written by
Denise Jacobs

5 reasons why your citizens aren't taking climate action and how to deal with them

Consultancy 4 min read , March 5, 2019

Read this article in NL

There's a philosophy behind each and every economical decision. Understanding the behaviour of people is important to understand why certain problems exist. Can we use this knowledge to tackle our modern environmental and social challenges?

A result of evolution

Let's go back and take a look at where we came from. American researchers have exposed 5 tendencies of humans that exist due to evolution. They used to be essential for survival. Right now, they are highly destructive for our modern society.

  1. Our self-interest is more important than the well-being of the group
  2. People care more about relative status than absolute status
  3. We unconsciously copy the behaviour of others
  4. We value the present more than the future
  5. We tend to ignore the problems we don't see or feel

Gaining insight in what actually drives our behaviour, teaches us how to deal with it. It's one of the keys to a sustainable future!

1. 'Me' over 'us'

Our self-interest is more important than the well-being of the group. Survival of the fittest. That's what used to count. A lot of modern problems started by conflicts between personal and common interests.

A small patch of grassland is split between several shepherds. None of them want their grassland to be overgrazed, allthough they realize that it's more profitable for themselves if they let a couple extra animals graze there. Yet the 'costs' will be shared between everyone. The result is that they all keep adding more and more animals, eventually destroying the grassland...

What doesn't work?

Don't ask people to appreciate a group above themselves. Definitely stay away from words such as 'responsibility' and 'obligation' in your communication. In fact, you might also want to stay away from the word 'sustainability' altogether, as it is often interpreted the same way.

What does work?

  • Emphasize on how it might benefit the person (or his own 'group') financially, in added comfort,...
  • Target smaller, non-anonymous and dependent networks/groups
  • Make sure that a good action also accredits the reputation of a person and - equally important - the other way around.

2. Rather 'better than' than just 'good'

People care more about relative status than absolute status. People are more motivated to do 'better than' someone else, than to just do 'good'. They continuously compare their own status to those of others.

What doesn't work?

Don't ask people to be content with what they have today. Also don't count on behaviour that might damage their image.

What does work?

  • Encourage competitions with pro-social results.
  • Publish lists with the most pro-social companies, colleagues, citizens,...
  • Make sure that an action increases the relative status of people and that it has a high visibility!

3. Copycats

We unconsciously copy the behaviour of others. Instinctively, we tend to look at the behaviour of others and copy this. What our neighbours do, is often a good prediction of our own behaviour. Even more than personal or financial motives.

What doesn't work?

Don't emphasize how much the 'unwanted' behaviour is still present. This just focuses on the fact that many others are still doing the same thing.

"Everybody is doing this, so why should I change?"

What does work?

  • Inform about the exact number of people that do the desirable things. If this percentage is low (for example 5%), you're better off just using the absolute numbers. That makes it look as if it's being done a lot, which is the most important.
  • Use social approval to encourage the people that are on the right track to keep going.
A softwarecompany (OPOWER) tested this in 2010 by adding information of neighbours on people's energy bills - smiley included for the most efficient houses :-). Despite their limited reach, they managed to save as much electricity as 150.000 houses combined on a yearly basis!

4. Short term vision

We value the present more than the future. Unfortunately, natural selection doesn't consider 'what might happen in the future'. Only what happens here and now. Today, this short term thinking is causing major social and environmental problems.

What doesn't work?

Don't ask people to care about the needs of future generations as much as their current needs. Especially in an uncertain and ever changing world.

What does work?

  • Focus on the benefits of a behaviour for current generations. Not future ones.
  • Point out the stability, predictability and safety of the world.

5. Global warming? But it's cold outside?

We tend to ignore the problems that we don't see or feel. Our brain simply doesn't know how to react to them. We've never needed it before. And since we don't see the direct effects of our actions, we tend to not realize that we're causing our own problems.

What doesn't work?

It's best not to describe environmental issues with stats and numbers. They're not tangible, so people are less likely to act upon them.

What does work?

  • Make sure local problems can be seen and felt (color of hazardous gases, taste of water, ...)
  • Create visible links between someone's behaviour and the consequences for his surroundings.

Hopefully this article helped you gain some insights for your communication!

FutureproofedCities helps cities and regions to engage their citizens to participate on climate action. Interested how it might help you? Have a look.

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