Breaking news, from Dayton, Ohio: Attitudes don’t predict behavior. Economic incentives don’t usually work. And sweet corn tastes best the day it’s picked.
I’ve spent the last week in Dayton, with my wife, Chana’s grandparents and cousins. I expected a quiet week- great times with Chan’s family and a nice break from the intensities of Jerusalem.
But it turns out that tucked between miles of corn and soybeans lies a lively and very special town. One night, I went with Uncle Danny to a minor league baseball game, getting in for free when the ticket attendant gave us the tickets of two people who couldn’t make it themselves. Another night, I played ice hockey for the first time in ten years with Chan’s cousin Mitch (Boy does my lower back hurt!). And in the nearby town of Hamilton, I attended environmental psychologist Doug Mckenzie-Mohr’s daylong seminar, “Fostering Sustainable Behavior: Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM),” organized by the local Butler County Storm Water District. And that’s where I learned about attitudes and behavior, and the futility of financial incentives. (I learned about the sweet corn that night for dinner).
Dr. Mckenzie-Mohr’s formula, “Community-Based Social Marketing” (CBSM), utilizes research methods like surveys and focus groups to understand behaviors in their social contexts. CBSM strategies leverage friends, mentors and neighbors to encourage changes on a communal level. Programs focus more on social norms than on numbers, more on getting communities of people to commit to doing small things, than on telling them how badly they need to do big ones. A CBSM slogan might read, “Help us improve the air quality for the children at this school: Turn your car off whenever idling for more than ten seconds,” with a campaign handing drivers a free sticker that says, “We care about our kids’ air: This car will not idle for more than ten seconds,” making sure it gets placed on the front window, so that not only passers-by, but the driver inside the car will see it too. That’s instead of producing and handing out informative materials explaining how “Turning off your car when idling for more than ten seconds will save you X amount of gas, Y dollars per minute, and reduce your CO2 emissions by Z tons.”
Given that most attempts I know of at changing people’s behavior try either to change attitudes or offer financial incentives, I found Dr. Mckenzie-Mohr’s assertions striking. But throughout the seminar, he presented study after study debunking these and more basic assumptions about how to convince people to act differently. He compared these with the results of CBSM programs, and the results were unequivocal. Turns out that knowing that my neighbors, who I trust (and by whom I want to be respected) perform a particular action, let’s say composting, it will have more of an impact on me than knowing the reasons behind composting. At the very least, it will get me to ask if I too should be composting, certainly a more likely way to get me composting, than being given a brochure.
Through CBSM, Dr. Mckenzie-Mohr has implemented successful campaigns on water-management, electricity-usage, transportation, conservation and composting, throughout Canada, Australia and the US. Green auditors who have learned CBSM have been three to four times more successful than those that haven’t in getting clients to implement the changes they recommend. Dr. Mckenzie-Mohr has sat on some of Canada’s leading panels on climate change and the environment, and was recently awarded the Canadian Psychological Association’s “Psychologists for Social Responsibility Research and Social Action Award.”
I’ll share some practicals from the day in future posts, but for now, I’ll suffice to say that I was incredibly impressed by what I found in Dayton. An old Midrashic statement comments on the Psalms 29 passage, Kol Hashem BaKocoach, “The voice of God is in strength,” by adding, B’Kocho shel Kol Echad v’Echad, “In the strength of every individual.” Divinity is in everyone, the Midrash explains (Tanchuma, Parshat Yitro). In Dayton, I experienced a place that might not have the eco-chic of New York or the eco-fervor of Berkeley, but that certainly did have Godly spirit enough to fill up a huge auditorium with local environmental employees dedicating their lives to improving the quality of life in Ohio and doing their part in creating a sustainable future for everyone. And along with family, a game of hockey and the perfect cob of sweet corn, it’s hard to get more divine than that.
For more on CBSM, and for some great resources on fostering sustainable behavior, visit http://www.cbsm.com.