How micro-behaviours can drive social change
To encourage the degree of societal change needed to meet our sustainability targets, we can draw on the psychology of social change
Making widescale societal change happen for sustainability can seem like a monumental task that defeats the best of intentions. What difference does taking out my recycling or choosing the more expensive eco-fabric care make when the instrumental impact is a drop in the ocean? It seems this is often a barrier for making change, understanding how our individual behaviour can make a difference to the big picture. This is the case for all social change movements, not just sustainability, so it seems that the psychology of how social movements form and change behaviour can surely apply to our everyday consumer micro-behaviours of our daily lives.
Rewards to shape behaviour
One of the ways in which change is often talked about in relation to consumer behaviour and sustainability is the notion of reward. This is designing the consumer environment in a way that can secure that there are ‘pay-offs’ for the more sustainable choices. Or at the very least trying to ensure there is no detriment to the performance of our more environmentally purchase.
So we want to make certain that when buying a deodorant, that is made of natural materials, or when choosing a chocolate cake with ethically sourced ingredients, we do not have a significant decline in performance or quality compared to our usual, non-sustainable choices. At the very least, there can be a pay-off in terms of a ‘warm glow’ for ‘doing the right thing’. This often informs marketing strategy and for good reason - there is much to support this approach.
But is a reward based strategy enough to deliver the scale of change that we need? Perhaps not, we might think when we turn to Martin Seligman and colleagues who argue that much of our behaviour is a function of the way we navigate the future, rather than the results of learned conditioning of rewards and punishments. They consider we are more effective if we do not live simply in the present but continuously model what might lie ahead and proactively seek information, allocate mental resources, evaluate alternatives, and select action. We are then using past experience as information, to help form and evaluate a range of future possibilities, rather than it simply determining our behaviour.
So while reward based marketing strategies are necessary, we consider there is a case to be made that they may well not be sufficient on their own to shape the collective action needed for widespread more fundamental change to take place.
The psychology of social change
As such, one of the areas that we argue deserves a more attention is the psychology of social change: identifying the mechanisms that underpin making societal change happen. This has long been an area of great interest for social science, although possibly more for sociology than psychology. While there is a great deal written about the impact of ‘macro’ processes (e.g. technology change, changes in living conditions) much less has been written on micro- behaviours – what are the ways in which individuals can create social change? A recent issue of Current Opinion in Psychology explored this theme in a number of papers: the point made by editor Seamus Power, is that revolutions are not always solely fought in the streets, but, also, at the level of practices and ideas. Our micro-behaviours can generate revolutionary ideas and behaviours leading to widespread change.
This is consistent with the idea of ‘prefiguration’ a term first coined by political scientist Carl Boggs, who described it as the attempt to create change ‘here and now’ through the construction of ‘local and collective structures that anticipate the future (see this paper for more discussion). Small-scale spaces where people act in the way they ‘want the world to be’ rather than ‘how it is now’ can be central to societal transitions, offering new ideas and showing us all new possibilities for living.
Of course, as we well know, the success of these will depend on the surrounding social, political, economic and cultural context being open to encompassing these new ways of operating. There have been many false dawns. But perhaps now, with the existential crisis of climate change getting ever more salient and COVID fundamentally disrupting our everyday lives, we are at a point of disruption where our minds are collectively ‘unfrozen’ and we can accept different ways of being.
This seems like a recipe for the way in which small groups of socially engaged people may seek to effect change. But how is this relevant to the general population that may not see themselves at a vanguard of creating new and innovative ways of living? The challenge is how we translate this to have meaning for the majority of the population in our everyday behaviours.
Meaning making to drive change
To understand how we can do this, we return to the issue of meaning making. Nick Chater and George Lowenstein consider that the existence of a ‘drive for sense-making’, (as they call it) is analogous to better known drives such as hunger, thirst and sex. Sense making seems ever more important challenge to get right, given that the world we now live in is vast, interconnected and complicated. It is hard to match up the complex systems shaping our lives and the explanations we as individuals have available (see Peter Knight for more on this). We see this issue reflected in Ipsos polling, people are confused about how to navigate their everyday sustainability behaviours – understanding what matters, what difference it makes and why.
Supporting people to place their behaviours into a wider network of meaning and sense is hugely motivating for people. This meaning is all about prospecting the future, seeing how we can be part of something bigger than ourselves, shaping a future that we would wish for ourselves and others. This meaning making is not, of course limited to outcomes that many (but perhaps not all of us) may all sign up to – this thinking can also help us to explain Brexit, the rise of Trump and the general increase in nationalism globally (regardless of your position on these topics).
The point is, the meaning that people attribute to their behaviours, and being part of something bigger than themselves as a result, is hugely motivating and we can see the way in which this underpins social change. Our behaviours doesn’t operate in isolation to impact only us but will impact those around us as well.
Hive mind and social change
Meaning making is not necessarily a purely individual activity according to Seligman et al who talk about the need for a shared social discourse to construct a picture of how things can or should be, with people reasoning and planning together. We consult and discuss to work out what to expect, or feel, or seek under a variety of different contingencies - we know this from our everyday lived experiences.
This chimes with Philip Fernbach and Steve Sloman who talk about the way we live in a community of knowledge and beliefs – things are not worked out individually but collectively, between us. They cite the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who in the early twentieth century developed the notion that the mind is a social entity. He argued it is not our individual capabilities that distinguishes human beings. Instead, humans can learn via other people and culture and people collaborate: we engage with others in collective activities. We inhabit hive minds in a way that can be hard for us to see.
What does this mean for making change happen?
This all points to brands and government bodies assisting in the collective working out, being part of a conversation of ways to construct a future. This requires supporting prefigurative activities, helping people to be creative in ways to live (see this for examples), showing people the way in which their micro-decisions are part of a bigger picture of change. And as these new ways of living form, finding ways to effectively communicate a picture of how life can be, that connects with the general public’s very real and immediate attitudes, desires, and motivations.
Given the very social nature of sense-making, a lot of this sense making is of course taking place online. Not engaging in the online debates creates information vacuums that can lead people down slippery slopes of misinformation. There is a need for participation by brands and other institutions in the collective discussion, operating in a pre-figurative way themselves to exploring to understand how best to work alongside people to join the dots between their everyday choices and meaningful, global scale change.
If we only focus on how to ‘reward’ people for their participation, trying hard to ensure that the downsides are not too significant, then we lose the opportunity to bring people into shared communities of understanding, meaning and identity. It is through this that there are surely real opportunities for energising and activating behaviour - much needed for bringing people along a sustainability journey that leads to widespread social change.