John Richter
Exploring innovative ways to connect people to the environment. Artist-, filmmaker-, scientist-, technologist-, entrepreneur-wannabe. My Tumblr is       more...
Twitter: @jahnreektor

Generating a change in behavior

[Note: this post is from my previous blog, Econova.  I'm copying all my old entries from there to here.]

Back in 2005, Fast Company, a business magazine, wrote an article about changing behavior in employees, and it posed this question:  if changing your behavior was literally a matter of life or death, do you think you could change?

You may say yes, but studies show that there’s 9-to-1 chance that you couldn’t.  When patients with severe heart problems were told that they would die if they didn’t drastically change their eating habits, nine out of ten didn’t.  Think about that: when people were told that they would literally die in a matter of months without changing their behavior, 90% chose to remain the same.  In other words, there’s an eternal battle of between the now-you and the future-you. 

This is the same type of problem that we face with dire consequences of climate change and our lifestyles.  That is, while the type of sustainable world we want is a choice—and a seemingly obvious one at that—our very notion of choice is not exactly our reality.  There’s an inertia in our being: who we are on a day-to-day basis is an average and aggregation of our previous choices and habits that developed into our personhood, and the notion of our free will is just the very tip of the iceberg that defines who we are.  Underneath the waterline, the personhood we’ve developed through habit and etched into the recesses of our brains dominates, and the functional, reptilian portions of our brain rule.  But alas, there is hope.  We can, in fact, change.  According to the article, there were two primary avenues for change.  

  1. Emotional appeals that resonate with the target.
  2. Persistent and regularized mechanisms to keep people in check.

As Harvard Business School Professor John Kotter stated, "Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people's feelings […] In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.” In addition to the emotional appeal, patients who were most successful in changing had a support structure set up around them to guide and reinforce their efforts.  (These topics are fascinating avenues of exploration that I hope to cover in later entries. ) 

For me, the takeway is this: while it is true that we, the environmental movement, absolutely need to do a better job with conveying the facts of climate change, we also need to go beyond the facts Our vision of sustainability can’t be just something that people need; it has to be something people want.  More than that, we need to systematically develop mechanisms that will generate rapid, scalable change.   But what does that actually mean? 

I tend to view the two methods for changing people as almost divergent modes of thought that are absolutely need together to accelerate change.  They can be broadly categorized into expression and structure.  On the one hand, emotional appeals are modes of expression; they are appeals to hearts and sensibilities.  This is how I tend to view protests, art, films, music, and most activist endeavors.  While these items are absolutely necessary, they are events that, taken individually, are loosely connected to the underlying structure of how things work--governments, societal structures, and the like.  They can cause people to soar great heights of emotion, and often this is enough to convince people "on the border" to move more solidly to one side of a contentious issue.  The idea is through the steady accumulation of converts, those actual people will be able to foment an actual structural change.  (As any activist training will tell you, there are two mediums for bringing change: people and/or money.)  On the other hand, persistent structures are, well, exactly that.  They are the very definitions of how people act.  They can come in the form of societal conventions , government laws, market mechanisms, and technological means.    The truth is, those emotional appeals are the lens through which all major changes must pass in order to develop deeper-rooted structural changes.  

So, how do we craft such an engaging and personal vision?  Moreover, are there more direct ways to alter the underlying mechanisms and more immediately generate positive change?   That’s where Econova comes in.  Econova will explore innovation related to the environmental movement.  It asks, fundamentally, how do people interact with information?  And given that, how do we organize and structure the informational-intake process in a way that is not only infectious, wondrous, and personally-engaging, but also persistent and robust.  A message that resonates and infuses itself with the DNA not just of Sally the TreeHugger, but also Joe the Hunter. 

Econova will explore the intersection of these ideas in the modest way that it can, with occasional blog entries and attempts at smaller technology-based projects.  I hope Econova will be a little bit the analysis of Scientific American, a little bit the savviness of Wired, and a little bit the wonder of Walden.    

While I don't know what the future holds, I do know is that time is running out.  The ocean is acidifying, coral reefs are dying, glaciers are melting, forests are vanishing, and incredible, wondrous creatures are bidding their last farewells to the planet.   In times like these, it's easy to be rendered immobile from the weight of the information.  The impulse is to retract ourselves from engagement and let happen what will.  But we can't succumb. We don’t have time to feel sorry for ourselves.  We need to innovate.  Get creative. 

"What is the use of living, if it be not to strive for noble causes and to make this muddled world a better place for those who will live in it after we are gone? How else can we put ourselves in harmonious relation with the great verities and consolations of the infinite and the eternal? And I avow my faith that we are marching towards better days. Humanity will not be cast down. We are going on swinging bravely forward along the grand high road and already behind the distant mountains is the promise of the sun." - Winston Churchill  

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