Behavior Change: An Ode to Fat Doctors and Crazy Shrinks

By Suzanne Shelton

Information does not equal action. And importance doesn’t equal action either.

Case in point: we all know fat doctors and crazy shrinks. Many folks who are deeply committed to environmental salvation think that knowledge is the key to behavior change. Many of our clients and friends in the environmental community consistently say things like, “If only Americans really understood how their daily actions are damaging the planet, they’d change their ways.  We must help them see this!  We must educate them!”

Not so much.

We poll Americans four times a year to track their shifting opinions about all things energy and environment-related, to fuel the development of our creative campaigns (we’re an ad agency), and we consistently see that knowing stuff doesn’t make folks want to change.  In fact, some Americans are pretty dug in.

Only 48% of the American population currently believes that global warming is happening and caused by humans.  Of those who aren’t sure or flat-out don’t believe, we’ve asked:  “Which of the following scenarios would convince you that climate change is a real and immediate threat and cause you to make dramatic changes in your lifestyle? You wake up one morning and find out that…” followed by a list of possible “nightmare” environmental scenarios, which have all been cited as real possibilities by climate scientists:

  • The polar ice cap had melted
  • Kids could no longer go outside and play due to consistently dangerous ozone/pollution levels
  • Shifting weather patterns/lack of rain was turning Nebraska into a desert
  • There were only 20 polar bears estimated to be left living in the wild
  • Residents of American Samoa were having to be relocated due to rising tides

27% of those who don’t believe global warming is happening said NONE of these scenarios would convince them it’s happening, and 24% said one or more would convince them but they’d be unlikely to make changes.

So…educating Americans about all the horrible outcomes of their unfriendly-to-the-planet lifestyles doesn’t actually result in behavior change. What actually works is talking to those consumers about what they care about the most: themselves.  Couching the benefits in terms of feeling smart, in control, more respected, more comfortable, etc. wins the day.  And all the science of behavior theory/behavior change that so much was written about in 2010, definitely applies here as well.  For instance, you can’t move someone who’s more extrinsically motivated to do a thing with the promise of an intrinsic reward (“you’ll feel so good about yourself!”), and you don’t move people forward with broad, ill defined requests and benefits (“make your home more energy efficient!”  “Save money!”)  Specifically, behavior change only happens when you do the following:

  • Harness enthusiasm and minimize resistance
  • Engage logic and engage emotion
  • Define a collective long term vision and define immediate steps for individuals
  • Move people from automatic behaviors and shift them to conscious decisions
  • Remove big barriers and celebrate small wins
  • Communicate systemic benefits and progress and recognize personal benefits
  • Praise the effort/build on strengths and not focus only on results/expect failures along the way

As in all advertising, it’s really about understanding the target, knowing their deepest desires, and going for the jugular in promising to fulfill those desires.

That’s how we’ll move fat doctors to stick to a diet, nudge crazy shrinks to seek therapy and motivate energy-guzzling consumers to conserve.


Suzanne Shelton is the CEO of Shelton Group, an advertising agency exclusively focused on motivating mainstream Americans to make more sustainable choices. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and a featured speaker at numerous conferences every year on this topic, largely pulling insights from the firm’s quarterly polling of Americans and their creative campaign work for some of America’s largest brands.

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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2 responses

  1. Hi!
    Your article is spot-on. Advocacy types are always repeating the “educate the public” mantra, but generally their efforts are not widely effective as envisioned. BUT! Our little non-profit produces a feel-good PSA series that has been very effective in encouraging positive environmental attitudes in our area: Green Smarts with the Green Man. All the episodes are on YouTube and many are on EmPivot, too. (use the URL with our comment to get there) We are trying to get them out to wider audiences online so as to further interest commercial broadcasters around the country (especially in smaller, more conservative markets.) Please give it a look and let us know what you think, but most importantly, forward it to your pals!! (especially the eco-cynics!)

  2. “Only 48% of the American population currently believes that global warming is happening and caused by humans”

    That many? So only 52% realise the whole caboodle is unprecedented pseudoscientifc fraud as Professor Harold Lewis described it?

    Try advertising the TRUTH for a change. It’s a whole lot easier if nothing else, mainly because people generally are not stupid. Soon enough that 48% will hit rock bottom. Hasten the day.

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