SUMANI Trendster Blog: Enabling a Sustainable Change

The following is the first of a two part assessment on Behavior Change. Written by current SUMA student, Amanda Stevens.

How do we support widespread behavioral change to increase the sustainability of society, when it’s not just ourselves we are changing?

Consider reducing emissions from household energy use as our desired result. We could tackle this in several ways: altering the individual’s consumption behavior; increasing product energy efficiency at the company level; working with utilities to reduce emissions at the source; and/or focus on policy changes such as building codes. While all of these approaches are essential to reducing household emissions, each requires significant changes in somebody else’s behavior.

So how do we get there? While I love data (I’m a self-professed data junkie), purely informational campaigns rarely succeed in changing behavior in the long-term. Continuing on the emissions example, we know that exclusively knowing the trends and hearing climate change predictions just isn’t enough to actually change our society – otherwise, we would have solved climate change years ago! We need to shift from predominately informational campaigns towards change management programs that target specific behaviors. While I’ve known this for a while, it wasn’t until I interned with Etsy Solar before the lights really went on in my own head. Here was a situation where Etsy wanted to convince their members to install household solar, but simply explaining how much money (or emissions) could be saved wasn’t effective. Instead, we had to identify the other reasons for not going solar (time required, finding a trustworthy installer, property value, and other concerns, etc.), identify feasible solutions, and then roll everything into an easily-digestible process. Let me tell you, comprehensive change management isn’t easy! Here are the top five tips I’ve picked up over the last year:

  1. Make it simple: 

    We often like to go the path of least resistance. Behavioral economist, Richard Thaler, thus suggests we make our desired option simple or the alternative harder (such as making your behavior the default option). To do this, dig into understanding your end behavior by mapping it out. How many times does your audience (who you want to change behaviors) make a decision between where they are now and your desired behavior? Once you’ve identified the potential deviations, you can think of ways to eliminate them and funnel your audience to your desired result. Not sure how to start mapping your behavior? Take a page from Doug McKenzie-Mohr’s community-based social marketing approach, and observe how individuals approach the decisions required to complete your intended behavior change or interview them directly.

  2. Utilize the bandwagon effect: 

    I once worked on a staff engagement project to promote sustainable office activities (green team events, meetings, pledges) and noticed my fellow staff members using a leftover signup sheet from a prior event with a few names already jotted down. This was not an effort to conserve paper, but a strategic approach to increase participation, as the internal green team had noticed a significant jump in signups if they didn’t start with an empty form. Hello bandwagon effect! People often pick up behaviors that are being modeled by others. In this case, company employees saw their coworkers were participating, and that made them more likely to follow suit. Portraying your desired behavior as a social norm, and visually prompting your target audience with champions that model your behavior, can go a long way.

  3. Appeal to emotions & make it personal: 

    Research shows that people cannot actually make a decision without triggering the emotional center of our brain; meaning our decisions are first emotional then rationalized after the fact. Market your desired behavior change in ways that trigger people’s emotions (joy, concern, and nostalgia) and reframe the facts around related issues that are likely to connect to your audience (“reducing household energy emissions” to “saving money”). Just be careful not to fall into the “doom and gloom” trap. Environmental and social issues are pressing, and we want immediate action, but humans just aren’t wired to deal with the constant stress of that knowledge. Pair your emotional message with clear steps to give individuals the tools to take actionable change. To learn more about balancing emotional responses, check out Susie Burke’s suggestions for coping with climate change.

  4. Pilot your solution: 

    Your solution works on paper but how do people react? Test with a subset of your audience, and be sure to collect ample data on their responses, before scaling up your efforts. This is critical for identifying unanticipated barriers or challenges in the “last mile” (the final implementation stage). Dilip Soman, author and professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management provides a great example of the last mile problem in an interview with the Psych Report: The Canadian government wanted to increase low-income access to college education, so they introduced a low-cost education bond. However, in the first few years, almost no one used the program. Why? A stipulation for buying bonds required families to have a particular type of bank account, but opening this account wasn’t exactly easy as it required documentation and resources that were not universally available. This oversight prevented the desired behavior from being adopted despite clearly demonstrated advantages.

  5. Get people to own it: 

    Do you bike to work? Consider yourself a biker? What if you moved apartments and suddenly your commute was longer? Chances are, you would try to overcome this new challenge in order to keep biking to work. That’s because your behavior has become integrated into your identity – you are a biker, thus you bike. As humans, our brains actively work against actions that conflict with our perceived sense of self, which is known as cognitive dissidence. One way you can begin to associate individuals with your behavior of choice is by asking people to make a visual, public commitment – through an identifying sign that can be placed in a visible space, a membership or ID card, or social media (posts, tweets, videos).

Do some of these tips sound familiar? Business marketing has been using these methods for decades to convince us to buy various products and services and I think it’s time that we, as sustainability professionals, really put behavioral science and marketing research to create more sustainable alternatives. The new Buying Better Lab by the World Resources Institute is a great example of this, by targeting changes for individuals, businesses, and policy. Interested in using behavioral science to advance your sustainability efforts? Stay tuned for part two: Sustaining Changed Behavior!

Have any cool stories from your own experience or examples of companies using social marketing for good? Share them with via twitter with me (@pand_a_manda) using #trendster!


–Amanda Stevens, M.S. Candidate
SUMANI Trendster Contributor, 10/07/2016

*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact

One thought on “SUMANI Trendster Blog: Enabling a Sustainable Change

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s