Framing the Message on Sustainability

Originally posted on the CSRwire website.

By CSRwire Talkback Managing Editor Francesca Rheannon

In this two-part series, we look at how we can apply lessons of behavioral psychology to move the needle on sustainability. (See Part Two.)

After a winter of extremes, even the mainstream media seems to be getting the message on climate change. But is the public? Are the politicians? And, more to the point, is it making any difference in behavior?

In President Obama’s State of the Union Address, the phrase “win the future” was abundant but “global warming” and “climate change” were nowhere to be found. There was some mention of clean energy, but not the reason for it — much less urgency. Instead, it was hidden between lines of a message about “competitiveness” — a word that could be applied to almost anything, like drilling for oil in the Arctic or cutting workers’ wages and benefits.

Most believe climate change is real. They just don’t think it’s that important — at least not when stacked up against other concerns, like jobs. And making the link between protecting the environment and good green jobs hasn’t really moved the needle. Climate advocates, NGOs, governments and even green companies have not been able to counter what seems to be the far more powerful messaging of the fossil fuel lobby and their conservative minions, whether in the US or abroad. These have labeled any attempt to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as a “job killer.”

Clearly those of us who want to make sure there will be a future, much less “win” it, will have to get a whole lot smarter about convincing people everywhere there is an urgent role to play in bringing it about by getting behind cutting carbon emissions — in a big way.

And, it’s not just climate change. That may be the most pressing issue we face as a civilization, but across the board, campaigns to deal with multiple crises that threaten our economic and environmental sustainability, like regulating investment banks, universal health care, protecting endangered species, moderation of exorbitant executive compensation, among others, get crushed under the bus of the right wing message machine.

So what can we learn from social psychologists (and the ad industry that uses them)? What really motivates people to make — and demand — a change?

Is fear a motivator? The prevailing notion among the green business community is that it is not. Fear is thought to turn people off and drive them into denial. Some have claimed it plays into the hands of climate skeptics, who level the charge of “alarmism.”

But the same “skeptics” who claim alarmism on climate are often those raising the bugaboo of “Islamofascism,” or job-grabbing, drug-dealing, infection-spreading immigrants. They manipulate fear very successfully to push popular support for their issues.

What’s the difference? Social psychologists say fear motivates action when people feel they have a degree of control to respond to the problem. The media/political juggernaut of climate deniers, with its heavily subsidized and publicized groups like the Tea Party, provides that.

Recognizing giving people something to do is a key strategy for change, plenty of sustainability and CSR advocates have “action alerts” on their websites, stress positive models and carry upbeat green-promoting messages. That has grown the market for green goods and organic food — but people still aren’t substantially decreasing their energy use or pushing for action on the climate scale with the intensity needed to preserve a livable planet.

What will it take? Behavioral psychologists have long known the most powerful messages are ones that play to our emotions — especially to those that exert unconscious force on our psyches. Robert B. Cialdini, author of the well-known book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, has been turning his attention to how best motivate people to change their behavior to be more energy efficient. He cites six “weapons of influence:”

  • Reciprocity: people will repay favors.
  • Social Proof: people will follow what other people do (or don’t do).
  • Commitment and Consistency: people will stick to commitments made publicly.
  • Authority: people obey authority figures.
  • Liking: people are more influenced by those they like.
  • Scarcity: people desire what is perceived as scarce.

For the moment, let’s look at the top two. Cialdini and others on his research team carried out an experiment to find the most effective messages to motivate hotel guests to reuse their towels, rather than throwing them into the laundry after one use, thereby saving water and energy. He told the radio program Living On Earth what happened.

"We compared a sign that said, ‘if you will reuse your towels, we will give a donation to an environmental cause.’ That produced no increase in reuse of towels, compared to a sign that just said, ‘do this for the environment.’

"But, we had another sign in this experiment that said, ‘we’ve already given to an environmental cause in the name of our guests. Would you reuse your towels to help us cover the expense?’ That produced a 19 percent increase in towel reuse. So people wanted to give back after they had received something."

In other words, guests reciprocated for a benefit — a donation made in their name — that they had already received. (I wonder if, instead of the slogan, “Save the Earth” it might be more effective to say, “Mother Earth has given us what we need; it’s our turn to give back.”)

But it’s even stronger to add the second principle: social proof (also called “social flocking.”) So when the researchers in another hotel experiment compared the message, “Help save the environment” with “Join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment,” along with the statement that 75 percent of fellow guests had reused their towel at least once, the message increased participation by 44 percent, while the first one showed no change.

Add a social no-no and behavior changes even more, as I and many of my fellow ex-smokers know all too well. (I quit after the combination of stiff monetary disincentives and shame got to be too much for me.) When Cialdini designed a public recycling campaign, he created three PSAs to run in Arizona:

    “We had three components to the message. The majority of Arizonians, the people around you, approve of recycling. That’s one message. The second was: the majority of Arizonans do recycle. Both of those were true. And, the third was: the majority of Arizonan’s disapprove of the few who don’t recycle.”

Which message do you think was most effective (a 25 percent increase) in getting people to recycle? (The answer is here.)

In part two of this commentary, we’ll explore some other ways to frame messages on sustainability that tap the moral conscience of the public. (See Part Two.)

About Francesca Rheannon

CSRwire Talkback's Managing Editor is Francesca Rheannon. An award-winning journalist, Francesca is co-founder of Sea Change Media. She produces the Sea Change Radio's series, Back to The Future, and co-produces the Interfaith Center of Corporate Responsibility’s podcast, The Arc of Change. Francesca’s work has appeared at, The CRO and E Magazine, and she is a contributing writer for CSRwire. Francesca hosts the nationally syndicated radio show, Writers Voice with Francesca Rheannon.

Talkback Readers: What messages should we be sending out to help push the sustainability movement? Share your ideas on Talkback!

08:12 pm by csrwiretalkback
Your query didn't return any results. [CSR] [sustainability] [social psychology] [messaging]

blog comments powered by Disqus


CSRwire is the leading source of corporate social responsibility (CSR) and sustainability news, reports, events and information.

CSRwire Talkback is hosted by Francesca Rheannon, Managing Editor, and Sarah Peyok, Director of Editorial.


Talkback brings thought leaders and readers together to discuss many topics in these two areas:

Corporate Social Responsibility - business ethics, shareholder activism, corporate governance and public policy

Sustainability - green living, human rights, the environment and social enterprise

CSRwire on Twitter

    via Twitter

    Most Recent Posts