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Sustainable Behavior Change: Effective Programs

Step 3: Developing Strategy

There are four basic situations you’ll find yourself in after assessing the barriers and benefits.

  1. A situation with low benefits and high barriers. 
  2. A situation with low benefits and low barriers.
  3. A situation with high benefits and low barriers.
  4. A situation with high benefits and high barriers.

The end goal is to have low barriers and high benefits, so whichever situation you’re in at the moment, above, will determine the strategy you take to implement the program.

Case study: Reducing Idling

Drivers in Canada were observed to idle their vehicles while they were parked for an average of 3 minutes. It pollutes the air with ozone, SOx and NOx pollution, burns fuel needlessly, and produces greenhouse gases. Doing the research, the team found that the number one reason people were idling is that they didn’t know. Those who did thought, wrongly, that turning their car off and then back on would hurt their starters. The list went on–barriers to sustainable behavior were present, and the benefits to people were not as apparent.

The researchers first tried a sign asking people to Turn off their engine (below, left).

turning off engine idling reduction

The signs were put on posts with reduced height, to be at the drivers’ eye level. They measured little to no effect from the program. In contrast, they then created semi-transparent stickers to put in peoples’ rear windows (right, above). It was a total 180. Note the language: in the sticker on the right, people are making a commitment to turning off their engine when they are parked.

Voluntary commitments are incredibly effective, according to Mohr. In general, people want to be good people and do the right thing, so when they know what to do, and have made the commitment to it, behavior change is made.

In order of effectiveness, commitments come in many forms.

  1. Most effective, a public and durable commitment (i.e., the sticker in the window)
  2. Second most effective, a public commitment (writing an op-ed for the local paper)
  3. third, a written commitment (personal journal entry)
  4. last, a verbal commitment

To get people to commit to something, it’s important to ask them. “Can we count on you to ______?” Simple, but very, very effective. The stickers and educational program along with it were able to reduce idling 32% and duration of idle 73%.

A side note about incentives. Incentives have a laser focus that can help elicit behavior change. But…incentives subvert the positive effects of commitments. Commitments work because people internalize them, and, as mentioned, want to be a good person by making that change. Commitments are broader and longer lasting. An incentive can change the person’s focus to simply look at one angle of a broader problem. For instance, the HI-5 program in Hawaii, wherein a 5 cent deposit is returned when a person brings that bottle or can in for recycling, was very effective in increasing recycling rates and reducing waste sent to landfill. But it did absolutely nothing for other recyclables that didn’t have the 5 cent reward. The incentive subverted the commitment.

Broadcasting the message

Social diffusion is incredibly powerful in helping foster sustainable behavior change. If a program naturally diffuses from person to person, there is a terrific sense of community that is supporting the change. For people planning programs and trying to implement it:

  1. Look for well-known, well respected people in the various nodes (groups) you’re trying to reach, and talk directly to them to get them to be first adopters. Ask them for a commitment to change, and if they make it, ask them to influence others. 
  2. Make those commitments durable and public, if possible.
  3. Visibility influences adoption. If the action is visible, other people will want to follow suit.
  4. If you have the behavior already in place, highlight the large # of people doing it. If you don’t, but there’s general consensus around the good idea, highlight “xx% of people believe that…”
  5. Use descriptive norms to showcase what you want people to do. Do not use descriptive norms to say what other people are doing wrong (it basically, subconsciously tells people that it’s ok to also do the wrong behavior).
  6. Use injunctive norms in a simple way to tell people what not to do, if there’s not a better, more positive message to use.

Step 4: Piloting Strategy

To conduct an informative pilot, here’s a methodology.

  1. Choose your participants at random. Otherwise, your own bias will enter the scientific equation and the results may be skewed. DO NOT deliver programs to a “convenience sample” (people who want to test out your program. Self-selected folks will inevitably give you results that are not as applicable to the rest of the population. 
  2. Randomly assign the participants into subgroups. This more or less assures that you’ve controlled for pre-existing conditions, and allows you to assume that the results are due to the variables in the experiment that you are conducting.
  3. Measure changes in behavior, changes in resource use, and changes in resource quality.

Scientific method behavior change

In the above diagram, the strategy group is given the pilot program, and the control group is not. Assuming all else is equal (which is why you randomize the sample groups), you should see no change in the control group. But if you do see a change in the control group’s behavior, all is not lost. Humans are notoriously difficult to study and make terrible test subjects, so rather than chuck the data, simply correct for the control group’s behavior change. In plain English, if the strategy group changes behavior by 25%, and the control group by 9%, then simply adjust the “effect” of your program down by 9%. You’re basically going to assume that the treatment affected behavior by 25 – 9, or 16%.

Step 5: Implement Broadly and Evaluate (step 5 of 5)

This step will depend mostly on very specific factors to what you’re doing, so therefore, we won’t spend any substantial time on it, and just refer you to check out Doug McKenzie Mohr, and CBSM for more information. I found the workshop to be truly engaging and think the formula their group has developed can give municipalities, governments, universities, and companies the methodology that will help them achieve the biggest behavior change within their communities.

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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