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.
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.
But the message here is that you have to give a message that is appealing to the audience, to the people that you’re talking to that resonates with them. And that also gives them the information that they in particular are interested in hearing about. So we have two different posters: one for heavy users and one for light users with slightly different information. And the difference for heavy drinkers between 77% and 71% maybe sounds like a tiny bit of difference to you, it’s a big difference to them. It’s the difference between the campaign being believable and influencing their behavior and the campaign being unbelievable and having no effect. It’s 6% but it’s the difference between believability and unbelievability. So knowing your audience is a key factor in making change.
So there are some other things, ways that common sense leads us astray. And this is my personal favorite. We think kind of generally that if you want to change behavior, you’ve got to change people’s attitudes. I talk about energy conservation often in my research and people say to me: how am I going to get people to believe in climate change? I can’t get people to conserve energy if they don’t believe that we’re killing the planet. And I say to them: you don’t, you really don’t have to change anybody’s attitude about climate change. And people just don’t believe me and to them I say, you don’t have to change attitudes to change behavior and people always say, ‘Then what do you do?’ If you don’t change attitudes, what do you do?
Well, let’s start with what the environmental sociologists have found over and over again in dozens of studies. Attitudes follow behavior. If you survey people about whether their attitudes are pro-environmental or not, it will not predict whether or not they engage in conservation behaviors, it will not predict whether or not they conserve water. It will not predict whether or not they recycle. Attitudes follow behavior; they do not predict it. So stop trying to change it when people engage in the behaviors you want, you’ll be able to measure the attitudes you expect. But before that, you need to do something else.
So how many of you were asked by your parents to turn off the lights when you leave the room? Raise your hands. Turn off the light when you leave the room. OK, this is an effective strategy. Almost everyone in the audience had their arm up. That’s because your parents do know that setting expectations works. They just don’t know that it works for all kinds of things, much bigger things than turning off the light in your room when you leave it. So don’t change attitudes, set behavioral expectations.
This is a poster of high school students at Rocky Mountain High School, little placards they put over the lights in all of the rooms in their high school, reminding teachers and students to turn off the lights. And that’s what people do. When I interviewed people at this school, new teachers to that school said, ‘I know that this school cares about energy conservation, because I see this everywhere. It not only reminds me to engage in conservation behavior but it also tells me that people in this place care about this issue. And that encourages me to think about it in my daily life.’
So if we’re not going to change people’s behavior by changing their attitude, how do we deal with a tough issue like climate change? So building green buildings like this one, convincing cities and school districts and other public organizations that they should adopt green building standards, can be a highly politically contentious issue. And citizens say let’s not waste money on stuff that we don’t need, that’s not going to do any good, how do we deal with that? We don’t deal that by changing anybody’s attitudes. We deal with it by understanding what people’s underlying values are: what is it that people really care about. And this is a noble thing. You can ask people and they will tell you what really matters to them.