After working as a psychologist/therapist for almost 10 years, I started as a PhD candidate in Environmental Psychology at NTNU in October 2014. I am particularly interested in what drives people; what makes people stand up for what is right and matters now. As we all need oxygen to breathe, one would think that everyone agrees that the environment matters. Climate change matters. Keeping the world free from pollution matters. But even though most people have already made some changes like recycling, there is still a worldwide atmosphere of apathy around taking more bold and significant actions.
So what can get people to take action when things seem to go wrong on a worldwide scale? What wakes them up, without first having to experience the devastating effects themselves? Since I started my PhD, I have been gathering a lot of research and other information on this topic, but perhaps my most useful findings so far have come from studying interactions between people on Facebook pages and Youtube. Here is what I found.
- People may get defensive when you tell them directly to act responsibly
When a message is clearly stating that something has to be done, many people (probably the very ones who are targeted by the message) get quite defensive. They are not used to being held responsible for the consequences of some of their actions (especially when what they are doing is legal and considered normal, ‘everyone’ is doing it and ‘no one’ seems to do anything about it). They talk about freedom of choice, minding one’s own business and not caring about the issue. There is an immediate breakdown in communication and a clinging to the status quo, to doing things the way we have always done them and to the luxuries, material possessions and securities that modern society offers. They may even start denying the problem altogether. Sounds familiar?
Several major experiments in social psychology have shown that people can do and say the most irrational things just to conform (Asch 1951), to obey an authority figure (Milgram 1963) or because of a role we take on (Haney, Banks et al. 1973) and when a collective habit has formed for long enough, this will get more difficult to change as people tend to stick with the status quo (Samuelson and Zeckhauser 1988, Fernandez and Rodrik 1991, Kahneman, Knetsch et al. 1991). This status-quo bias can also make people defensive when changes to the system are suggested, which is a topic that is further discussed in system justification theory (Jost, Banaji et al. 2004).
It is likely that our defensive nature starts in childhood and stems from the way we are used to communicating with each other. Most children are taught guilt and shame through blaming, which often results in them learning to pass the blame onto others (because that is easier), instead of learning natural consequences and taking personal responsibility through authentic communication. This authentic form of communication from a place of compassion is known as non-violent communication (NVC). Imagine you see someone you care about eating meat, but you are a strong proponent of veganism, so it really triggers strong emotions within you. Instead of saying: “people like you make me sad/angry; you are a murderer; what you are doing is destroying the environment”, you could also say: “When I see you eating meat, I feel sad, because I recently learned about the link between meat consumption and health and the impact it has on the environment. And because I care about you and the world we live in, it would mean a lot to me if you would allow me to tell you more about what I learned at some time. Would you be open to that?” Of course it is important to communicate from a compassionate and authentic place, without any manipulative intent and without any force. That means that if the person still does not want to listen, then you accept it. They may not be ready to hear you (see Rosenberg 1999).
The best news about NVC is that to practice this compassionate, authentic way of communicating, you don’t need the other person to do anything differently or to learn anything. Their response will automatically be different, because this way of communicating makes it very clear that people are not being blamed. Therefore it changes how people listen to you. Because they are not being targeted, they don’t need to defend themselves. And this allows them to open up to your message. It is safe for them to just listen to what you have to say.
Having said that, sometimes it can also help to use social pressure by showing that someone’s opinion is not supported, especially on a medium like Facebook, where people can support comments with likes. This way we can create new societal standards and hold people accountable when they are trying to make excuses for themselves.
- People may expect others to clean up after them and focus their entire attention on other people in their quest for change
The blaming habit can take even bigger forms where we collectively start to blame corporations, the government, the economy or other countries for the problems in our world. The underlying guilt can then be washed off by further denial, or trying to get others to change first. Research has shown that the larger the group of people, the longer it takes before people take action (Darley and Latane 1968). In social psychology, this phenomenon of inaction is called the bystander effect (Latane and Darley 1968). Some of the ways people then try to rationalize this lack of action in an attempt to relieve the cognitive dissonance that it creates (Festinger 1962), is by taking small and rather insignificant actions (e.g. recycling), or by signing petitions, especially ones that state that other people (e.g. the government) should do something about the issue. It is a way of lying to yourself; pretending you are doing things the right way when in fact there is a lot more that can and needs to be done. Not by others, but by you.
Signing a petition is of course a great way to make a public statement about what you believe in and what matters to you, but if you do not back it up with actions yourself, it is meaningless. For example, if you sign a petition to save the rainforests, but continue to consume meat, knowing that the meat industry is an important contributor to deforestation, then your signature is meaningless and no significant change will be possible.
Until you realize that you are not just an important part, but rather the most important part of the solution, then there is no hope for humanity. So let me tell you this: You ARE important. The human race depends on you to make changes and take responsibility. To make a statement not just through the signing of petitions, or doing research, or studying a topic, but also and especially through your actions.
- Leading by example and being an inspiration to others are the best ways to get people on board
So are we doomed? If the research ‘proves’ that people fail to act in important situations, does that mean there is no point in trying? On the contrary. Being aware of our weak spots can help us to avoid them. Awareness is the key here. For example, one study shows that meditation can increase compassionate responses and thereby help us overcome the bystander effect (Condon, Desbordes et al. 2013), and possibly other irrational behaviors and biases as well. It can shield you from manipulation and help you to overcome apathy in all areas of your life. Awareness can be developed through Mindfulness, meditation and other related practices (‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle would be a great place to start if you want to develop this quality of ‘being present’ further).
Taking all of the above into account, what would seem to be the best way forward? How can we start a revolution to save the environment and to save the earth we inhabit?
The answer is YOU! You can be the change by standing up for what you believe in. You can lead by example and share with the world how you solved the problems you encountered while attempting to live a lifestyle that is better for the earth. You can experience and share with others how your new lifestyle benefits you. How it benefits not just your physical well-being, but also your emotional, mental and spiritual well-being. You can share your story on Facebook, in a blog, on Twitter and of course in real life, with your friends, family members and colleagues. You can be a pioneer. You can find your own new way of doing things. You can be a leader. And you can impact the world in a positive way. This can be the legacy you leave behind.
When you are sharing your personal story, you don’t have to tell others what to do. You only show them how. You are there to provide guidance to whoever needs it. And you also help to create a new societal standard of behavior, one step at a time. This takes care of the concerns mentioned under concern number 1. And by taking responsibility yourself, you also naturally take care of concern number 2.
When you share your experiences in a positive and uplifting way, this will be contagious to others. But you will also notice that your own life will become brighter and happier. And when you share your personal story, your milestones and personal achievements towards living more sustainably, it empowers people to start doing the same. It shows them that change is possible, that it can be fun and that there are many alternatives to life as most of us know it and live it. And perhaps the most important thing is that it shows people that they CAN make a difference.
Asch, S. E. (1951). Effects of group pressure upon the modification and distortion of judgments. Groups, leadership and men; research in human relations. Oxford, England, Carnegie Press: 177-190
Condon, P., et al. (2013). Meditation Increases Compassionate Responses to Suffering. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2125-2127.
Darley, J. M. and B. Latane (1968). Bystander intervention in emergencies: diffusion of responsibility. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4p1), 377.
Fernandez, R. and D. Rodrik (1991). Resistance to reform: Status quo bias in the presence of individual-specific uncertainty. The American Economic Review: 1146-1155.
Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford university press.
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Rosenberg, M. B. (1999). Nonviolent communication: A language of compassion, PuddleDancer Press Encinitas, CA.
Samuelson, W. and R. Zeckhauser (1988). Status quo bias in decision making. Journal of risk and uncertainty, 1(1). 7-59.