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Monday, 20 August 2007

Tell me what you want, what you really really want

This is something I've been struggling to write for a couple of weeks now. I'm not entirely happy with it but it's hopefully better than nothing. With the caveat that I'm not trained in psychology or sociology or anything like that, let's dive right in...

The basic idea is this: all of the greenies, the conservationists, the environmentalists, the reduce/reuse/recyclers, the peak oilers, everybody who wants everybody else to voluntarily change their behaviour in some way, has to understand that their struggle is not primarily with behaviours but with values.

Value decisions drive behaviours. I wrote this about six weeks ago:
It seems to me that the primary driver for personal behaviour must surely be personal values. If so, that would imply that my failure to change behaviour in personal matters (such as limiting my Ice Break consumption as I had committed to do) comes down to a question of my own values. That I value the experience of drinking coffee-flavoured milk more highly than the environmental benefits gained by reducing my consumption. And that would probably be because the benefits of drinking it are personal, immediate and known whereas the benefits of reducing consumption are dispersed, delayed and unknown.
There's a famous TV psychologist who nailed the issue with his often-repeated question, "What's in it for you?" People don't just do random things. They tend do the things which they believe will meet the needs or desires which are most pressing within them.

Needs and desires is a tricky subject. Another famous guy by the name of Jeremiah is purported to have written, "The heart is deceitful above all things... who can understand it?" Well, a bloke called Maslov took a good stab at it with A Theory Of Human Motivation (here) from which is derived his Hierarchy of Needs (here with illustration).

We get even more complicated when we consider that we can, with varying degrees of effectiveness, redefine and reprioritise our needs and desires by adopting just about any other moral, ethical or value principle you could possibly conceive of.

The majority of these are older than we are and are imparted to us through our family, friends and broader society. Sometimes a new or derivative principle comes along, like the famous "land rights for gay whales" slogan, which we might see fit to adopt.

Some of these ideas - especially religious ones - become almost as deeply ingrained as the needs which Maslov described, and can take such a high priority that people are literally willing to die for a cause.

Let's get visual here for all you right-brainers with a diagram I just whipped up...

I hope that's making some kind of sense. People do stuff because of what they care about. If you want people to do different stuff you need to either get them to care about the same things you do, or convince them that what you want them to do is somehow aligned with their own most pressing needs and desires.

Now to bring this all back into context and finish up...

I started with a statement about attempts to bring about voluntary changes in behaviour. That's really directed at anybody (myself included) who wishes to inspire "grassroots" or community-based action regarding climate change or sustainability. It's a really tough job and we need to be clear what we're up against.

The other aspect to bringing about widespread change is the use of the law. The law is (supposed to be) a codification of the agreed values of a society and has a couple of unique strengths in regarding to upholding values:
- laws can be designed to counteract our bias towards personal, immediate and known benefits
- any value written into law is reinforced by Maslov's safety needs which incline most people towards civil obedience

Changing laws in a democratic society is generally achieved by demonstrating that a certain set of values is held in common by a majority (or an influential minority) of the people. It's a different fight.

As I think about the year 2050 and what kind of civilisation I hope we will have, I see a society in which the core values associated with environmentally sustainable (or even beneficial!) human society are broadly accepted and expressed in law so as to guide individuals as well as commerce and industry in behaviours which will meet our most important needs not only today but for the very long term.

And maybe a world in which I never ever ever quote the Spice Girls again.


Bob Uva said...

Thanks for your thoughts on values and behavior. I'm in the process of trying to get neighbors to attend a discussion course on global warming, with materials created by a local non-profit. When I approach people at their door, hand them the brochure/pamphlet I developed and then explain what the discussion course is, I get mostly neutral reactions which I'm afraid are hiding some negative personal impulse. I'm concerned that they think I'm trying to change them when in fact all I want to do is learn with them more about this important topic and to see what I can do about it. Your comments about values will help me think through how I approach more neighbors as I continue to try to fill up the course.

Grant said...

Hi Terry - I agree broadly with your points. And I do hope that values do shift over time.

But I just wanted to pass on that I've actually heard and read research to the contrary - that is that behaviour change is often driven by what other people see happening around them, and that the behaviour change goes on to impact values.

What I mean by that - you see your neighbour recycling, and their neighbour too - suddenly your whole street is recycling, you've hit a tipping point, and suddenly everyone is doing it (not wanting to be left behind or out).

It's about changing the way things are done, so that the done thing is the right thing. This doesn't have to be values driven - it can be market driven or legislated.

Case in point - if wearing a seatbelt wasn't illegal anymore - most people would still wear one. This was initially legislated because people weren't wearing one.

The other factor I've considered is making it "cool" to be "green". There's a real avoidance of the term "environmentalist" or "greenie" - somehow the idea of being sustainable has become equated with "activist" (no doubt media and politicians have something to do with it).

A lot of people don't want to be seen as a greenie, even when talking to friends about what they are doing themselves.

So there's a change there at the peer and social level. I do hope with all the celebs and talk and media about going green being the good thing that this will shift.

TB said...

Thanks Grant, that's fascinating. Though without going back and re-reading my post I don't immediately see what's contradictory.

I was suggesting that an individual's behaviour is driven by their values. You've just said, essentially, that an individual's values can be influenced by the behaviour they observe in others, and also by their own habits. Sounds good to me.

In fact that would lend support to such mottos as "lead by example" and "be the change you wish to see in the world".

As far as I can see it still boils down to values. Self-motivation arising from concern for the environment is fabulous, but speaking pragmatically there's nothing wrong with good old peer pressure and group dynamics either. And if good habits become entrenched - all the better.