Last month I presented at the World Wildlife Foundation’s (WWF) Fuller Symposium, focused on behavior change for conservation. Several of the speakers from both the psychology and sustainability areas of expertise brought up a point I hadn’t clearly crystalized in my own head, but that I’ve reflected on a lot since the event. It’s pretty simple.
We can effectively help people change behavior without changing hearts and minds.
Many people’s gut instinct, mine included, is to try to change people’s behavior through persuasion. We approach the situation with an idea of “truth”: Doing this is good, for these reasons. And we believe that if we can convince others we are right, they’ll change their behaviors.
It may be true that changing people’s minds will change their behaviors. But changing minds is hard. Consider the following:
- Facts can backfire. When people with a strong political opinion are presented with evidence that suggests they’re wrong, they’re more likely to double down on their original beliefs (see Nyhan & Reifler, 2010, c.f. Wood & Porter, 2018).
- Changing minds may require shared value structures. At the Fuller Symposium, one speaker mentioned that not everyone cares about preserving the environment for future generations. For people who don’t value that future state, many sustainability arguments will fall flat. You may even get someone to agree that recycling, to use an example, supports a better environment in 100 years, but if they don’t care about that, it doesn’t matter for their behaviors.
- Changing minds isn’t really the goal. What matters to you when you’re trying to change someone’s behavior? Most likely, it’s the behavior–not the reasons why the behavior is happening. So why are you spending so much effort on the latter?
I’m not saying motivation isn’t important. It is. But what motivates someone else to do something may look wildly different from what motivates you. A long haul trucker may start caring about fuel efficient vehicles because it means he can practice his livelihood longer, while you care because it reduces the cost of your commute, and I care because of a philosophical commitment to reducing use of fossil fuels. Three different reasons, one common behavior.
It’s not about making someone share your rationales and motivators. It’s about understanding theirs and helping them to see the desired behavior as a mechanism to get there. So next time you want to work on changing someone’s behavior, start by asking them what they really care about, and then draw a connection for them.
Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330.
Wood, T., & Porter, E. (2018). The elusive backfire effect: Mass attitudes’ steadfast factual adherence. Political Behavior.