Creating a better future
The more we focus on behaviour change, the less likely we are to achieve it. That’s a comment that popped out of my mouth during a Behavioural Innovators workshop for sustainability professionals late last year. Someone called this a “Ninja statement.” It must have taken them by stealth. So if you believe in behaviour change, watch out: I’m about to go on the attack.
Behaviour change has been on my hit-list for a while. I’ve never really liked it as a phrase. I’ve often sensed that it’s linked with psychological models that don’t capture the complexity of human beings. That may be a symptom of studying psychology at University, where “behaviour” was very narrowly defined. I still get an image of Pavlov’s dogs salivating when I hear some people using this term. That’s why I’ve always preferred the word “action” to behaviour.
I’m most familiar with behaviour change in the environmental area. I used to research and write reports on how individuals/communities can make changes for environmental benefits. Behaviour change was often worshipped as the holy grail of social marketing programs run by government agencies, businesses and NGOs. Everyone agreed it was important (apart from some people who cried in alarm about “social engineering”). It was commonly agreed that people need to change. Somewhere along the line though, the outcome being sought (e.g. more people acting in ways that are kinder to our world) has often been confused with the process (i.e. how that outcome will come about).
Here are some assumptions behind many behaviour change programs:
Many of these programs have worthy goals. But the subtle intent behind them is often: “I want you to change, because you’re not being good enough.” And here’s the crux of why most behaviour change programs are unlikely to have a huge impact: people don’t respond well when someone tries to change them. That doesn’t mean that people won’t change. It’s just that change has to come from within. As Peter Senge says: people don’t resist change, they resist being changed.
Here’s more reasons why I’m unexcited by many programs that claim to change behaviour: they’re not inspiring. They’re not empowering. They often individualise problems, instead of highlighting individual action as part of wider social/organisational change. There’s also a real lack of trust in the people communicating the messages—which is understandable if people don’t feel valued for who they are and if they don’t respect the sincerity/integrity of the agencies who are compelling them to do something different.
I wonder what behaviour change programs would look like if they really started with the best interests of people at heart. Rather than beginning with problems, we could recognise that the harms we see in the world are usually symptoms. One of the deepest sources of these symptoms is the lack of care/compassion that we demonstrate to one another. So rather than starting with the premise that people are doing something wrong, what if our intent was simply: I want to enhance (=intensify, increase, improve) life on this planet. I therefore want you to be well, as well as all those around you and the world that we form. Then it’s simply a matter of sharing ideas and actions that support this.
Don’t get me wrong: I believe people do need to change how we are acting and being in this world to turn social and environmental harms around. But we need to focus on the we, not just on each individual me. We also need to dance between the personal and the social. We need to constantly look for change within ourselves while interacting with society.
Rather than trying to get others to change, we need to share our inspirations for change. We need to communicate heart-felt expressions of why we care and understand that change is needed. We need to back that up with evidence of harm being done and the potential for benefits. After we’ve explained “the why”, we need to demonstrate our own commitment to “the what”—i.e. what we are doing (whether that’s at an individual/organisational/governmental level). We can also offer ideas for what people can do, while encouraging everyone to create and lead their own solutions.
While thinking about what leads people to change, it's useful to reflect on moments in our own life when we decided to make a personal change. For example, have I ever made a significant change because of a behaviour change program? No. Have I been inspired to make changes from people I know/admire? Yes, plenty of times. Those inspirations led me to find out what changes I could make, simply because I cared a little more.
This highlights the profound importance of sharing personal stories. That’s something I realised while writing a report on education for sustainability in 2004. What people responded most strongly to in that report was the personal stories that we asked people to write—like these ones of an advertising executive who sold all his belongings to help people in Nepal, or the stock-exchange broker who jumped ship to develop environmental technologies.
Sharing stories is something we do through conversations too. I usually don’t know the real impacts I’m having in my work. But I can think of many examples where I’ve seen people lead/make changes after personal conversations we’ve had. One conversation stands out in particular, where a friend went on to become an influential advocate for environmental change in the business world. I recall other conversations where something led me to initiate changes. At the time these just felt like casual conversations where no-one was trying to influence another. Somehow a connection was made that led to greater caring.
“Engaging, and nurturing, key individuals may be more effective in bringing about system-wide change than targeting the behaviour of all individuals.” ~ Report to UK government on promoting pro-environmental actions
Rather than trying to change people, I’m more interested in what leads people to feel inspired. I’m keen on provoking people kindly, and helping people open up through playfulness, curiosity and reconnecting with one another.
Instead of talking about behaviour change, I highlight the potential for positive personal and social change. I use terms like change-making, taking action and learning-based change. I draw attention to what people are doing to make a world of good.
How does this relate to existing behaviour change programs? It could be confronting. That’s because it challenges the roots of many programs (i.e. they don’t start by considering how to enhance life: they start with the goal of changing others’ behaviour). The impacts are also difficult to evaluate. Fortunately there is plenty of room for common ground between behaviour change programs and inspirational approaches.
At a social level, community groups, businesses and government agencies can help inspire change by:
If you want a great example that’s doing some of this, check out the Inspiring stories project in New Zealand.
Social marketing can play a role too: but its real power rests in capturing attention, spreading inspiring stories and helping to shift perceptions.
For those of us working in a professional capacity at the interface of personal and social change, it’s also important to mix our personal intent for a healthy environment / social justice / whatever we care about, with our own understanding of what it feels like to be inspired. Our interactions can then be infused with our own inspirations and a genuine intent for all people to be well. Then we can really get to the bottom of what will inspire people into action and creating the world we want.
Note: This is a cross-posting from Re-Be
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