Although it’s been years since I’ve directly worked on behaviour change research, it’s something that I still find fascinating and enjoy reading about in my free time. As a result, I recently went through Katy Milkman’s How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. The book itself is a great distillation of behaviour change research all in one place, and I am planning to read it again in the not-too-distant future because there is just so much great information to take in.
However, the final chapter has really stuck with me. She relates how she carried out a project and saw the desired behaviour change during the four weeks that it was being run … which then almost completely evaporated once the project was over. The behaviour slipped back to its default, an experience that is sadly familiar to anyone who has done similar work.
She had a conversation with a friend about it. He happened to be a medical doctor, and what he said struck her as powerfully as it did me. In brief: if someone has diabetes, you don’t give them insulin for a month then take them off it. It’s a chronic condition and is treated as such, with regular medication.
Behaviour change is the same way. You cannot “treat” someone with a four-, six-, or eight-week campaign and say job done, behaviour permanently changed. It’s all about the long-term approach. What message are people constantly and consistently seeing? What scaffolding or framework is always there to provide people with the guidance to make the right choices? How do we make the right choices the easy ones?
We need to stop thinking about one-off campaigns. Instead, it’s about crafting a communication strategy that is going to be robust enough for the long haul and flexible enough to reach different segments of the audience—including those who aren’t in the environmental choir. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t cut it.
It’s about thinking beyond election cycles to what you want a community to look like in five years, ten years, twenty years.
It’s about evaluating what’s done so that we can focus on more of what works and less of what doesn’t.
It’s about taking action to be proactive and put a halt to the problem, rather than reacting in a never-ending game of whack-a-mole.
In part, this is what I am trying to do with the Putting Litter First series: share solutions that will work in the long-term. Somehow it’s almost August, so keep an eye out for the latest update, or sign up to have it delivered to your mailbox.