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

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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.

So the environmentalists care about green buildings for all of these reasons. They care about building green buildings foremost because they see it as saving the planet. They also care about it because they think green buildings produce better learning environments for students. They also care about building green buildings because they know that it saves resources, like electricity and natural gas. And they care about it because of course doing all those things saves money. But that’s kind of secondary.

There’s a whole other set of people that identify specifically not as environmentalists and they can buy into green buildings too. But we have to understand what their underlying value is. And their core value is frugality and the value of frugality is just not wasting, we shouldn’t waste money, we shouldn’t waste people’s time, we shouldn’t waste natural resources. We should just eliminate waste and this idea of conserving is what unites both of those two ends of the political spectrum that are so likely to be fighting with each other. If we sell green buildings because they are conservative, because they conserve our money, our time, our resources and the resources can be money as well as environmental resources, if you sell it based on conservation, both sides, the left and the right, the environmentalists and the people who care about frugality will all buy in. But you must understand values and that’s how fundamentally different tactic than changing attitudes.

So we have one more way that common sense tends to leave us astray. People think they know what motivates them. Now you all are human beings and you think that because you’re a human being you’re qualified to say what motivates you. You are wrong. I know it makes you laugh. You actually don’t know. It’s kind of an insult to think I’m a human being and I can’t be counted on to identify what motivates me. But social scientists know this to be true.

So one of the biggest things that does influence our behavior is social norms. Street musicians know this and take advantage of it. It’s why they put coins and money into their guitar cases or whatever their musical cases on the ground, because we know that when other people are doing something, other people are more likely to follow. What the street musicians don’t know is that feeding their case isn’t really enough because you haven’t actually seen another person doing it. What they really should be doing is bringing their friend with them and asking their friend to come by every five minutes and drop a dollar. And any time there’s no action, and you just walk by and drop something in.

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The number one predictor of giving money to a street musician is walking past the musician directly behind someone who did contribute. That’s the greatest predictor. That you saw somebody else do it, that increases the likelihood that you will do it.

Now, unfortunately, social norms are a great motivator of behavior and they are the most understood and underestimated by human beings. So how many of you have been to a hotel and have seen the wonderful message: ‘Please reuse your towel and help us save the environment.’ OK, hotels are using the least effective message that they could possibly use. Now the reason they’re using that is because they asked people. They said, ‘Which one of these messages will motivate you the most to change your behavior?’ And people said, ‘If you ask me to protect the environment that will work and if you tell me that other people are doing it, I’m going to report’. I really — I don’t think that’s a very effective message.

The sad news is that social scientists especially psychologists like to do experiments and when you do an experiment and expose people to different messages, you discover that social norms have the biggest impact on behavior. If you tell people 75% of the people in this hotel room reuse their towels, you will get the biggest bang for your buck. If you ask people to save the environment you will be about half as effective as if you told people that other people are doing it. So not only are social norms really effective but they’re really underestimated. Not only do human beings not know what motivates them, they reverse the order of importance. So if you ask people you will design a campaign around their priorities that is the least effective that it possibly can be.

So let’s go back to this one: how many of you thought ‘A’ will be the most effective? Be honest, raise your hands. How many of you thought ‘A’? All right. Now you know that you’re wrong.

How many of you thought ‘B’? All right. We have some social scientists in the crowd, some people who have taken one of my classes or someone elses and you know that B is the most effective because it utilizes social norms. And it also uses modeling, it shows someone doing the behavior that you are interested in.

What’s wrong with A is that it sets the inadvertent norm, the behavior that you’re not interested in having people do, you’re like everybody leaders and since social norms are the most influential you can create campaigns that are not only — does this say the wrong thing? Why are we laughing? Not only can you be ineffective in your campaign, many people including the federal government have created social norms campaigns that increase the behavior that they’re trying to reduce, because they use social norms in a way that is ineffective, because they don’t know about their importance.

So I started with saying that many of you are interested in creating change. We started today by listening to Mike and Mike encouraged all of you to think about making a meaningful life. I want to encourage you to think about making effective change, make your change meaningful. Many of you are going to go out and try to be entrepreneurs. You might be trying to improve health. You might be trying to change the environment. All of these things require making change and we can be successful but you will be the least successful if you let common sense be your guide.

I know it’s kind of hard news to hear. It’s the greatest kept secret of social science. Dean encouraged us to think about what is our magic and really truthfully honestly I think that sociology and social science is magic.

So thank you for letting me share it with you today and please use it in your lives.




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