Transcript: Three Myths of Behavior Change – What You Think You Know That You Don’t by Jeni Cross at TEDxCSU

Jeni Cross

Full transcript of sociology professor Jeni Cross’ TEDx Talk: Three Myths of Behavior Change – What You Think You Know That You Don’t at TEDxCSU conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:  Three Myths of Behavior Change – What You Think You Know That You Don’t by Jeni Cross at TEDxCSU


So I want to challenge you all about what you think you know. Many of you are here, because you’re really interested in making change. And you’re thinking about making change in lots of places and lots of ways. But what you don’t know is that your greatest adversary is not that change is hard to make, your greatest adversary is common sense.

I know that’s kind of a shocker. You think that you’re a human being and you know the way the world works but I’m here to burst that bubble.

So let’s look at a couple of efforts to make change. One of the things people have been working on for decades is trying to reduce littering, trying to get us to put our trash and our waste in appropriate places. And so here we have two campaigns — one, that says, ‘This is the amount of rubbish that’s been left around this bus stop since Monday. And that’s a really common strategy for trying to encourage people to stop wasting. If we show people how big the problem is, they’ll stop doing it.’

The other strategy is Poster B and it says, ‘See what this Olympic runner is doing. She cares about our town Preston and she’s throwing away her waste.’

So I want each of you to look at these two ads: A and B and think to yourself: which one has the biggest chance of making a change and reducing littering? And just keep that in your mind, we’ll get back to it at the end and we’ll see how good you are.

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So I promised you that I would talk to you about common sense and why it’s your greatest adversary. So there really are three kind of big ways that common sense leads us astray. And the first is that we think if we are going to change people’s behavior, they just need education. If we just give them some information, then they’ll change their behavior. What’s missing in this equation is that people don’t know. And if we just fill in the gaps, then we can get them to do what we want.

So let’s think about one thing that people are talking about a lot right now which is energy conservation. April opened today by telling you that buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption, 40% of our greenhouse gas emissions. So if we want to make an impact on climate change, we need to think about buildings.

So some social scientists were thinking: how do we get homeowners to reduce their energy consumption and they sent auditors out to look at people’s homes. And one of the things they were looking for and reporting back on and giving people information about is these little gaps in around your doors and windows. If you live in an old house, like the house I grew up in, you might have these little cracks and they’re letting in cold air and that’s making you have to turn your furnace up.

So if we just tell people how many cracks there are, how many windows need help, people will weather strip, right? So if you give people information, 20%! 20% of people are weatherstripped. But really we’re going to spend money and send people to homes and investigate and we only get one out of five people to change their behavior, we can do better than that. We have to know that how you present information makes a difference. And one of the big things that makes the difference is making information tangible. If you take all of those little cracks around all of those doors and windows and you say how big is that, the gap in your house is as big as a basketball, people then magically now understand how important it is to fill them. When they just think they have 16 windows in cracks they don’t see it is important but when you make it more tangible and say you have a hole in your house the size of a basketball, people say, oh maybe weatherstripping those doors would really make a difference.

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So making information tangible makes the difference. The folks in this study did more than just make information tangible, they also personalized information in those homeowners and they interacted with them. Putting up posters that people might or might not see is never as effective as talking to other people. Social interaction is one of the most important tools that we can use for making change.

So there are other things, though, that help us when education fails us, when just giving out information is enough, — oh, sorry, I skipped that, back up there — So when you give people all three of these things, 60% of them weatherstripped, that’s a three-fold increase in how big the change is. So how you present the information triples the effectiveness of your effort and knowing that makes a difference. So but there are other things that — other things about how we present information and one of them is that human beings are loss averse. We fundamentally hate to lose anything. And if you tell people what they’re losing, they’ll engage in the behavior that you want just because you’ve told them what they’re losing. And it doesn’t matter how big or small that is but hearing that you’re losing is more likely to change behavior than hearing what you’re gaining.

So this is the Denver Water campaign and they’re trying to encourage people to engage in more water conservation practices and a lot of people don’t understand the importance of fixing leaks or fixing a running toilet, because you just hear a little drip, drip, drip. Big deal, it’s just a little trip. But when you add up all those drips over a few months or a year, you’re wasting gallons and telling people that they are losing gallons of water motivates people to change in a new way. So framing loss can make a difference.

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The other thing that social scientists know is that you actually have to think about various audiences and different audiences need different information. This is a campaign poster from here at CSU and it’s one of several that was created by students to help reduce high risk alcohol use. And students who are heavy users of alcohol they want different information. They’re not interested in what all CSU students are doing, the only reference group, the only people that are important that matter to them are what other drinkers are doing. And so their posters said 71% of CSU freshman who drink drink once a week or less because that’s the norm.

But the students who are more average, lighter drinkers, they’re interested in how much the whole student body drinks. And this data from the same survey says that 71% of the entire student body drinks. You all laughed when you read the poster. I love this poster. My students love this poster. There are students in the room — anybody have this poster in your home? Yes, thank you. I have not given out this poster for free since 2009. But you can thank the students who created it.

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