Making sense of sustainability behaviours
Sense making is critical to encouraging sustainable behaviours
Our individual acts of sustainability can feel pointless – after all, what difference does it really make for us to recycle, walk rather than drive, buy the environmentally friendly option and so on when it seems a drop in the ocean? Of course, just as with voting, we conceptually understand that it is us as individuals acting in tandem with other people that makes the difference, but nevertheless it is hard to retain that sense of collective action. And while it can seem as if we are being guided on how to contribute less to the challenge of climate crisis, it may not feel as if we are participating in actually fixing it, surely a much less motivating proposition.
One of the ways to address this is to consider how individual acts are more than the behaviour itself – they have meaning for the individual and those around them. By putting out the recycling, for example, we are not simply making a contribution but signalling who we are and what we consider to be important. This signal doesn’t operate in isolation to impact only us, of course, but rather can impact those around us as well. Moreover, these acts of behaviour are imbued with meaning, based on the values we live by and the identity of ourselves that we hold.
We can see the way this plays out more tangibly with mask wearing. which has become laden with meaning (for some groups / regions at least): not only is it something that we may or may not do for practical reasons (protecting others), but it is increasingly expressing the values and identity that we hold:
Not wearing a mask may be seen as identifying us as a libertarian most concerned about individual rights and freedom and expression
Wearing a mask one may be seen as identifying us on the more communitarian, referencing the connected nature of our lives and concerned to do right by others
Indeed, research in this area suggests that face masks can be seen as linked to a wide range of cultural and socio-political considerations. So we can see the way in which behaviour does not exist in a vacuum –we are sense makers of our own and others behaviour, placing it in a wider network of meaning.
Dan Kahan talks about this in his work on cultural cognition – he sets out the way in which the cultural values we hold defines our social identities - which in turn shape our beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether humans are responsible for climate change; whether the death penalty prevents murder). He shows how this helps to explain why groups with different cultural outlooks (such as left or right of centre political orientation) disagree about important societal issues.
On this basis disagreement is not due to people failing to understand the science or even that they lack relevant information. Instead, according to Kahan, disagreement is generated from the way “people endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important ties”.
That we seek meaning is something that Timothy Wilson has long explored: how we make sense, or meaning, out of a situation shapes our behaviour. This desire for sense making revolves around:
The need to understand — make sense of our situation in a way that allows us to predict behaviour and guide our own action
The need for self-integrity — view ourselves positively and believe we are sufficient, ethical, competent and coherent
The need for belonging — feel connected to others, accepted and valued.
At face value this may seem quite a radical way of looking at behaviour. Much is written about the way we can ‘nudge’ people into particular behaviours, changing the environmental cues to take advantage of the non-conscious mechanisms (or heuristics). While we do not contest that this has an important role, we should note that Kahneman himself makes the point that nudges are designed to help people reach their desired outcomes. The part that comes before this, which is where Wilson’s approach is helpful, is how can we help people make sense of their environment in order to determine what they want to do and determine the desired outcomes they want?
Wilson and his team have developed ‘WISE interventions’, techniques for changing meaning by changing people’s understanding, sense of personal competence and sense of connection to others:
Direct labelling — provide a positive label that identifies what might otherwise be an ambiguous aspect of themselves: “this test is meant to help me, the teacher, assess my teaching style” (as opposed to assess the students’ performance).
Prompting new meaning — provide the basis for a new way of thinking about the self, a situation, or others: asking questions, altering a situation, or providing new information.
Increasing commitment through action — create situations that encourage people to act in accordance with a new idea, thereby reinforcing that idea.
Active reflection exercise — structured exercises, that help people understand their personal experiences from a new perspective.
Looking at behaviour in this way, and deploying interventions that help us make sense of the world is surely what is needed right now. We live at a time of immense social, political, technological and environmental disruption – it can be hard to make sense of the world and our own behaviours within it. With this in mind, we can see that putting out my recycling may be less about the factual, consequential nature of what I do (the individual act in itself makes little or no difference) and more about the meaning and sense I make of this and of myself. By doing this I am more deeply encoding the recycling behaviour with meaning, which helps to reinforce to myself and others that I am a person that cares about the world. In turn, this meaning will engender further acts to align with this identity, and more opportunities to signal this identity to others.
Supporting people to make sense of the world and how to live sustainably requires us to rethink the way we engage with people. This is an opportunity for governments, with initiatives such as Citizens Assemblies allowing policy makers to understand the challenges people face in making sense of the world and ways in which policy makers can help connect with peoples very real concerns and understandings. But brands also have a role to play – may are struggling to understand why consumers are not choosing their sustainable options that they have invested in bringing to market. It seems as if ‘brand purpose’ activities could be directed to engaging with people, working in partnership to make sense of how to participate in this changing world and working together to drive positive outcomes.