Sandra Stewart | December 1, 2008
The current proliferation of polls and surveys—and the reporting on them, and the availability of seemingly everyone’s opinion everywhere—tends to invest what people say with great importance. But if you’re trying to change behavior, it pays to remember that people often don’t understand (or won’t admit) what motivates them.
Take energy conservation, for example. At the recent Behavior, Energy and Climate Change conference in Sacramento, Wesley Schultz, a professor of psychology at California State University, San Marcos, reported on research showing that messages about what other people do (“Most of your neighbors …”) were the only ones that produced behavior change—though in interviews people ranked them as least influential, and in surveys people rarely say they save energy because others do.
As part of his research, Schultz provided homeowners with information on their own energy usage as well as average energy usage in their area. After receiving the information, heavier-than-average users decreased their usage. Unfortunately, lower-than-average users increased theirs. Everyone reverted to the norm. Schultz did the experiment again, providing positive reinforcement for the low users—and that worked; they kept their usage low. (All it took was a happy face—seriously.)
People are not particularly good judges of their own behavior, Schultz observed.
That’s why communicators need to stay focused on what people do—and track responses to our messages. Otherwise, it’s all talk.