Monday, January 18, 2010

Never mind what people believe—how can we change what they do? A chat with Influence Guru, Robert Cialdini

In what's really a must-read, given the monumental challenge we face in motivating citizens and decision-makers to advance the Green Economy, Grist's David Roberts interviews influence guru, Robert Cialdini.

Cialdini points out subtle, yet powerful language strategies that his research has found makes a real difference in motivating people to implement energy efficiency steps in their homes.  Here's one example:

If we send people in San Diego a message saying the majority of your neighbors are conserving energy on a daily basis, that has more effect than telling them to do it for the environment or to be socially responsible citizens or to save money. If your neighbors are doing it, it means it’s feasible. It’s practicable. You can do it—people like you.

It was very important that we say “people in your neighborhood.” If we said “the majority of Americans,” that wasn’t effective. If we said “the majority of Californians,” that was more effective. If we said “the majority of San Diegans,” that was more effective. But the most effective was “the majority of your neighbors.” That’s how you decide what’s possible for you: what people in your circumstance are able to do.

And a follow-up exchange:

Q. One of the toughest nuts to crack is energy efficiency—there’s all this potential, but people just don’t do it. Any thoughts on how these insights could be applied to efficiency?
A. You could ask people to indicate the extent to which they think energy efficiency is a good thing, and make it a public, active commitment—then they’re going to be more likely to be consistent with it. You can tell them what stands to be lost instead of what stands to be gained. You can tell them what their neighbors are doing. You can tell them what experts are saying about this. Each one might have an additive effect; you’re going to clip 3 or 4 or 5 percent off with each one. But if you add them up, now you are talking about something that’s much more than a minor deflection.

When I finished my Ph.D. in ecology back in 2003, I was well aware that we have the knowledge to solve many of our most urgent environmental challenges, and that the problems we face are problems of motivating people.  Political problems, in large part.

That realization lead me to return to my roots in communication (I started out my undergraduate studies at Cornell as a communications major), and to delve into the work and recommendations of influence experts like Cialdini.   It's been an unbelievable journey that has lead to endeavors such as my establishment of this blog.

Cialdini says in the interview that he retired to write a couple of books he has in his head.  Hopefully he gets into a bunch of topics related to sustainability.  I can't wait to read them...

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1 comment:

  1. Change people what they do, that's the most difficult thing to do in the world.

    But it's great!