One hundred years ago, Henry Ford announced a 5 dollar a day “incentive” wage.  He used this doubling of wages to decrease employee turnover, create more consumers, and as a way to instill morals and Americanize immigrant workers.  Henry Ford enforced behavior change by invading privacy and firing workers who were unable to change their ways.

My Capoeira instructor enjoys having an outdoor barrel fire for special occasions.  I cannot enjoy myself during these times because of the smoke my friends and I are exposed to (even though they certainly don’t seem to mind).  Ever since I built a rocket stove that puts out nearly no emissions, I have become more sensitive to smoke.  In order to provide a substitute I offered to create a more efficient fire.   After a fair amount of thinking, I stepped back from the project and recognized it was not worth the material resources, energy and time that would have been needed. My initial thinking was of a design that I discovered would have the same major issue of a typical barrel fire.  Most of the heat from the superefficient combustion would have gone up, due to a lack of what is known as a bell. I am still pondering designs for outdoor enjoyment fires, but a rocket mass heater design seems to be what is needed.

In choice theory the function of behavior is to meet our needs of survival, love and belonging, power, freedom and fun. Beyond survival, the relative importance of each of these needs is different for everyone. Choice theory emphasizes that we can only know what is best for ourselves. We must respect differences in how people process information based on life experiences, culture and values.

How can we personally adjust our lives to meet our needs in a way that the planet can support?
What is the best way to go about it?
What about the other guy?
How can we effectively and respectfully encourage sustainable behaviors?

Psychology provides insight to these questions.

The ineffectiveness of approaches that have relied solely on informational campaigns has been proven. Advertising campaigns highlighting significant amounts of money saved through environmentally beneficial behaviors also have little to no effect. These simplistic programs fail to address the complexity of individuals, culture, and barriers to behavior (both personal and systemic).

It is an elaborate venture to design an impactful behavior change program. This process (community based social marketing) includes a literature review, focus groups, random assignment for surveys, statistical analysis, pilots, revisions and evaluation.  Barriers to sustainable behaviors must be understood and overcome.  Developing these effective programs is highly valuable work that will help with our transition into a resource constrained future.

Valuable learning can be extracted from this science by considering the underlying themes of effective programs.  A central theme is that people need consistency between their perceptions of themselves and their behavior.  A small request can subtly affect self perception to increase the likelihood of a future behavior.  For example, asking people to place a small sign asking residents to drive safe will make it much more likely for them to be willing to later place a larger and more obtrusive sign.

This same need for consistency is also why commitments are so effective in establishing sustainable behavior, since we enjoy viewing ourselves as trustworthy.  Commitments are even more effective when accountability is increased, by making them written and/or made public.

Public commitments also help to develop social norms.  If something is perceived as common behavior, it immediately has more traction. Properly designed incentives, role modeling, regulation, and human interaction are significant elements in the development of social norms.  A well placed specific prompt can also have a double function, reminding an individual of a specific behavior, as well as promoting the social norm.

Some other interesting results from psychology studies:

  • Consistent feedback has a significant effect on promoting sustainable behavior.
  • With a greater sense of community, individuals are more likely to believe that their sustainable actions have value.
  • Humans perceive losses as more significant than missing out on savings. Losses presented due to inaction can be more effective than messages that focus on savings from action.
  • The raw truth of our current situation must be presented, yet we must keep a solution oriented and hopeful perspective.

Habits simplify life and allow brain power to be reserved for the highest use. To adjust habits, one must use self awareness (often taking situational notes) in order to interrupt entrenched patterns. The brain does not take kindly to being told to not carry out its habit. The effective approach relies on substituting an improved behavior for the troublesome one.   To increase barriers to carrying out an undesirable action, artificial consequences can be created.

Suffice it to say that behavior change is complex and that there are many forces at play.  When working to promote sustainable behaviors on a mass scale, human interaction is needed.  Approaching sustainability from a business perspective, I will use these lessons from psychology to increase personal sustainable behaviors, as well as to provide products and services that simplify sustainable behaviors. Understanding behavior change helps us to more wisely focus our efforts. By reducing or increasing barriers, setting up consistent feedback, and building community while promoting behavior we can drastically increase our effectiveness.