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.

Mottainai: could wistfulness be the remedy for compulsive consumerism?

Mottainai is a Japanese term that neatly sums up the regret of wastefulness. Maybe if we cared for our objects as though they had souls, we would waste less?


Mottainai, simplistically

The basic idea of mottainai is this:

  • to waste a resource is shameful
  • waste is something to regret
  • objects have a spirit
  • they are judging you

I made up the last one – but you can start to understand where Marie Kondo’s cultural logic and penchant for thanking her things comes from. I like the concept of mottainai, because it gives us a reason to consider the object’s feelings, not just our own, the true beauty of which being that it – by proxy – calls us to consider what other living beings might make of our disposal choices.

We often rank disposal options by convenience, or if we are further evolved, by how much or little harm will be done to the environment into which will receive our discard.  But what of the harm to the object’s esteem, and its desire to be useful?

Which leads me to a philosophical question:

Is the solution to our society’s wastefulness in finding detachment from our things, or in fact the opposite – to become more attached to our things? 

I.e. does a practice of gratitude for the objects in our lives lead to a more consumerist mindset or less?

I’ve found that the more I cherish and care for what I have, the less I look for more (both for practical and emotional reasons). An inadvertent sort of minimalism. A byproduct of the pursuit of less waste, not the other way around.

My minimalism (stretching the term here) isn’t about aesthetics, counting my things, or finding detachment. It’s more to do with using the things I already have, and helping materials that are already in circulation to have a second life.

If I need something, I look first for secondhand because I can’t bear the mottainai that results from materials destined for landfill.

If they have souls, let’s not let them suffer. Mottainai.

The good, the bad, and the economics.

Conch shell

I like frameworks and theories and ideas that can be plotted into a grid. They offer me a chance to unpack things in a methodical way and search for the gaps in my thinking.

Frameworks are filters with which we can view the world.

I picked up a lot of these during my undergrad at a top business school, well known for churning out accountants and financial types. Our course load included plenty of math, statistics, accounting, and several flavours of management economics (yeeeew!).

In our economics classes, we learned about game theory, economies of scale, diminishing marginal costs, the difference between normal returns and profit, and the like. Useful stuff for understanding the way world markets function. I say function in the operational sense – I do not claim they function well.

We are taught these theories because they prepare people like me to keep accumulating wealth for our employers or ourselves to keep the societal status quo in balance. You know, be successful.

It’s not just employers and the government who want this either. We all want to be useful, earn a living, be able to feed ourselves and participate fully in society.

Extractive economics: tradeoffs vs. false choices

What I didn’t fully realize ’til later on is that the type of economics I studied is just a small area of the overall field. In fact, we mainly learned theories based in extractive economics. The macro side focused on the way banks work and the methods the Bank of Canada uses to manage inflation, and so on. The micro side on how best to reduce the cost of widgets, scarcity and demand, and how to operate within various market structures (and so on).

We learn not necessarily that greed is good, but that growth is.

Okay, that’s not strictly true. I had one class  – Business and Sustainability – that would plant seeds (pardon the pun) within me that would take some time to germinate. But the mainstay of my formal education was to learn economic theories to apply in extractive scenarios, which is to say: to make things efficiently to make a profit.

What I do appreciate about economic theories in general is that they help us dispell blatant wishful thinking.

i.e. Basic economics tells us that money comes from somewhere; one cannot just print money to become richer. Ergo, if a politician promises more money to a ministry or project, we are justified in asking where money will be removed from, and how the system may rebalance (or not). It also helps us understand the basic mechanisms of subsidy and taxation as rather effective monetary instruments. We learn about tradeoffs.

But while tradeoffs will always exist, false choices are the result of too narrow thinking. 

Extractive economics is a pyramid scheme

We take new materials from the ground and sell them once, so profit depends on an ongoing supply, and someone is always losing.

The world (and neighbouring planets) are of finite composition. Which means we will run out of new materials eventually. They didn’t talk about this at business school, which is why we should not be surprised that most people who operate in businesses or government today do so by making use of economic theory grounded in extraction. It’s a narrow view, but the prevailing one.

Enter the circular economy

I actually did first learn about the circular economy in that Business and Sustainability course I took way back when. I learned that most wealthy countries are so because of extraction of natural resources, and that their dependence on it creates significant risk in comparison to knowledge economies.

I learned that endless growth is actually impossible within a closed system, like our Earth.

But it’s easy to forget. Or to bury. In our modern world, success is culturally defined by having wealth. We strive and compete and earn and shut out the inequities of our arbitraged global economy. Not all of us are prepared to live off the grid.

The circular economy offers some hope that we won’t have to.

The circular economy asks:
  • how can waste from one process must become fuel for another, just as it is in the natural world?
  • how can we create quality of life without relying on a cycle of endless growth?
  • how can we debunk the idea that accumulating financial wealth is the only form of success?

Taking back our economy.

You can be progressive thinking and still find the field of economics incredibly useful, just don’t fall into the trap that our leaders do that growth is the only measure of economic strength. They may tell us that extraction of resources is the only way to create prosperity. We can disagree.

For more, I highly recommend the book The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken, which I ever so fittingly found in a secondhand bookstore.

It’s a book about economics even an environmentalist could love. And vice versa. In it, he explores why we need to move beyond extractive economics, and why a circular model that respects the laws of nature holds so much potential.

The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken
The Ecology of Commerce, by Paul Hawken

The case of the disappearing trash can

overflowing trash cans

What would happen if your household garbage bin disappeared for a day? And how about the council supplied bins too?

When would you reach for the bin? I’m betting that for most people, it’s early and often throughout the day, and frequently after mealtimes.

If you couldn’t find it, would a bit of panic set in? Maybe frustration, or anger perhaps, if there was nowhere to toss your trash?

Canadians lead the world in niceness and mounties, but we’re also right up there in per capita garbage generation. Canadians produced an average of 777 kilograms of landfill each in 2008. That’s about 15 kilos per week, per person. A little over 2 kilos each day.

I feel sick.

Garbage is a systemic problem.

To toss something into the bin is second nature. It’s ingrained in our culture. We have vast systems of transportation, processing, and landfilling that are all there so we can easily, handily, and cheaply toss things away whenever and wherever the feeling strikes us.

Yes, sure, collecting our waste in one big pile is marginally better than throwing things directly into the ocean. But there are other issues.

Garbage is a waste our of money.

We pay many times over for our folly. We first pay when we buy things designed to be thrown out, and again through taxes to fund the removal, and then again when the garbage wreaks havoc on the environment (in or out of landfill).

Consider that we actually extract, refine and import petroleum resources to power vehicles so we can transport tonnes of materials that we don’t even believe ourselves to have any value to landfill. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this is absurd.

Garbage is a not an investment

A rule of thumb for managing your finances is to never invest in a depreciating asset. Most cars, for example, are depreciating assets, and therefore not a place you’d put your money in the hopes of getting more or even the same amount back later. You buy a car, but you do not invest in a car.

Let’s think about this in the context of landfilling – we are never going to get anything good in return for the money we’re putting into the landfilling system. We are buying garbage collection infrastructure, but it’ll never pay off as an investment. In business parlance, the ROI is sh#t.

What else could we be doing with the money?

Here’s a thought experiment: what if we took the same resources we’re using now for trash collection and used them instead to collect organic materials? The organics we’d collect would have value as soil inputs. This means we’d be investing in a system that pays dividends rather than one that’s effectively a money pit. We would be creating something of value. Waste would become food.

And now back to your bin.

A by-product of the current vast system of garbage collection is that we have given ourselves permission to throw away whatever we want, and we’ve also given businesses the social licence to sell products that are designed to be sent to landfill, often after a single use.

But enough is enough, and these days more and more of us are choosing to live a Zero Waste lifestyle. Don’t be afraid of this terminology. This most often isn’t producing no waste at all, but just dramatically less in the household. Near-o Waste.

When we reduce our reliance on the bin, we’re creating an alternative system design. We’re taking a step towards not taking more than is our privilege or our need, and toward putting all that energy and funding for waste collection into something more worthwhile.

Where to start? Maybe you don’t feel ready to go cold turkey on trash by literally giving up your bin. But you could start with composting or quitting single use plastics.

Free yourself from the bin!