World Wildlife Fund UK has recently taken a deep dive into the murky world of psychology to try to understand why those darned humans are so reluctant to do the right thing, especially with a global emergency that doesn’t allow us the leisure of waiting around for people to get it.

The work is led by Tom Crompton, WWF-UKs “Change Strategist”.

Crompton’s first publication, Weathercocks and Signposts, in 2008, was a tortuous read. Essentially it asserted that environmental campaigns that asked people to do easy steps for shallow reasons like saving money or looking good (aka green consumerism) probably wouldn’t be able to leverage those easy behaviours into harder behaviours. To do that we should probably be appealing to deeper values.

Here he claimed that “If those in government, business or the third sector persist in advocating ‘simple and painless’ behavioural changes as a meaningful response to today’s most pressing environmental challenges, this must be because they are persuaded that such changes will encourage the adoption of other, and particularly other more ambitious, behaviours.” 

[That sounds like a straw man argument, but we’ll let it go. He does conceded that many campaigns don’t aim for spillover effects “For example installing loft insulation”.]

By spillover he means the assumption that an easy behaviour like recycling might lead to a harder behaviour like leaving the car at home. 

[My comment: I don’t know any campaigner who operates on this principle, do you? Not only is there little evidence for spillover effects, but it would be an unprofessional program design practice. There’s another kind of spillover, of course, “vertical spillover”, where going along to a workshop about solar panels DOES make it more likely that a person will install solar panels. But I don’t think he’s talking about that.]

In order to encourage spillover he suggests environmental campaigners should make clear the environmental arguments behind new behaviours [ie. not “saving you money” but “saving rainforests”], and to frame around values [like providing “a safe world for our children”].

His latest and most coherent effort (but still a dense academic read) is Meeting Environmental Challenges – The Role of Human Identity, co-written with Tim Kasser, professor of psychology at Knox College, Illinois. (June 2009)

This book reasserts Crompton’s key argument that environmental vaues should be promoted through appeals to positive, deep values (aka identity).

Unfortunately Crompton and Kasser take an selectively negative view of values/identity. They focus on:

– negative “values and life goals” like power, egotism, wealth, rewards, achievement and status;

– “in-groups and out groups”: people who [apparently] define nature as an ‘out-group’; and

– “coping with fear and threats” where they hand-wring over the human capacity for denial in all of it’s guises.

[They seem never to have heard of strengths-based community development or any of the other approaches that build on positives. Instead they prefer to attack the negatives in human nature – don’t they know that only makes them stronger?]

They go on to propose “identity campaigning” as an answer.

Their strategy is: 

(i) decrease the extent to which bad values are modeled socially; 

(ii) help people cope with feelings of insecurity in more adaptive ways; and

(iii) develop programs and policies that promote intrinsic values like spirituality, community, and health.

They say that environmental organisations should stop appealing to people’s selfish or materialistic values e.g. “green consumerism”, “business cases”, “sustainable development” and “valuing environmental services”. This, they say, “has actually served to reinforce the dominance of these values and goals.”

The alternative is for environmental organisations to wear their higher values on their sleeves, for instance, by talking about the importance of nature to the human spirit. [This is straight out of George Lakoff’s script, and it makes good sense. Crompton has already pointed out that appeals to selfish values can easily cause “negative spillover” where people compensate for good acts by doing more bad acts in other parts of their lives.]

Interestingly, they suggest that enviro groups could benefit by providing social support for people who share their values. [A good example is ACF’s champions programs in NSW and Victoria].

They also talk about promoting “implementation intentions” which means not only spreading values but specifying what choices those values require. An example might be “We value nature therefore we oppose destruction of habitat whenever we see it”. An interesting idea. The research ref is Gollwitzer, P. (1999) Implementation intentions: Strong effects of simple plans, American Psychologist, 54, 493-503.

Then they address out-group prejudice. They point out that by ascribing economic values to, for instance, Canadian harp seals, we may inadvertently make them an out-group that it’s OK to exploit. They talk about the importance of more contact between species to reduce out-grouping, for instance through nature-based workshops.

On the third of their identity problems, denial in the face of threats, they write that “in order to help activate positive environmental behaviours, environmental organisations will ultimately need to develop approaches that help people express the fear, anger, sadness, angst or sense of threat from environmental challenges that many are probably already experiencing (whether consciously or otherwise)”. [Interesting idea. Maybe environmentalists would think more clearly if they weren’t so grief stricken.]

They also suggest that making people feel threatened might push them further into denial, citing campaigns that vilify SUV drivers. [About time someone said this.]

They conclude by:

1) asserting [unconvincingly] that aspects of values can be changed; and

2) reasserting what has been Crompton’s main argument from the start: that environmental organisations should engage with identity through appeals to deep, abiding, positive human values.

[What is missing is more details on values…so here’s a few we could work with:
– anything to do with children and being a good parent;
– quality of relationships;
– autonomy;
– health;
– altruism;
– joy;
– safety].

What is good about this work: 

The importance of learning to communicate in terms of deep human values.

What’s not good: 

The academic language.

Lack of examples of how to do it.

The assumption that communicating directly to individuals matters much anyway. Perspectives drawn from Diffusion of Innovations, social networks, product design and setting modification are absent from Crompton’s work. He’s still hooked on traditional marketing assumptions that treat people as isolated individuals and ignore their technological, physical, institutional and social settings. That’s where we can really influence behaviour.