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Beyond Behavior Change

Behavior change is fast becoming the holy grail of the sustainability sectors.

Behavior change is fast becoming the holy grail of the sustainability sectors.

In our quest, we tend to be preoccupied with how we’d know it when we see it (measurements, metrics, observable outputs, profits, sales). This is understandable. We do need behavior change to be scaled up radically, if we are to avert some of the direst ecological threats we face. However, in the rush to uncover the most effective technology, tool, widget or methodology to help “unlock” this elusive magic box, we seem to be overlooking something quite fundamental.

That is, when we become solely focused on ‘getting’ behavior change, we overlook the most important part - change.

When we overlook the verb in behavior change, we run the risk of turning behavior change into a ‘thing,’ as if a concrete object. We also are unwittingly acting like engineers when we need to be thinking more like psychologists. Behavior change is dynamic. It is also nonlinear, driven by cognitive, affective and social levers. When we rush into solutions and applications too quickly, we short-circuit the potential to go deeper, and get the results and traction we need.

"Deeper" in this case involves uncovering (or decoding) what is actually experienced for people when it comes to sustainability and sustainable brands. Experience does not mean opinion, view, attitude, or belief. Experience is how we feel and create meaning. It is not rational or always conscious. It can be confusing and contradictory and tangled. It’s our job to sort through the ‘tangle’ so we can be more informed and meet people where they are.

Therefore, I suggest we need to focus less on ‘behavior change’ and more on meaning change. Meaning largely drives and informs what we call “behavior.” And meaning is constructed through our interactions, relationships, contexts, histories and practices. When we commit ourselves to investigating meaning, we are investigating behavior change. We are just going about it a bit less frontally, and more laterally. And this will likely get where we need to go faster.

What does this mean for our research and practices? As I’ve written here before, it involves several key steps. First, it requires us to bring an attitude of genuine inquiry to our work. In order to address behavior change on the levels required – beyond quick fixes and incentives, which we know don’t have the desired traction – we need to reframe behavior change to include meaning and relationships. And then be prepared to listen. What does this product mean for people? What are the conflicts, dilemmas or concerns that may arise? Can we then systemically code and analyse this data for our strategies? (I would say, absolutely yes.) Taking our cue from the brilliant work of LoveMarks and Emotional Branding, we need to infuse how we approach behavior change with similar verve, innovation and inquiry. We need to ask different questions, and become better listeners.

Second, a meaning-centered approach to behavior change is also about recognizing what change is about. Here we can look to the groundbreaking work of change management professionals, such Cynthia Scott who recognize that change of any kind is also about loss. We like to avoid thinking about and acknowledging loss in our fields, but this is to our detriment and diminishes our efficacy. The more we understand about resistance and how we relate with change, the more effective we will be at becoming “change agents.” Yes, behavior change is about change.

Third, we need to critically evaluate how well our tools and frameworks get us where we need to go. Is it time to redesign and consider more innovative approaches that may be less conventional but deliver richer insight? Given the resources, time and constraints, how deep can we go in our research and strategies? Rather than discounting depth and process as being too time-consuming or expensive, we need to consider instead the question: can we afford not to innovate how we approach consumer behavior change? I’d wager the answer is no.

The bottom line is that behavior change is anything but a rational process; we are driven largely by unconscious, irrational and meaning-based motivations. We may like to think it is all about stimulus and response (think, B.F. Skinner, Pavlov's dog), but it's more complicated. In our obsession with metrics, we run the risk of missing the most important insight of all: the dilemmas, conflicts and ‘tangles’ that may impede the behavior changes we all seek to inspire.

Moving forward and developing innovative approaches to behavior change requires thinking differently about behavior, change and who we partner with to help us get there. And the more case studies we can generate, the more we can share best practices, the better off we all will be. It's a win-win.