carry out unfamiliar behaviours with ease, aplomb and dignity.

In conclusion

We are learning that the business of change requires us to work with humans in their social context, respond to their hopes and fears, recognise the role of power, and understand that behaviour sits in a matrix of technologies, infrastructures, institutions, norms and social structures, all of which need to be the open to strategising and potential modification.

Behavior change is therefore a multi-disciplinary effort. It involves practices and ways of thinking that no one profession can claim expertise in, like organizational change, infrastructure design, observational and social research, regulation, design thinking, social psychology, and communication and marketing.

And, of course, leadership.

Because it’s a multi-disciplinary effort, one of the most important roles of a change agent is to be a facilitator of strategizing discussions involving individuals in diverse fields, including members of the target audience itself. That kind of facilitation might just be the most important thing we do.

Les Robinson is a Social Change consultant based in Australia. For more of his insights, visit:

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3 responses

  1. There is a great message in this piece that has worked for me over the decades:
    “we always need to communicate, and stories are our best tools.” “stories should be short, emotional, surprising, concrete and believable.” How true! People like to be identified for their contributions to a new way of living, but more importantly, “they are convinced by the inspiring real life examples of their peers” more often than not.

    The ultimate behavior changes that are needed start with you. What you do, what you say and how you frame the issues at hand make a big difference in what people see, support and actually implement in their lives.

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