Behaving right for all the wrong reasons.

There seems to be an ongoing dilemma faced by those of us working in behaviour change across environmental and social justice fields. It is a dilemma that I grapple with regularly. My allegiance switches often, perhaps because of a paper I’ve read, or an example I’ve been given or in hearing a counter-argument to my current (still early) understanding. I like to keep an open mind, but granted – it can probably appear a little noncommittal at times.

So what is this dilemma?

For those of us trying to change or initiate behaviours that are pro-social or pro-environmental we quickly learn there’s many ways this can be done. Some of these methods involve techniques that may be viewed as almost ‘tricking’ an individual into undertaking a behaviour they might not normally perform, and for reasons that may have little to do with why I ultimately want them to be undertaking that behaviour.

Examples would help at this point. I could incentivise my target activity or behaviour with a plain old simple reward, a reward that is entirely unrelated to the behaviour itself (heck, I do this far more often than I ever intended whilst parenting a toddler). I could position the behaviour or activity as something that will get the individual lots of attention and social status. I could just tell them everyone else is doing it and they should probably get on board, or be left behind. And nobody wants to be left behind.

All these methods are valid. They have worked for many researchers and practitioners. So where is the dilemma? You got the behaviour you wanted. What’s the big deal, I hear you ask.

As someone who got into this behaviour change world because of a desire to address pressing environmental and social issues (like many around me) I want others to take on pro-environmental and pro-social behaviours, but my ideal scenario is for them to take on those behaviours because they want to assist with addressing these global issues as well. The logic behind this is that doing it for those motivations, and changing their attitudes and beliefs (the behavioural Holy Grail) should in turn help reduce the likelihood of them undertaking other destructive behaviours in the future. Ultimately I want them to be changing their behaviour for the right* reasons, in order to lessen the likelihood of them contributing to other environmental threats, or social injustice, in the years to come. Everyone can dream, right?

The reality is that this is a long-term game I’m playing in order to achieve this dream. It is possible, and certainly there are examples where people have taken on behaviours, and have been directly motivated to act, because of the issue itself. The dilemma kicks in because for certain issues, time is really limited, and action is needed now – so naturally you turn to those other tricks of the trade in order to a get result, and you exploit whatever motivation works.

Is it really a problem to exploit these other motivations? Well, it depends a little on who you ask – and looking at the research being produced by the likes of Tim Kasser, Tom Crompton and other  academics involved in the global Common Cause movement – there is evidence to suggest that these tactics can backfire on you in a big way. There’s enough evidence there to certainly give me pause. If you are going to use these tactics, then it’s probable that you’ll be reinforcing attitudes and values that could ultimately result in further self-interested behaviours, and people continuing to put themselves ahead of the environment. Hmmm…

There is a glimmer of hope I hold on tightly to in the instances that these tactics are used. Some people will take on pro-environmental behaviours for the ‘wrong’* reasons, but a strange thing can happen if you reframe their behaviour in terms of the ‘right’ reasons. That is, someone might do something for the social status or the incentive, but when you thank them for their action and let them know how that behaviour is helping your (dare I say it  -pro-environmental) cause – many of them start to reframe the reasons WHY they did the behaviour at all… and when asked about it later, they often give that reason instead. Granted, you’re probably not always going to tell the world you undertook a behaviour because it gave you a boost in social status – but it is not unreasonable to expect someone to brag about their power bill cost-savings after installing solar panels. Reframing some of these behaviours in terms of more pro-environmental rationale can also have the effect of them starting to adjust their perception of themselves, and to see themselves as more pro-environmental. And this outcome is potentially very helpful for the causes we’re trying to further.

Problem solved?

Hmmm… possibly, but if it were up to you, what would you do?


*’Right’ and ‘wrong’ as dictated by me really. I am totally owning up to my bias here, and complete lack of objectivity in assessing what is ‘right’. I’d like to leave the planet knowing we didn’t totally stuff it.


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