The ABC’S of Social Change – Part 2

by Lisa Chacón

Yesterday I introduced the theory behind the ABC’S of Social Change as a model for understanding the broader context surrounding behavior change. Today we’ll analyze some popular behavior change approaches from the perspective of this framework to see how well they know their ABC’S, and then design our own change initiative using the model.

To recap briefly, the essential ingredients in an effective change recipe are the four basic threads that make up the fabric of social reality:

  • A = Awareness, or the interior experience of you being you – your intellect, beliefs, values, intentions, motivations and emotions
  • B = Behavior, actions and anything others can directly observe about you – essentially, any aspects of A that you express outwardly
  • C = Culture, cultural values, worldviews and paradigms – similar to A, but at a group level
  • S = Systems and stuff – the human-built environment and products, and the earth, biosphere and atmosphere

These can be thought of as “zones” which must be addressed simultaneously for lasting, systemic change. The popular literature is full of best-sellers on this topic, with Drive, Nudge and Switch among the most widely read.

Drive, by Dan Pink, is a study of human motivation and behavior change that comes up with the surprising answer that carrots and sticks don’t work! Pink’s conclusions and the strategies he offers are extremely useful for fine-tuning the awareness and motivation required for success in the “A” Awareness zone.

In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein introduce the concept of “choice architecture” – organizing the context in which people make decisions in order to steer them towards a better choice. For example, you would ask a child if he wanted to have carrots or celery, rather than ask if he wanted a healthy snack like vegetables, or an unhealthy snack like chips. Architecting choices is a Systems zone, “S” strategy, that helps people make better choices, sometimes without even having to engage their Awareness, “A,” at all. This can be very effective!

Switch, by the Heath brothers, is an excellent compilation of behavior change studies, organized into three categories: a) Direct the Rider, b) Motivate the Elephant and c) Shape the Path. Mapping these categories to the ABC’S model places both the Rider and the Elephant in the “A” zone, where Awareness includes both intellectual and emotional aspects. Shaping the path is similar to Nudge and choice architecture, and falls in the Systems zone, “S.” Though they don’t explicitly call it out as a distinct category, the chapter on “Rally the Herd” in fact contains many examples of Cultural, “C” zone approaches that are effective at influencing behavior change.

Of these three books, Switch offers the most well rounded set of tools for behavior change, but this doesn’t mean that the others are wrong, just that they are more tightly focused. Most strategies target one or two zones at a time, but an integral* strategy for change necessarily comes at the “problem” from all four angles in one well-crafted move, and addresses the ABC’S zones synergistically.

Let’s try that now using a practical example. Say that you are tasked with designing a new program to dramatically increase recycling rates in your city. Using the ABC’S model you would start with “A” and ask – what is the awareness level? Show compelling images and facts about how much waste the average American generates each year and how long things take to break down in the landfill, or information about the Pacific garbage patch. Make an emotional connection with images of litter spoiling beautiful natural scenes, or show interesting garbage art. Set clear targets – 50% higher recycling rates, and create feedback loops so that people will know how well they are doing. That’s the first step – educating and engaging the audience intellectually and emotionally to create a compelling motivation for change.

Many initiatives stop there, but armed with the ABC’S model, you know that there’s more to it than just raising awareness of the problem, so you turn next to “B,” Behavior, and ask – “what behavioral capacities are required to make the change, and how can we support new habits?” B.J. Fogg of Stanford University highlights the use of “triggers” that remind you to do something, and has created a powerful behavior grid that categorizes the different types of behavior change, and a behavior wizard that offers strategies to help people reform their habits.

Next, you examine what is going on at the Cultural level, “C,” and ask – how can we position people who recycle as cooler than people who don’t, and make recycling fun? Watch the The Fun Theory’sworld’s deepest bin” for inspiration! Ask for a small budget for neighborhood outreach or booths at festivals and hold a competition where people are timed to see how many recyclables they can correctly sort in 90 seconds, or guess the number of plastic bottles in a compressed bale. Harness the innate human competitive drive by pitting neighborhoods against each other to see who can increase their recycling rates faster.

Last but not least, mine the literature for effective System level, “S” approaches. Is single stream or dual stream more effective? What types of bins are the most compact and aesthetically pleasing? Design the collection schedule to pick up garbage and recycling on the same day. Create a financial incentive with a rate structure that offers reduced fees for smaller bins, which require people to sort and recycle to minimize their waste stream. (Pay as You Throw).

When you pull all of these elements together and put them on a timeline, you will have an ABC’S Roadmap for Transformation that will take you wherever you want to go, no matter how far off the map it may seem. If your strategy is to identify and overcome barriers in each zone with interventions that have a balance of A, B, C and S, you are well on your way towards successful whole system change. Good luck and let me know how it goes!


*Integral, or AQAL Theory, as defined by Ken Wilber, is the primary basis for an integral perspective and the ABC’S change model.


Lisa Chacón is a Founding Partner at Innovive Group, the hybrid of a sustainability consultancy and a creative agency, offering business an innovative way to evolve culture and systems toward environmental and social sustainability. Learn more at

Ali Hart is a sustainability messaging and engagement strategist with a passion for life’s essentials: food, water and media. Her background in the Entertainment industry, penchant for humor and MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School are Ali’s secret weapons in her quest to master the art of behavior change and to message green effectively.

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One response

  1. Nice work. I love the clarity of the piece. By placing the model in context with other familiar works and everyday examples, it’s easier to understand what I’m missing sometimes in my designs. I am looking forward to part 3. Thanks.

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