By Michael Shank

This article was written by Dr Michael Shank, communications director for the Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance and adjunct faculty at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

In my latest article for Apolitical, I covered six behavioural science-based principles that will help you roll out sustainable policies in cities and communities.

In this article I will expand the list and cover six more practical tips – dealing with biases, norms and our propensity for procrastination, which stand in the way of greener societies.

7. Primacy bias
There is a bias towards information that’s presented first, versus information that’s less visible. The consequence of this primacy bias is that important messages get lost because they didn’t get the attention they deserved.

How does that bias impact how we message climate and sustainability, then? Are the green policies of your department, for example, presented in a highly visible way on your websites, and do you have social media channels specifically devoted to climate and sustainability?

Another question we should all be asking is if our local leaders (e.g. mayors, city staff) are leading with the climate and sustainability message first, or are they presenting it as part of a whole portfolio and placing it last on a list?

Exercise: mindful of primacy bias, it’s worth scanning communication vehicles and channels to see if climate and sustainability are presented prominently and, if not, is that negotiable at all within the city/town/organisation?

How can we inch up the climate and sustainability offerings so that, from a behaviour change communications perspective, we’re on the top, not the bottom, of any list?

8. Procrastination
Everyone procrastinates on something at some point in their day, week or month, which is why any far-off “2050” framing for our climate and sustainability initiatives is potentially problematic.

Even 2040 and 2030 seem far off. People will wait until the last minute to do whatever it is we’re asking them to do. It’s also why it’s problematic for us to talk about future impacts; it merely reinforces the proclivity to procrastinate.

We need to talk about impacts that are happening here and now. We need to offer easy, bite-sized baby steps that anyone can take now. And we need public-friendly, short-term climate goals and deadlines to balance our plethora of long-term climate goals.

People are more likely to take action if it’s easy in the moment, if they can see the difference right away, and the goals are immediately relevant

“People are more likely to take action if it’s easy in the moment, if they can see the difference right away, and the goals are immediately relevant”

Admittedly, the short-term climate/sustainability ask doesn’t always have the most visible returns, but we do need to refocus our communications and public engagement lenses on the 2020 and 2025 realities, so that people’s penchant for procrastination is countered by near-term realities and possibilities.

9. Social norms
We all know the power of social norming something. Approval matters. What others are doing matters. We all know the study that shows that if your neighbour has solar panels, you’re more likely to get solar panels.

And if your neighbour is saving money on their utility bill, due to some energy efficiency measures, you’re more likely to be compelled to pursue the same or better savings by taking similar action.

Given this, how can we better use our communication vehicles to show that a movement is happening and that our public and private sectors are changing the game and making the shift? How are we reflecting back community actions so that residents and building owners see their peers taking action across the community and are thus motivated to do what others are doing?

This involves storytelling and the use of photography and video, and so we recognise that it’ll take time to present a picture of what the new (green) social norm is within the community. But it’s worthwhile because it works.

Reflecting back to the community the green actions happening within it not only works from a social norming perspective, but – especially in the field of climate action and climate policy, where people can feel like their individual action won’t make a big difference – this reflecting back can also lift people up emotionally, provide inspiration and hope, and counteract defeatism.

10. Status quo bias
Default settings are powerful. We like routine and we stick to our routines. Similarly, if a status quo has already been established, we’re less likely, in general, to deviate from that. It’s just easier that way. So, how does this principle and psychology impact our climate-focused behaviour change communications?

First of all, are we reaching people within their routine, versus asking them to find us, which is often outside of their routine? Are we meeting them with our messages and messengers, and going to where their routines take them? If not, let’s start doing that.

Also, how do we start setting up default settings that are more sustainable? We already know what’s possible with opt-out or opt-in framing (the former produces significantly higher participation rates than the latter), but how can we take this further so that the new status quo is increasingly sustainable?

11. The availability heuristic
Our publics may think they’ve never experienced a climate impact before or, if they have, that there’s only been a few events, not many. This is due, in part, to the fact that the press and policymakers aren’t contextualising extreme weather events within a global warming reality.

And so the availability of our climate memory, and how easily things come to mind where the climate dots are connected, is limited. This is a problem because, as Ideas42 puts it, “we judge probabilities based on how easily examples come to mind”.

How are we communicating and chronicling climate impacts so the public is able to draw on these examples when imagining what the future will look like because examples are more available to the mind?

Can we use our media channels – our websites, our social media – to document the climate impacts so people have a more realistic assessment of probability?

Similarly, how are we showcasing solutions (in every possible way, and repeatedly) so that people have constant and common examples of the kind of behaviour we’re encouraging? So, when they think of “going green”, there are plenty of highly public examples that come to mind, stuff they’ve seen and witnessed before.

The more we individually and organisationally message this – so that the public is seeing its leaders going green, too, in what they eat, drive, fly, wear and power – the more the public has these available examples for mental and memory recall.

12. The planning fallacy
Humans rarely account for and allocate sufficient time for a given task.

In study after study, we’re overly optimistic about how much time it will take to accomplish tasks. This has huge implications on any of our sustainability targets and timelines for 2030, 2040 and 2050. And this is why it is essential to be very clear about how much time these tasks will take and to reorient the deadlines so that it’s an easier estimable planning period for the public (since we aren’t often planning other tasks in 20- or 30-year timeframes).

Admittedly, since large-scale game-changing will take time, we want to be both clear about the necessary planning and positive about our ability to accomplish the task, so that the public isn’t overwhelmed by the amount of time needed.

“Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t”

In behaviour change communications, we’ll want to give examples of similar time requirements (associated with other behaviours in their lives), so that any green initiative we’re requesting has a salient comparison. A failure to do this could backfire.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, people “have developed an absurd view of the power of government. Many voters seem to think that government has the power to protect them from the consequences of their sins. Then they get angry and cynical when it turns out that it can’t”.

Helping our communities know how much planning is required to make the necessary shifts may be helpful, then, in setting expectations. And doing it in shorter increments (versus 2050 timeframes) may be useful in making sure those expectations are realistic, the short-term planning is reported and made public, and everyone is witnessing what’s involved.

Next steps
I encourage you to check out Ideas42’s full explanation and articulation of these 12 principles and psychologies (they’ve got all of the study/research links for further sourcing and citing).

  1. Choice overload
  2. Cognitive depletion and decision fatigue
  3. Hassle factors
  4. Identity
  5. Limited attention
  6. Loss aversion
  7. Primacy bias
  8. Procrastination
  9. Social norms
  10. Status quo bias
  11. The availability heuristic
  12. The planning fallacy

Some, or all, of it will likely be very familiar to you and, hopefully, a helpful reminder as we work to improve our behaviour change communications and roll out our technical game changers. Good luck going forward!

— Dr Michael Shank