How I Am Beginning to Change Your Behavior

As the No Waste Program Coordinator for the Indiana University Office of Sustainability and a teaching assistant for a course entitled “Human Behavior and Energy Consumption”, I read, think, and talk quite a bit about effective strategies for changing behavior. It is a fascinating, complex, and interdisciplinary area of study that has countless connections to what college students call “the real world”. In my experience, I have noticed that nearly everyone studying behavior change arrives with and struggles through the same misconceptions. I’m going to briefly explain the biggest of these misconceptions and describe a simple model that helps me visualize it in the context of the intervention process.

We are bombarded with facts. Don’t add to our burden.

The most significant misunderstanding I have observed is the common belief that distributing general information is an effective intervention for causing behavior change. It’s a simple theory; if I want you to change, I merely need to provide you with the facts. Unfortunately, this theory is completely wrong for two reasons.

First, it assumes humans are perfectly rational beings, and that every decision we make is the result of a careful calculation weighing the costs and benefits of every possible option. If this were true, actions such as party-line voting, overeating, and smoking probably wouldn’t be as prevalent as they are. We rarely optimize; due to limited time, attention, and mental capacity (the literature calls this “bounded rationality”) we use personal heuristics, or rules of thumb, to quickly make a decision that seems to be, at least on the surface, optimal. This is why we stereotype and form lifelong opinions of people and places after just one experience – for the purpose of easy decision making.

The other reason why information may be ineffective is because, well, some people just don’t care. I once observed thirty students in a row walk up to a set of clearly-labeled trash and recycling receptacles and shove everything on their dining hall tray into the trash. They knew the recycling bins were next to the trash – honestly, if we made them any more obvious, they would be a fire hazard. Buying more bins or putting up more posters with more neat facts may cause a few to change, but most of them still won’t budge. The issue here is that sustainability-oriented initiatives utilize this model all the time, and while reducing the barriers impeding a desired action is a necessary step toward behavior change, it can’t stop there. To better explain where I’m coming from, I made the following diagram.

You may need to click on the image to enlarge it.

In the diagram, the spheres represent where a person might be in the change process. Since I’ve been using recycling as an example, imagine someone who does not recycle. Ideally, we should start our interventions by making the desired behavior easier (making sure there are an appropriate number of recycling containers, and making sure they are located next to trash cans) and making the undesired behavior harder (removing some trash cans).

We are now at the point I described earlier – the opportunity to adopt a new behavior (recycling) is right there, ready and willing; however, because (we know now) information and awareness isn’t enough, more is needed. To push people from an old state (that is no longer very steady because we have lowered barriers) to a new state requires us to exert our influence in creative and somewhat sneaky ways. We must create new social norms — imagine trying to get elevator riders to all face the back of the elevator rather than all face forward. Most sustainability-related lifestyle changes are no less difficult! This is an area where a lot of exciting, innovative research is being conducted, and there are many strategies that have been shown to be effective. I don’t have room to go into them here, so I will instead recommend a few great reads. To summarize my philosophy in a way that would make even Michael Pollan proud:

First change the environment. Then change the person.

Some great reads:

  • Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
  • McKenzie-Mohr’s Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing
  • Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge : Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Mark Milby is the No Waste Program Coordinator for the Office of Sustainability. You can reach him at

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