Winning the persuasion game

11th May, 2011 by Anna Simpson

Behaviour change is the holy grail of sustainability. So what's the trick for making it happen?

If we're going to cut the impact of our lifestyles down to a size the planet can manage, many of the things we do every day will have to change. That's no secret. The good news is that we have a host of technologies and strategies available here and now to help us do just that. The bad news is we don't use them.

So how can we change our behaviour on anything like the sort of scale required? Ask an expert, and you're likely to be hit with a litany of tried and trashed techniques. Top of the list is initiatives that offer information and nothing more.

Thanks to a slew of public education campaigns, more people than ever are aware of climate change and the impact of CO2. Today, almost 50% of Brits know what a carbon footprint is, up from 25% in 2007, according to a survey by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. But it also found people had little appetite for making far-reaching changes in their own behaviour. "In other words", says Lorraine Whitmarsh, of Cardiff University's School of Psychology, "people do not act in accordance with what they know or [say they] care about".

It's a point reinforced by environmental psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr. In Fostering sustainable behaviour, he cites studies which found that numerous sustained efforts to educate people about the impact of their behaviour failed to make a difference.

Take for example the One-Tonne Challenge, a major Canadian media campaign. It reached 51% of the population – but to no effect. According to the report, many Canadians found it "too inconvenient or time-consuming" to change anything, and weren't sure how to go about it. Other campaigns were much clearer about what to do – but their outcome was just as disappointing. In the Netherlands, projects which provided households with information on energy conservation and water efficiency, accompanied by workshops and a state of the art handbook, were found to have absolutely no impact on behaviour.

"If environmental education worked (and, remember, we started back in the 50s) we wouldn't be having the problems we're having", points out Ray De Young, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. Meanwhile, says McKenzie-Mohr, "millions have been squandered on advertising campaigns, because the barriers [to more sustainable lifestyles] go far beyond a simple lack of awareness."

As the old adage goes, you can lead a horse to water – but getting it to drink is another thing entirely. Especially if what you want is not for the horse to just take a sip, shrug and wander off, but for it to have a good gulp, mull it over and come back for another… and eventually decide that this particular stream will be its preferred watering spot for the rest of its days.

One obvious answer, surely, is to make it worth people's while to change. In other words, bribe or reward them to do the right thing. On the surface, this works. Tesco went all out to sell 10 million low-energy lightbulbs in 2009, telling shoppers that each one could save them £9 a year. Within seven days, Tesco had sold more energy-saving bulbs than it had in the whole of 2006.

Result? Solitaire Townsend, Chair of sustainable communications company Futerra, who has led a range of research on behaviour change, has her doubts. "It is an obvious way in, yes – [but] it's an obvious way in for everything. It's an obvious way to sell piles of crap, as much as it is to sell behaviour change." And the danger, she adds, "is if you sell something purely on the basis that it's cheaper, you get no loyalty to that behaviour. We know this from other money-saving messages. The moment something comes along that's even cheaper, you are off. That's how capitalist society works. You have competition on price: you have absolutely no loyalty to that decision."

Which may explain the failure of the much-vaunted Residential Conservation Service, brought in by the US Congress. The act granted homeowners the right to free energy audits to find ways to save energy, and then interest-free loans to carry out the work – with the aim of cutting consumption by 20% per home. Nearly 6% of households targeted took up the offer, and 50% had work done as a result. Not wildly impressive, perhaps, but a lot better than nothing. However, says McKenzie-Mohr, a final evaluation revealed energy savings of no more than 2-3% per participating home – a pretty paltry return. The National Research Council concluded that the service had assumed that people would make all necessary changes to save money – forgetting the "rich mixture of cultural practices" that influence what we do in our homes, and how far we'll change them.

"Of course, if you give someone an astounding amount of money, you get a dramatic rate of change." concludes Raymond De Young. "But you have to ask, would they do it without the reward? Could they convince their friends to do it?"

If anyone can convince their friends to do something, it's Hermione Taylor. When she decided to cycle over 2,000 miles to Morocco, she felt a bit bad asking her cash-strapped mates to sponsor her. So instead, she asked them to do something instead. Over 200 friends, and friends of friends, agreed to specific carbon-saving actions, from washing their clothes at 30°C to cutting down on burgers. Together, they saved over 16 tonnes of carbon: the equivalent of 83 flights from London to Morocco.

What's more, almost three quarters of the sponsors carried on the actions beyond the two months. "The response was staggering", says Taylor. "Even my 'meatoholic' brother now only eats meat once a week. He realised that he didn't become a raving hippy just by changing his habits."

Taylor founded The DoNation to encourage other social groups to show support for each other by doing, not spending. "Your friends know what you've pledged, and can (informally) monitor whether you're sticking to it", says Taylor. "And you're going to stick to it, because you're not the only one making an effort, and because you get the chance to talk about how well you're doing, or ask for help if you're finding it tough."


Hermione Taylor: just ask your friends

Taylor isn't the only one to have spotted how great a difference the desire to impress or fit in with others can make. Such 'social proofing' is key to many successful strategies. "A live, warm, blood-thumping human being is top trumps when it comes to changing behaviours", explains Townsend.

"It's one of the reasons we still have car showrooms. Human interaction is much more likely to affect your decision than anything you read online – however logical, clear and comprehensive that is." In fact, our concern for how we are perceived is so great, she argues, that we're affected by people we don't even know or like. "So, if the car salesman, or another dad you meet in the park, says, 'I don't see you as being a Volvo man', you don't then make a decision about whether or not you are going to accept that label. It just sneaks into your head."

You buy it, in other words. And you don't buy the Volvo.

Another effective behaviour change box ticked by Taylor's model is a sense of solidarity. "One of the reasons why people are passive", explains John Thøgersen, Professor in Economic Psychology at the Aarhus School of Business and Social Sciences, "is that they feel no one else is doing anything. When it comes to climate change, your contribution is so small it doesn't really matter. What matters", he goes on, "is what other people do. If you don't perceive that many people are also saving energy, then you [feel] a bit of a sucker, because you lose something without helping the problem."

For Thøgersen, this suggestibility comes down to the basic way we function as humans: "We're social animals, and we learn the right way to act by observing others. That's how we conquered the world." It's hardly surprising. For the vast majority of human evolution, we have lived in small groups, on which we've pretty much depended for our survival. We learnt the hard way that we were much more likely to get eaten by a tiger or killed by marauders if we strayed from the group, stood out from it too much, or lost its approval.

So it's not surprising that some of the most effective behaviour change techniques are those that involve people doing things together. It's a lesson taken to heart by Transition Together, part of the Transition Towns movement, which aims to help communities make the switch to a low-carbon, 'post-oil' lifestyle. Transition Together, a finalist in this year's Ashden Awards for Sustainable Energy, features groups of neighbours and friends in the Devon town of Totnes, who meet up regularly to work out what they can do by way of living more sustainably, and support each other in doing it. The actions may be simple enough – buying local food, using low-energy lights. But as Peter Capener, an independent energy and community adviser who has observed it closely, points out, the scheme "generates real enthusiasm that is based as much on the social interaction as it is on the subject matter". People love coming together in a shared endeavour, says Capener, and "it creates the kind of reservoir of commitment" that can keep the momentum going over time. This can help people to go beyond the 'been there, done that, changed the light bulb' approach to behaviour change – and instead look at the roots of their unsustainable behaviour, "at the stories we tell each other around what success means in society".

Having your commitment witnessed by your neighbours can be a spur, too, says Christopher Rootes, a Professor of Environmental Politics and Political Sociology at the University of Kent. Take a walk down the streets of Hampshire, for instance, and you won't have to go far before you come across a house with a card in the window which lists a number of energy-saving activities and highlights the ones that household is putting into action. It's part of a simple scheme called the Greening Campaign, the beauty of which, says Rootes, is that it "starts small, asks little and tries to establish a community norm. Bigger changes can be the sum of small changes." Indeed, the Greening Campaign has saved 3,000 tonnes of CO2 across 180 communities – so far.

Such "tangible markers of progress" are key to sustaining motivation, says Capener. Barnet Council in north London now uses posters to publicise individual actions. These show how many households on that street have pledged to reduce their carbon footprint. There's a similar scheme in Kansas called the Take Charge Challenge: a "friendly competition" between 16 towns to reduce their energy use and so take charge of their energy future. Over 6 million kWh were saved in 12 months, and the measures taken have 'locked in' future savings amounting to 7 million kWh a year. A range of supporting events included one where children played vampire hunters – scouring their homes for 'energy vampires' that sucked the most power.

Some behaviour-savvy brands have cottoned on to this approach. Take Unilever's Cleaner Planet Plan, currently being promoted in the UK through the Persil brand, with the strapline "lots of small actions = a big difference". Consumers behave very much like a flock, observing each other's movements and following trends, says Sally Uren, Deputy CEO of Forum for the Future. So if you motivate them as a group you can convince them that their own simple steps can indeed make a difference. But, she adds: "The consumer is also very clear that business needs to do its bit. There needs to be a clear contract between the brand and the consumer, based on a sense of: 'I will if you will'."

As with TheDoNation, a lively relationship is at the heart of any success. Brands need to keep on their toes with this, says Uren, because that relationship is changing fast: "The traditional model of a linear value chain with consumers at one end and producers at another, with multiple intermediaries in the middle, is rapidly evolving. Consumers are now often producers themselves, too.

So, a brand that makes no reference to the origins of its production can't engage the consumer effectively."

How not to do it...

Despite mountains of evidence that the fear factor fails to win hearts and minds, governments and greenies alike keep pressing the scary button.

As part of its widely derided 'Act on CO2' campaign, the UK Government blew a reported £6 million on a series of ads themed around nursery rhymes. Picture two children peering into a stone well against an arid backdrop, with copy lines which read: "Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. There was none as extreme weather due to climate change had caused a drought." Then it added: "It's our children that will really pay the price."

Effective?

"It's a perfect example of everything that can be done wrong", says Townsend. "First, it tells people they're bad parents – never a good thing to do when you're trying to get them on your side. And it creates a sense of fear without first giving people a sense of agency – a belief that they can do something about it. That's actually been shown to suppress immune systems. So is it any wonder that people respond by going deep into denial? That's a pretty natural reaction and I have enormous sympathy with it. You've just dumped a whole bucket-load of fear and guilt on them and told them their children will suffer, for heaven's sake!"

It's a telling comment which highlights just how damaging scare tactics can be. "By raising fear, without raising a sense of agency, we are making people more stressed, more worried, less healthy and less likely to take positive action. I actually use [those ads] as an object lesson in how not to do it", says Townsend. "They were that bad."

School children were also the subject of another high profile flop last year, but this time they weren't going thirsty, they were being blown up. As was Gillian Anderson (star of The X Files), and ex-footballer David Ginola. The viral video, directed by Richard Curtis for the one year anniversary of the well-respected and – until that point – largely successful 10:10 campaign, shows a variety of people dying in an explosion of blood and gore after they confessed to not doing their bit on climate change. It ends with the caption: "Cut your Carbon by 10%. No pressure." Intended to be hip, witty and ironic, it rebounded spectacularly. It succeeded in portraying environmentalists as guilt tripping, callous and vindictive – exactly the colours in which climate change deniers had been painting them for years. The video was promptly pulled by 10:10, but the damage had been done.

Tea brand Tetley has taken this on board with its Farmers First Hand initiative, where tea drinkers in Britain chat via Facebook with tea pickers on the Lujeri estate in Malawi. Farmers and estate workers upload photos, messages and video clips; consumers can come back with questions and comments. Recently, John from the Mulanje district told the group how the Rainforest Alliance has supplied Lujeri with separate bins for organic waste and plastic, to keep waste out of the rivers. Kelly from Sunderland responded: "Pleased you can have a cleaner environment. Still in the UK not everyone does what you're doing now – it only takes seconds." It's a safe bet her teabags go into the compost caddy.

Other campaigns target the sense that your own personal behaviour doesn't really matter, by creating peer groups across vast geographies. Advertising agency Wieden and Kennedy decided to cut energy use in its office by 10% over a year. But instead of just keeping the savings, they launched the "OFF-ON" campaign, teaming up with the non-profit SolarAid to fund PV panels to provide lighting for The Cheryl Children's Home in Nairobi. So, turning the monitor off at the end of the day might mean a child has enough light to do her homework.

For a community to embrace lasting change, argues De Young, it needs two things. One is a clear idea of the problem to be solved. The other is for its members to play an active role in figuring out and implementing the solution. He gives the example of a community in west Berlin challenged by a research group to reduce, not just their waste output, but their commercial intake. Neighbourhoods were brought together and asked to experiment, and the result was a 16% decrease in the weight of new purchases over six weeks. The researchers went away happy with the initial results, and came back a year later, fully expecting the level of consumption to have bounced back. But not only had the cut been maintained: it had dropped by a further 5%. Why?

"It was the group process", De Young explains. "There's no reason that the experimentation and sharing would stop when the researcher goes away, because the reward is in the activity itself."

Trying a solution out for size makes it much more likely to stick. Take cycle hire schemes, says Townsend. "Buying a bicycle is a major commitment: it's not just a financial outlay; you're also putting a line in the sand to say that you're actually going to cycle. That's quite scary, and not something many people are prepared to do. A 'Boris Bike' [the London cycle hire scheme named after the city's mayor], on the other hand, allows you to have a little bit of a pootle about, and see whether you've got the gumption and the leg power to actually get around." The bikes tick several behaviour change boxes: they're simple, cheap, effective and there's obvious social approval – the streets are full of them. They're both a cause and a consequence of the surge in cycling in the capital, which has now clearly passed a tipping point on the journey from eccentric to mainstream.

They also imbue an element of fun – another obvious, but rarely used, technique for breaking down established behaviour patterns. That's the premise behind Volkswagen's Fun Theory website. It offers a showcase for creative projects, such as an 'arcade' bottle recycling bank that mimics a slot machine and has proved 50 times more popular than a 'standard' bottle bank nearby, and the piano staircase in the Stockholm metro which has tempted many a pedestrian away from the escalator by making music as they trot up and down.

Toyota echoed the approach with a novel way to cut fuel consumption. This has been the subject of numerous public education campaigns, along the lines of 'save money – save your engine – save the planet', which have largely failed to make a difference. Toyota took a different tack. If you put a tumbler of water on your dashboard, and then tried to avoid any of the contents splashing over the rim, you'd incidentally be driving in just about the most economical way possible. Toyota invited drivers to try it, filmed them, and even created an app: a picture of a tumbler full of water fills the screen of your iPhone. When the phone moves, so does the virtual tumbler, splashing water over its sides in proportion to the motion. So just put your iPhone in its cradle on the dash, and see if you can keep the glass full…

Such prompts for instant behaviour change are unlikely to result in immediate, sweeping changes in long-term habits. You'd be a fool to expect any old staircase to make music for you, just because one of them did. But what such creative campaigns can do is make people stop and think about habits they normally don't even perceive.

"There's no silver bullet [for them]", says Steve Connor, Director of communications consultants Creative Concern. "But we do know that people aren't constantly searching the net for information on sustainability: they're looking for porn and cheap flights. So we need to cut through that and take more risks if we are going to encourage more urgent action. We need to be more creative – we need to make change irresistible."

One way of doing so is to spring a surprise into the daily routine. The China Environmental Protection Foundation took this approach to prompt the people of Shanghai to walk more and drive less. It had a simple message: by walking, you can create a greener environment. So it stretched huge canvases across seven of the city's busiest pedestrian crossings. On the canvas lay the outline of a big black leafless tree. On either side of the tree, along the pavements, were sponge cushions soaked in green, washable, quick-dry paint. As pedestrians trudged over the crossing they stepped on the sponges and their soles left leaf-like prints on the tree.

The green pedestrian crossing was then extended to 132 roads in 15 cities across China. The mix of physical art and a campaign video reached nearly four million people across the country. The video went on to scoop the Green Awards 2010 Grand Prix and Best Green Advertising Award.

China Environmental Protection Foundation - "Green Pedestrian Crossing" 
Shanghai surprised: turning a zebra into a tree

A zebra crossing that turns into a tree 'works' by introducing the unexpected into the everyday. An alternative approach focuses on what Whitmarsh describes as "those disruptive moments in people's lives when they are more receptive to new ways of doing things. For example, if they are moving house, they might well be more likely to reconsider how they get from home to work." It holds out the tantalising prospect of estate agents playing an unlikely role as green messengers…

Less traumatic (usually) than a house move is a music festival. This is one of the most exciting things a large proportion of the audience has ever done, which by Whitmarsh's logic makes them far more open-minded. And this means there's more chance of inciting sustainable thoughts. Green power outfit Eco Charge exploited this by designing an installation using solar and pedal power to recharge 2,000 mobile phones and cameras a day. "We were the busiest area of the festival – apart from the bars and stages," says Eco Charge Director, Alex Brenan. "It was a great way to connect with a massive amount of people and deliver a sustainable message. We were receiving messages from fans asking how to build their own pedal power rigs at home."

Whatever approach is taken, painting attractive pictures of sustainable lifestyles is a crucial part of the package, says Caroline Fiennes, Executive Director at the Global Cool Foundation. For too long, she says, sustainability campaigns geared towards changing behaviour have been dreamt up by the greenies, for the greenies. "So they perk up and everyone else switches off."

"Environmentalists", comments Townsend acidly, "are very good at identifying what people should desire – not what they actually do desire."

For Fiennes, that means "we need to shut up about being green, and instead make carbon saving cool by appealing to more people about the things that interest them". So, get on a bus because you get lots of lovely time to yourself; go on holiday by train rather than flying, because you'll have a better adventure; turn your heating down because it's better for your skin.

Global Cool teamed up with Eurostar, RailEurope and Mr and Mrs Smith Hotels to film various celebrities on train-based holidays, featuring the destinations reachable within a sensible time – and the pleasure you can have on the way. "We showed that you get time to read, have lunch with a friend in Paris and dinner in Geneva. And how good the bars are on German trains," explains Fiennes.

It addresses what Townsend describes as one of the biggest obstacles to behaviour change: "No one has bothered to find out what is actually desirable about a low-carbon lifestyle" – and so our visions fall rather flat. "People are supposed to think eating healthily is desirable. It's not. What's desirable is what comes from healthy eating: having better sex, feeling lighter, having more energy and so on."

The trick then, is to identify ways in which we unconsciously associate living greener lives with ones that are more pleasurable and satisfying, too – and which bring us closer to our neighbours and our friends, enjoying the fruits of a shared endeavour. It really does seem to be as simple – and as challenging – as that.

What works...

  • Social proofing
  • Peer-to-peer messaging
  • Timely interventions at 'life changing moments'
  • Surprises and fun

What doesn't...

  • Information campaigns
  • Scare tactics
  • Guilt trips
  • Isolated messages out of context.

David Burrows, Anna Simpson and Martin Wright

Image credits: salihguler/istock; DDBA China

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