All About Change! Discussing pro-environment behaviour change with psychologists

All About Change! Discussing pro-environment behaviour change with psychologists

It was great to spend a day with environmentalists and psychologists, at the IEMA/British Psychological Society conference on pro-environmental behaviour change. People with real insight into what's going on inside our funny old heads are bringing that expertise to these problems. 

Don't thingify the elephants

I've just got back from a great workshop organised by ODiN and run by Delta7.  We explored the use of pictures, in particular those which visualise 'the elephant under the table'. It's always great to see some old friends and meet new people.  Also good to have the time to reflect on stucknesses and opportunities in my own work which might helps us in this collective endeavour of forging a sustainable future.

So Julian's picture about climate change at first felt like a comfortable one for me to look at and discuss.  It was familiar territory, summarised what I consider to be an important part of my own work and practice, and gave me a platform to build on.

Too comfortable?

Someone raised the question of the shadow side of naming 'elephants under the table'.  (I can't attribute this insight, as ODiN meetings are Chatham House.)  He said that by 'thingifying' the metaphor of the elephants under the table, we can shrug off our personal responsibility for them.  I am not forgetful: I have 'senior moments' which exist independently of me.  I am not failing to pull my weight around climate change: society is in the grip of denial.

So here's my challenge to myself: to reflect on the sustainable development elephants, and give people courage to name them, without 'thingifying' them and thus distancing myself from them.

What are the chances that I'll fall off a ladder?

I was reminded horribly of our different attitudes to risk a few days ago, when we were roused just after 7.00 by a strange sound.  Turns out the wonderful man who's been cleaning windows in our street for over 15 years had fallen while washing our neighbour's windows. A--- was lying there in next-door's front garden, his arm bent rather alarmingly under him.

Neighbours gather round

We came to help A---, and so did other neighbours.  The emergency services were called, advice was provided by the 999 operator and soon A--- was being covered with blankets against shock, the ladder was put in a safe place, his car had additional parking vouchers put in it and sweet tea was dispensed.

Not on the same scale as responses after disasters like the recent tsunami or volcano, of course, but a reminder that people will help when there's a clear and present need.

Attitudes to risk

If you think an accident is never going to happen, then the cost of insurance seems like an unnecessary burden on the business. Likewise the cost of ensuring that systems and equipment are in place to make that accident even less likely may seem too high.

The accident in our street coincided with the world watching as the 33 Chilean miners were - remarkably and wonderfully - all brought to the surface safe.  The Chilean President Sebastian Pinera has promised a review of mine safety. Earlier this month, in the UK, a review was published into unnecessary health and safety rules, promising to get rid of 'nonsense'.

One of the interesting things that we often share with participants on the Post-graduate Certificate in Sustainable Business is an analysis of what makes up our attitudes to risk.  David Spiegelhalter is a regular contributor, and he blogs here.  You can find some great examples of our perception of likelihood being at odds with mathematical probability.

Our attitudes are a complex combination of our assessment of the likelihood of something happening, and our perception of the severity of the impact if it does.  So far, so rational.  This is the way a professional would address risk. I've been learning a lot about the detail of this in the massive and complex Climate Change Risk Assessment project, where I've been privileged to be helping out with stakeholder engagement. The stages which the technical experts are going through, gathering data and developing complex ways of handling it are truly impressive.

But as lay people, we discount some risks if we wish they didn't exist.  We intuitively factor in the 'pain' of doing something to reduce or manage the risk (both likelihood and impact).  So we consider what social benefits we'd miss out on by stopping smoking, or how silly we'd look in a cycle helmet. And we notice very clearly the cost of insuring ourselves and our business, without having much evidence to form a view of the likelihood or impact of a business risk occuring.

And we also consider who it is who is causing the risk, and whether we feel we can control our exposure to it.  This inability to control our exposure to the risks, and lack of faith in the benefits to us, are reasons why people are fearful of nuclear power or GM food. And there are other reasons.

Paul Slovic explains his view of the differences between professional and expert views of risk, and public perceptions of risk, in this paper.  The more 'dread' an impact is perceived to be (that is, the impact is horrific or unusual - think of it as a 'yuk' factor), the more 'risky' it is perceived to be by the public.  The less clear it is what the impact will be (once the causal event has happened), the more 'risky' it is perceived to be by the public.

Four rationalities

According to some anthropologists and political theorists, there are four cultural types and their attitudes to risk differ.  Individualists, egalitarians, fatalists and hierarchists will see risks (and what to do about them) in contrasting ways.  Our individual 'risk thermostats' have cultural filters in them.  John Adams puts it like this:

The contending rationalities not only perceive risk and reward differently, they also differ according to how the balancing act ought to be performed. Hierarchists are committed to the idea that the management of risk is the responsibility of “authority” - appropriately assisted by expert advisers. They cloak their deliberations in secrecy because the ignorant lay public cannot be relied upon to interpret the evidence correctly or use it responsibly. The individualist scorns authority as “the Nanny State” and argues that responsibility for decisions about whether to wear seat belts or eat beef should be left to individuals. Egalitarians focus on the importance of trust; risk management is a consensual activity, consensus building requires openness and transparency in considering the evidence.

The fatalists' motto is "duck if you see something about to hit you". Read more here.

Who tells us what the risks are?

And its worth bearing in mind that we doubt some people and trust others.  This recent paper shows that we make assessments about whether the communicator is 'like us', and then come to a judgement about whether we believe what they are telling us about risk.  If we don't identify with the messenger, we won't listen to the message.

Who's to blame?

Attitudes to risk also intutively take account of insurance and pay-back.

  • If the worst happens, I will / won't have a source of support and help.
  • If the worst happens, someone will / won't be held liable or accountable.

If blame is linked to the provision of help to those who have suffered, then perhaps those responsible for the risk will take measures to reduce its likelihood and its impact.  This is the logical chain which underlies campaigners' calls for discussions on liability, decommissioning and clean-up to be concluded before new technologies are introduced.

What about insurance?

A---'s unfortunate accident made me revisit what I've learnt over the years about attitudes to risk - the professional and the lay.

Turns out that apart from a broken arm, he is fine.  Phew.

But he doesn't have insurance and so he'll be without an income until he can work again.

So his accident also made me glad that, being a bit of a risk-averse and rule-bound person, I have always made sure my business is insured for loss of earnings, public liability and professional liability.   If you're in a similar line of work to me, then joining AMED is a great way to get access to a good deal on business insurance.  See here.

Good for your skin, your figure and the planet!

If you're trying to get fashion-crazy teens and young people interested in climate change, it makes sense to start where they are.  And that's what Global Cool have done, in their Eighteen Degrees of Inspiration campaign. But isn't it superficial, missing the point, and above all not going to get the scale of change we need at a systemic level?

Well, according to Chris Rose's VBCOP theory, starting where people are and eliciting changed behaviour for non-'green' reasons is the most effective way to build up political space for systemic change.

Want to know more?

I've written about this in the environmentalist, and you can read that article here.

Avoiding the ‘groan fest’

Ever been in a meeting where everyone is sure they've tried everything, and nothing works? And nothing will ever work?

And it's everyone else's fault?

Sure you have!

Tempered radicals and other internal change agents face this kind of situation alot.  So do external consultants, activists and coach / facilitators.

"The eco-champions meetings I go to are a real groan fest!"

When I was faced with this heartfelt description in a training workshop, we spent a bit of time coming up with ideas.  But I was sure there must be some even better approaches than the ones we suggested.

So I posted a question on two great forums: AMED (the Association of Management Education and Development) and IAF (the International Association of Facilitators).

The useful suggestions from fellow facilitators, coaches and OD (organisational development) professionals gave me a lot of chew on, and the result is this article.  It was first published in the environmentalist, and has also been reproduced in the IAF Europe newsletter.

Your own experiences and suggestions are very welcome!

Not groaning,



New Year, new you?

I've been mulling over the meaning of  'resolution' as the New Year crept up on me.

Plot resolution

Sometimes, a resolution can be the end of something - like when Poirot gathers everyone together to explain who the murderer is.  The threads are drawn together, the loose ends are tied up.  The plot is resolved and that chapter of the characters' lives closed.

Perhaps, as Auld Lang Syne is sung, some New Year's resolutions are to do with leaving family feuds behind as people close the old year neatly.

Resolving dilemmas

In the field of stakeholder engagement - particularly the part of the spectrum I'm happiest in, where the aim is co-enquiry and co-creation, and the approach is closer to dialogue - resolution is often about understanding dilemmas and choices, and finding the win-win.

I'm not sure how this might apply to New Year Resolutions.  I guess there would need to be a lot of exploration and reflection in the autumn and winter months in order for a resolution of this kind to emerge bang on schedule on 31st December.  This kind of self-imposed yet public deadline can help coordinate the efforts of the various people involved - although it doesn't seem to have been useful at Copenhagen.

Making your mind up

Related to resolving a dilemma is the idea of coming to a conclusion about a choice or decision.  When you resolve to do something, you are consciously committing to a particular course of action.   When Lady Macbeth urges her wavering husband to "screw your courage to the sticking-place" she's encouraging him to strengthen his resolve and take an action which is irreversible.   The scene ends with Macbeth reassuring her "I am settled".

This kind of resolution must surely lead to significant and rapid action - delay might 'unsettle' the resolution.

Conference, I move

Many years ago, I had the dubious honour of being part of a team organising the formal annual conference of a UK NGO.  Its particular semi-democratic structure meant that every year we had 'motions to conference' which, if passed, became 'resolutions'.  Some people took the standing orders of the conference very seriously, and were helpful in making sure that we stuck to our rules.  Others found the debating and voting process old-fashioned and restrictive, frustrated by the way it turned interesting choices and genuine puzzles into win/lose combats.

These sorts of resolutions bind an organisation - they settle arguments and commit people to action.  Some organisations are very good at wriggling out of the commitments quietly at a later date.  Perhaps the resolution was worded loosely, and is open to interpretation.  Perhaps the process was flawed allowing the resolution to be set aside.  Perhaps the people charged with actioning the resolution have new information which wasn't available at the time, and feel justified in ignoring it.

These are excuses - if the people implementing the resolution really agreed with it, they wouldn't find ways of wriggling out of it.  They'd find ways of pushing it through.

This is beginning to sound a bit more like most people's experiences of New Year's resolutions : commitments which aren't really commitments, where even weak excuses are seized on as explanations and justifications for broken promises.

New Year's resolutions as explicit commitments to change behaviour

I'm working with two different clients on behaviour change at the moment, so I'm particularly interested in the parallels between New Year's resolutions and other ways of encouraging or supporting changed behaviour.

There's an important point to notice here:  New Year's resolutions are, in theory, voluntary.  They are related to a change in behaviour of the person making the commitment.  For both my clients, the behaviour they want to change is other people's behaviour (staff, contractors, consumers).  This seems to me to be a crucial difference, and one which I'm keen to explore more with them and in my wider practice.

Having acknowledged that, what are the parallels between New Year's resolutions and behaviour change programmes?

One striking parallel is the relatively low chances of success combined with a kind of complacent optimism!

I notice over and over how people go into behaviour change work as if they believe that making a commitment and announcing it means that it will happen.  Too often, very little effort is put into preparation, planning and prior engagement. The supporting activities, positive feedback and physical resources are missing.  (See here for a posting about the six sources of influence which help catalyse and reinforce new behaviours.)

Fortunately for us all, the appropriately named Prof. Richard Wiseman, psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, reveals the secrets of keeping your New Year's resolutions.

Prof. Wiseman's four top tips are:

  1. Break your goal into a series of steps, focusing on creating sub-goals that are concrete, measurable, and time-based.
  2. Tell your friends and family about your goals, thus increasing the fear of failure and eliciting support.
  3. Regularly remind yourself of the benefits associated with achieving your goals by creating a checklist of how life would be better once you obtain your aim.
  4. Expect to revert to your old habits from time to time. Treat any failure as a temporary set-back rather than a reason to give up altogether.

There are six more tips on his blog.

Incidentally, it's worth noting the two categories of resolution: acheiving a goal (in our case, let's use the 10:10 campaign goal of  'cutting carbon emissions by 10% in 2010') and changing a behaviour (for example, not eating meat on Mondays).  Paul Maisey's blog on New Year's resolutions concentrates on setting well-formed, congruent and authentic goals.

One of the comments on the Prof.'s blog astutely observes:

You have to really want the new behaviour, not just the ultimate outcome.

So it's crucial to find behaviours which you enjoy (or could come to enjoy) which contribute to meeting the goal.

My resolution

So I'm off to do my dull old exercises which will, in time, allow my knee to recover sufficiently that I can get back on my bike and feel the wind in my hair as I travel fast and carbon-neutral to meetings.

  1. SMART - do them five times a week.
  2. Tell people - well I'm telling you now.
  3. Remind myself of the benefits - hang my cycle helmet on the back of the office door.
  4. Treat lapses as temporary set-backs not as a 'broken' resolution - I resolve to do this.

And the bonus - how can I want to do the exercises for themselves, as well as wanting the ultimate outcome?  Listen to the radio, award myself a star each day.

And I further resolve to share the Prof.'s research with my clients, when we come to develop approaches to behaviour change.

Happy New Year!


25th Jan - and I'm keeping up with the exercises.  The stars I put in my diary each time I do the stretches are proving motivating.  So far I'm slightly ahead of my goal, which was to do the routine five days out of seven.  And the outcome?  I cycled up to the farmers market on Saturday!

Just who are you talking to?

When we write a blog post, draft a leaflet, design a poster or click 'publish', it's important to think about who we're trying to reach, and what will get through to them.  This isn't just about the mechanisms, it's also about the tone of voice, the words we choose and the messages we decide to present. Sometimes we get it right, by chance or intuition.  Sometimes - especially when we're trying to reach out beyond people like us - we fall flat on our faces.

Here's some ways that you can segment your audiences, to make sure your talking gets heard.  The article was first published in the environmentalist.

Psychology to save the planet

A recent report by the American Psychological Association, featured in the New Scientist, brings together some of the evidence and theory behind the 'positive thinking' approach to communicating about climate change. It goes something like this: people will block up their ears if you tell them the scary facts and make them feel bad.  Instead, discover what already motivates them and makes them feel good, and use that knowledge to promote the new behaviours you'd like them to adopt.  You might not mention the climate change links at all.

The areas picked up the NS article are:

  • social networks
  • immediate feedback
  • competitive instincts
  • fitting in with the crowd

I'm very excited that this kind of psychological analysis is seeping into the world of technical experts and physical sciences.   How have you been using psychology to help engaging people more effectively?

Cutting the carbs

When I wanted to lose weight and get a bit fitter, I did what millions of women and quite a few men have done around the world - I joined Weight Watchers.  In doing so, I got interested in the parallels between the support and motivations that work for slimming, and the ones we use to promote a low-carbon lifestyle. So I used them to write an article for the environmentalist in November 2006.