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Selling the sausage, not the sizzle: can we overcome the cognitive biases stopping us from acting on climate change?

People are hardwired to maintain the status quo and act only to either increase personal gain or to avoid pain. So if we want to change people's behaviour and get them to act to mitigate their impacts on the climate, Colleen Ryan says we need to embrace leading-edge marketing and behavioural science principles. 

I’d bet anyone monitoring Kiwi attitudes to global warming will have seen an impressive spike over the past few days after Cyclone Gita came to visit, though whether it will result in anyone taking action is far from certain. Whereas the glorious and equally exceptional 30-degree bone-dry summer days caused nothing like such a stir – unless you were a South Island farmer where the spike was in depression and suicide rates – and even less likelihood of causing any behaviour change if you were enjoying the sunshine and not personally affected by the drought.

These are just a couple of examples of how unreliable human cognitive processes affect how people are responding to climate change. People only change their behaviour when things affect them directly because we are wired to maintain the status quo and act only to either increase personal gain or to avoid pain, especially our own pain. That isn’t to say that we are not empathetic because we do literally feel other people’s pain – images of suffering on TV such as those now experiencing the results of the latest climate change triggered storm cause similar brain activity to firsthand experience of suffering. But pain passes and is quickly forgotten, whereas established behaviour patterns are hard to shift even when a personal experience has influenced our attitudes and beliefs. Because attitudes, as any good marketer will tell you, don’t change behaviour so, even post Gita, we will not see wholesale changes in how people affected by the storm act in relation to reducing their impact on climate change.

What we know about people is that their attitudes do not drive their behaviour, whereas when we change behaviour our attitudes follow. 

What we need is some leading-edge marketing principles applied to the climate change message if we are going to persuade people to change their behaviour to minimise human impact on global warming. Marketers understand applied behavioural science principles and climate change ticks just about every one of the core tenets.

Here are a few of the cognitive biases at play:

Wishful thinking bias

With a range from “it’s all a big mistake and it’s not really happening” through to “some brilliant piece of technology will come along and fix it”, which is the equivalent of thinking that Noah’s Arc will appear on the horizon when your neighbourhood is flooded, this is one of the reasons that people don’t prepare for disasters because their wishful thinking means they expect it either won’t happen to them or if it does the cavalry in the form of Civil Defence will rescue them.

Denial bias

Discounting or not believing an important or uncomfortable fact. And, we make this one very easy for people in our attempt to create balanced reporting by giving equal share of voice to both sides of the argument. No matter that 9 out of 10 scientific studies demonstrate climate change, a media body like the BBC will have a policy to ensure balance that will give equal time to both sides of the argument in programming schedules, allowing denial bias an easy ride. There is also a wealth of evidence that the other thing that triggers our denial bias is being presented with extreme outcomes. Shocking messages and catastrophic images cause our emotions to reject what is too hard to deal with. The anti-smoking campaigners learned that lesson the hard way when they used images of rotting lungs that were so alarming that it prompted people to create an alternative narrative “my uncle Albert smoked 60 a day and he was still riding his bike in his 80s”.

Delayed gratification bias

Seeking short-term rewards at the expense of greater long-term benefits. Although everything we know tells us that climate change is accelerating, we are still looking at something that will play out over decades not months and we also know that people aren’t good at taking a hit today for a benefit that’s a way off. At the very least it gives people a chance to delay when they will take action. We need to develop ideas that reward people today to overcome this bias.

So faced with a battery of biases how do we get New Zealanders to change their behaviour? They say they want to, so that’s not the problem. The New Zealand Values* study tracks how our values are shifting and it shows a steady increase in concern over the environment but a drop in how people value the need to take personal action. By comparison, the belief that companies should act is on the increase.

Recent TRA work on what constitutes the key characteristics of what makes us Kiwi* has singled out our connection to nature as a core cultural code, reflecting a desire to retain our historical associations with the care and protection of our land. So far so good with Kiwi codes, attitudes and values, but what about behaviour?

What we know about people is that their attitudes do not drive their behaviour, whereas when we change behaviour our attitudes follow. For example, how we reconcile behavioural dissonance is one of the core foundations of applied behavioural science. If someone buys an electric car they will refresh and align their attitudes to carbon emissions to achieve a state of equilibrium between their attitudes and their behaviour, even though their motivation to buy an electric car might have had little to do with emissions.

Creating products that are climate-change friendly and making those products easy and rewarding for people is where success lies and that puts the onus on New Zealand companies. New Zealanders have told us that they don't think they can make any difference as an individual, but that companies can. And, developing products and services is not all that companies can contribute – we need their marketing nous too.

To get Kiwis to act we need to get better at marketing. We need to sell the dream not the nightmare of climate change. We need to find the positive narratives; to show the world how it could be, not what catastrophe looks like; to inspire and excite people with the possibilities; to own the problem and create solutions that fit into people’s lives, not demand that they change their lives. And we need to work with people’s biases, because although climate change should be a subject for rational thought and action, the human species that is contributing to the problem is cognitively lazy, emotional, and irrational.

We need to sell climate change mitigation to Kiwis because we can’t just expect that their love of the outdoors will translate into action. If we can use marketing skills to persuade people to buy bottled water surely we can crack the climate change action challenge.

Colleen Ryan is head of strategy at TRA

*New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study, a 20-year longitudinal national study of New Zealand social attitudes led by Professor Chris Sibley of The University of Auckland.

*The Kiwi Cultural Codes were developed as a collaborative nationwide project between TRA and True. 

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