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Sustainable Behavior Change: Effective Programs

Step 2: Uncovering Barriers and Benefits to Social Change

How would you find out the barriers keeping someone from adopting sustainable behavior? Cost, availability, access, willpower, homeownership vs. rentership…there are a lot of barriers that come into play on just about any behavior change program.

Think about the difficulties involved in someone beginning to compost. If someone decides they want to learn how to compost, how do they go about it? First, they need to understand what can and can’t be composted. Then, they have to figure out how to sort their waste stream with a wide variety of dishes they prepare. Then, they need a place to put it. Then, they have to figure out a watering schedule and a rotation schedule. (Then, they need to actually do those things on that schedule). And so on, and so forth….

So a first step toward figuring out how to increase the adoption of a sustainable behavior like composting, you first have to lay out these steps. This will uncover barriers. For instance, Dr. Mohr recalled a story about moving to a snowy part of Canada in the summertime, and placing his compost bin in the backyard, just like he did in his previous home. Little did he know that placing it behind a bush in the backyard that helped to hide it from site from the back windows meant that in the wintertime, it was going to be a long walk through a lot of snow in order to dump the kitchen compost.

So here’s how to figure out the barriers and benefits.

  1. Do direct, but unobstrusive observation. It’s very important to be unobtrusive when observing (otherwise, you’ll influence people’s behavior and bias your findings). By observing people who install programmable thermostats, researchers were able to find
  2. Conduct research in focus groups. Pick people who do not do the behavior in question. If you have a focus group about composting, you want people who don’t compost (yet). BUT, set the stage–let them know right off the bat that they’ve been selected because they do not compost, thank them for their participation and for sharing such important information, and let them know that you think it’s great that we’re going to help identify the reasons why people don’t compost. If you don’t set the stage this way, then they’ll spend the whole time talking about why they should be composting, because they think that’s what you, as the researcher, want to hear. Tips for success: tell people that your notetaker is going to have trouble keeping up, so that participants should be writing down their own notes, and then regularly check in with them by saying, “So what did you write down there?”  You’ll need a facilitator for your workshop, who needs to be polite but assertive.
  3. Conduct surveys. Face to face interviews give you the best participation rates, and the longest list of “end-state”, non-divisible behaviors. The challenge is that these kinds of interviews are expensive and take a long time to conduct. There are a whole range of other surveys, with limitations and benefits to each. Check out some info on survey research methods here from Rand.

Case study: proper tire inflation

Tire inflation checkup 1McKenzie Mohr described survey research in Canada that aimed to reduce fuel usage by addressing the fact that a majority of people in Canada had at least 1 tire that was not inflated properly, and 1/3 had 3 or 4 tires that were regularly underinflated. The research showed the following barriers, in order of prevalence:

  1. people simply didn’t remember to check
  2. people didn’t have a tire gauge
  3. people lacked knowledge about how inflation affected them

The benefits people described, in order of prevalence, were:

  1. safety
  2. preventing tire wear
  3. reducing gas expenditure

Would that have been what you’d have suspected? It wasn’t for me, nor anyone else at my table at the McKenzie Mohr workshop, most of whom would have guessed the number 1 barrier would have been a lack of knowledge, and the number 1 benefit would have been reduced gas expenditure. If we’d designed a program based on those assumptions, our program would clearly have been ineffective.

Next page, Steps 3-5: Develop Strategy, Piloting Strategy, Broad-scale Implementation (page 3 of 3 in this article)

Written by Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, green business startup coach, author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill), and developer of the sustainability board game GBO Hawai'i. Scott has started, grown and sold two mission-driven businesses, failed miserably at a third, and is currently in his fourth. Scott's current company has three divisions: a sustainability blog network that includes the world's biggest clean energy website and reached over 5 million readers in December 2013 alone; Pono Home, a turnkey and franchiseable green home consulting service that won entrance into the clean tech incubator known as Energy Excelerator; and Cost of Solar, a solar lead generation service to connect interested homeowners and solar contractors. In his spare time, Scott surfs, plays ultimate frisbee and enjoys a good, long bike ride.


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