Green suasion or mind control? – Insight – Green suasion or mind control?

Officials hoping to stem emissions are getting their message massaged by psychologists

August 08, 2009

Catherine Porter
Environment Reporter

We know climate change is going to be really, really bad for us and the planet. So why do we still drive to the corner store, buy a house in the suburbs and fly to Bermuda for a weekend getaway?

Settle into a couch. The answer is in our minds. And the solution is often in the message.

"If you want to make a change, you have to know your audience," says Janet Swim, a Pennsylvania State University professor of psychology who was in town yesterday to give a lecture at the annual American Psychological Association convention. "You have to know the context of their lives and how to communicate with them."

Some call it social marketing, others call it spin. Psychologists call it behavioural science – the study of why we do what we do and how to change that, presumably for the better.

It’s a hot topic in the U.S. Congressman Brian Baird – who also spoke at the conference – is pushing for a "social and behavioural research program" at the U.S. Department of Energy to help better package energy-savings programs. He argues simple changes in wording could save Americans billions.

For proof, he points to an Arizona State University study that showed one-third more towels were hung up and reused by hotel guests when the words on instruction cards were tweaked. Instead of simply asking guests to "do it for the environment," patrons were told that most previous guests in that room had reused their towels.

The bill to establish the research program has sent conservatives like Fox News anchor Glenn Beck into a fury. Comparing it with George Orwell’s 1984, he called it "pernicious."

"The Bush administration, with all their discussion of terrorism, what were they doing?" scoffs Swim, whose team of psychologists applauds the bill and is calling on politicians to include behavioural psychologists on their policy teams.

All information comes with a slant, they argue.

"We’re being influenced anyway," she says. "If there are purposeful efforts to help people make choices they want to anyway, why is that bad? They still have a choice."

A recent poll shows most Canadians are concerned about climate change and think we should address it. Yet, we spew out more greenhouse gases every year, and the only substantial plan to cut them back – by former Liberal leader Stéphane Dion – was so unpopular it has been scrapped.

So, what are the barriers to taking action? The list in Swim’s report reads like a biblical seven deadly sins, except it is longer (there are 13). It runs the gamut from distrust of scientists – including those on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – to the perception that individual actions are irrelevant in the face of a global problem, called "perceived behavioural control" in psycho-speak. The barrier "perceived risks from behaviour change" is further unpacked into six categories, from concerns about losing money (Will my plug-in electric car cost me more money in the long run?) to losing face (Will my boss laugh at the sight of me driving it?).

The quick conclusion is that we are very complicated. And while money talks, it often isn’t our impetus to action – or inaction.

"Behavioural economists make the assumption we are rational decision makers," Swim says. "I don’t think they take into account other (things) – fear, hope, guilt, pride."

Swim’s colleague Elke Weber – a co-author of the 225-page report presented yesterday – is studying people’s choices around green energy options. At her New York lab, she found people will often agree to spend more on it if presented information at a group meeting rather than in a letter.

"It’s the same information, but you see people around you – it reminds you you’re not alone in the world," says Weber, who runs the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, set up by the National Science Foundation to study precisely this.

There are practical benefits to group learning, Weber has found – if you don’t understand something, someone can explain it. But there is also the comfort of numbers. "People are less afraid of uncertainty," she says.

Peer pressure works too. And recycling is a classic example, Swim says.

"There was a big red bin. You walk around the neighbourhood and you know who has the red bin out and who doesn’t. It’s makes what is largely private behaviour, public."

Trying to convert that to energy, utility companies in cities including Sacramento and Chicago have introduced new programs that show households how their energy usage compares to their neigbours’. It works for energy hogs, convincing them to use less. But some studies found that energy misers were prompted to crank up their dryers.

"You have to frame it so they think it’s good they are using less electricity," Swim says.

As usual, the Brits are way ahead on this. Social behaviour studies formed the basis of the government’s communication strategy around its climate change plan – which called for steep cuts to emissions and corresponding taxes. Dubbed "The Rules of the Game," the plan called for a positive approach, suggesting officials link "climate change mitigation to home improvement, self-improvement, green spaces or national pride." Rule 14 is "raise the status of climate change mitigation behaviours" – meaning, make people think Smart cars are cool, not wimpy.

Environmentalists here credit the rules for England’s progress in cutting its greenhouse gases. The World Wildlife Fund borrowed from them when drafting its greenhouse-gas campaign, called "The Good Life," says Keith Stewart.

"The problem with people like me is we’re very good at talking to people like me and not so good at talking to people who don’t wake up and think, `I’ve got to save the planet,’" says Stewart, director of WWF Canada’s climate change program. "It’s not lying. It’s just packaging."

Stewart casts the discussion back to the never-ending debate among environmentalists over whether they are tackling "climate change" or "global warming." The answer has been different depending on which side of the 49th parallel you’re on.

"Most Americans tend to see change as good, change as progress," he says. "In Canada, people think getting warmer is a good thing."

What does he call it? Climate change, of course.


~ by Cory Morningstar on August 10, 2009.

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