How to tackle climate change with proven persuasion techniques

Simple actions like switching off the lights or turning down the thermostat can lead to substantial savings. Studies suggest that behavioral change alone (without any updates to technology) can result in 5 to 20 percent carbon emissions savings. The human mind, however, is far more complex than any machine, and meaningful behavioral changes in this area have proven difficult.

Our own studies corroborate these findings. For instance, we have recently estimated potential carbon savings purely based on behavioral changes to be 3 percent for a hospital and 10 percent for an entire region (Exhibit 1). (Click on the graph below to view a larger version).


Exhibit 1 – Behavior and technology based carbon emissions savings potential for an illustrative hospital and region

Exhibit 1 – Behavior and technology based carbon emissions savings potential for an illustrative hospital and region

Materializing this potential requires convincing the majority of these employees and citizens to change multiple aspects of their daily lives. The standard approach to achieve this is usually to 1) appeal to our sense of altruism by showing that conserving resources and reducing carbon emissions contributes to the greater good; and 2) provide passive information on how to implement the required changes. 

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach: Long-lasting behavioral changes should be based on sound values and informed decisions. It can however take years or even generations to implement these changes. In this article, we explore three complementary time-proven persuasion mechanisms that can lead to faster results: routine, reward and social proof.

Routine

Most of us are creatures of habits. Sticking to a certain degree of routine allows us to plan ahead and provides comfort. Complying to existing routines or suggesting alternative ones can, oddly enough, be a very effective behavioral change mechanism. 

Successful weight loss programs often exploit this principle: a recent study by the US based National Weight Control Registry shows that 4,000 people that maintained a weight loss of at least 30 pounds (approximately 13.6kg) for more than one year shared a similar daily routine (Exhibit 2).

The application of this mechanism to resource conservation is less prevalent but can be equally effective. Durham Water, an Ontario water utilities, conducted an innovative awareness program. Trained students approached lawn owners when they were not busy, explaining them how less frequent watering was beneficial for the lawn. The explanation was complemented by a reminder sign, to be hung next to the water tap, and a gauge (to measure the appropriate amount of watering). Lawn owners were also asked to sign a pledge committing to less frequent watering.

The program resulted in a 17 percent long-term reduction in water consumption for lawn irrigation (Exhibit 2). In parallel, Durham Water ran a control group where a separate group of lawn owners merely received an informational brochure. Conversely, this group actually increased water consumption, instead of reducing it. (Click on the graph below to view a larger version).

Exhibit 2 – Two examples of leveraging routine - weight loss programs and Durham Water’s social experiment

Exhibit 2 – Two examples of leveraging routine - weight loss programs and Durham Water’s social experiment

Next page: A rewarding experience