Delayed influence and the power of consistent persistence

If helping others to adopt more sustainable lifestyles isn’t working out that well for you, maybe behavioural psychology can help.


In spite of good intentions, our efforts to influence others can easily go awry. The passionate among us are prone to argue, spew facts, feel rejected, become dejected, and even give up in the face of resistance by those who don’t share our enthusiasm. With the exception of the giving up part, this has been me at one point or another.

One reason that we have trouble influencing others is that people react differently to the same information. To understand why, we’ll need a primer in identity constructs.

Identities > facts

Facts served cold are unlikely to change behaviour. More often, when we receive new information, it is simply processed through our existing world view, explains Niki Harré in her book Psychology for a Better World. The book is aimed at those of us who want to encourage others to adopt more responsible lifestyle habits in our home, work or social groups.

You see, we humans also have a propensity to seek out information that validates our pre-existing beliefs, and ignore the rest, and this means identities are reinforced rather than routinely challenged.

Acknowledging differences in identities is undoubtably a better place to start than dismissing everyone who disagrees with you as a crackpot. If you don’t understand what someone believes themselves to be, you’ll be overlooking the barriers they face to change.

First, a mindset shift.

Perhaps the most important thing to do before attempting to influence others is to change your own mindset. Harré emphasizes that it’s crucial not to expect quick wins in situations where we need to reach people with different and conflicting identities.

Instead, persistence and consistency are key, because initial resistance by others to an idea is less about the validity of the proposed idea, and more about the identity of the person making the suggestion. The medium is the message.

How to influence someone’s behaviour

There are a number of persuasion strategies we can use without attempting to directly change someone else’s identity.

Find or create a new common identity. An example is when people of all stripes come together for the conservation of a special place, like a local beach.

Choose a messenger the audience can relate to. We react to the same information differently depending on the source. I.e. if Sea Shepherd announced that whaling was no longer an issue, I would be more likely to consider it to be true than if the statement had come from the Japanese government because of the historic positions of both. If you are a sustainability program manager, this trojan horse method is worth considering when picking the right ambassador to achieve your campaign goals.

Create the conditions for delayed influence. If you’re trying to get your workplace to stop using single use coffee pods in the staff room, or to convince your roommate to start recycling, chances are you’ve already blown your cover as and they think of you as an eco-warrier type. It’s an identity clash – what to do? In this case, Harré suggests the following:

  • Persist. Negative initial reactions from others are inevitable, but studies show that resistance weakens over time once the brain takes time to process new ideas. In advertising, the saying goes ‘familiarity breeds trust’. If you accept the likelihood of initial friction, you might be better mentally prepared to keep going.
  • Be consistent. Inconsistency in your message over time makes it easier for others to dismiss your point of view. It’s never a bad idea to live in alignment with the beliefs you espouse, and especially so when you’re trying to influence a group with different views to yours.
  • Focus on the facts, not opinion. If you can show someone that sea levels are objectively rising, you are focusing on something more less challenging to their existing identity than the causes behind sea level rise. As chapter chair for Surfrider, volunteers who were comfortable turning up to meetings or beach cleanups still felt compelled to clarify for me that they weren’t ‘an activist’.  While the label was a siren call for those already dedicated to the cause, it was limiting reach to those just beyond, whom we needed to grow the reach of the group. So instead of inviting someone to ‘become an activist’, chapter comms focused on communicating shared love of coastal places, and the very tangible fact of beach pollution.
  • Be a role model, find allies. By being consistent, factual and persistent in your goal for sustainability, you build a bridge for others to ally with you. Your actions are a beacon to others who may not feel comfortable starting , but would readily join in.

When we understand how identities shape behaviour, and some strategies for working with instead of against them, we are better equipped to win someone over to a sustainable behaviour.

Psychology for a Better World is full of useful insights into how we can better communicate messages of sustainability. If you’d like to read the full book, it’s available for free online download here.

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