How to spur action on climate change
Behaviorists weigh in on how to motivate change. A green-themed soap opera, perhaps?
(Page 2 of 2)
Once they’re done deliberating, people design a plan to change behavior and then implement it. Here’s where relapse becomes worrisome. Whereas incentives didn’t make much difference at earlier stages, they can now greatly reinforce the new behavior.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Resistance can also be avoided by framing the issue differently, says Ted Nordhaus, managing partner at American Environics in Oakland, Calif., a firm that brings psychological and cognitive science to bear on social-change strategies.
For example, stressing the idea that human activity is behind global warming can be counterproductive, he says. It can provoke retrenchment and backlash.
“When [Al] Gore says this is a moral issue, what people hear is that ‘my lifestyle is immoral,’ ” Mr. Nordhaus says. “People don’t respond well to people telling them that their life is immoral.”
Simply treating global warming as an on-the-ground fact while avoiding discussion of causation can skirt this pitfall, he says. Once people accept climate change as a reality, that’s the time to talk about addressing possible causes, like human activity, he says.
“We need to stop telling people that they’re immoral – stop trying to win an argument we don’t need to win about whether it’s caused by human activity – and move on to solutions,” says Nordhaus.
Others stress the importance of design in changing human behavior.
For example, great differences in participation exist between “opt in” and “opt out” programs. If driver’s licenses automatically include the driver in organ-donation programs (one must “opt out” to not participate), 80 to 90 percent will participate. If the driver must “opt in,” only 20 percent choose to. The same holds true with retirement-savings programs and “green” energy programs offered by utilities. If participation is the default choice, many more people will participate.
“If we want to realize the energy efficiency gains that are possible, it will take acknowledging that the problem is a design failure, not a people failure, and fixing this,” writes K. Carrie Armel, an energy-efficiency research associate at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., in a presentation.
Simple feedback measures help, says Dr. Armel. When consumers can visualize their electricity use, they tend to use less. Having a meter centrally located inside one’s house can reduce energy consumption by 10 to 14 percent.
The Energy Monitor in the hybrid Toyota Prius – a simple representation of the car as battery, engine, electric motor, and tires – also improves efficiency. Able to visualize energy use, drivers routinely achieve 60 miles per gallon, she says.
In Mexico, soap operas that touch on family planning are credited with reducing the country’s population growth rate by one-third between 1977 and 1986. Twenty-five countries now use television dramas to tackle social problems like HIV and domestic abuse. Why not energy use and climate change?
“If you’re trying to have people learn things, it’s much easier to get them to change behavior when they can observe somebody they have some positive feelings for change,” says University of California’s Schuck.