Off the Side Lines

If you regularly read the Off the Ground blog, you’ll know that I’m fond of writing about cognitive biases. The official definition is “systematic patterns of deviation from the norm or rationality in judgment”. Basically, our brains are a bit lazy: they’re looking for shortcuts when it comes to deciding what to do or how to think. Hundreds of these biases have been identified, and we all fall victim to different ones on occasion. 

Like the confirmation bias: this occurs when we ignore evidence that is opposed to our pre-existing beliefs. Instead, we only focus on information that confirms something we already think and disregard the rest. This is quite common when it comes to politics.

One that I’ve mentioned quite recently is the false consensus bias. This is the mistaken belief that everyone thinks and behaves more or less the same way we do, so an anti-litter message that resonates with us (as people who don’t litter) must also resonate with people who do litter. You can see why this causes problems, right?

However, there’s a different cognitive bias I’ve been thinking about lately: the bystander effect. The more people present when an emergency occurs, the less likely any one individual will rush to help. This happens for two reasons. First, when dealing with an unfamiliar or uncertain situation, people look to see how others behave. If no one else is offering aid, then there must not be a need for it. Second, when dealing with a crowd of people, the responsibility each person feels for a situation is far less. I once had the misfortune to see this cognitive bias in action, and, in my experience, it played out just like in the textbooks.

Why have I been pondering this? Because whether it’s litter, plastic pollution, or climate change, we cannot afford to be bystanders when it comes to environmental problems. These are issues that require direct action if we want to have any hope of fixing them. This means that more people must be willing to step up to lead. We cannot sit on the side lines and expect others to do the job for us. We must go beyond clicktivism—signing petitions or sharing on social media—and work towards achieving a common goal.

Imagine if just 50 people each spent two hours a week doing something to develop a proactive, upstream solution to prevent litter. That’s 100 hours a week, or 400 hours a month. That’s the equivalent of one person working a full-time job for 10 weeks! Many hands well and truly make light work.

This work may be drafting messages, contacting people, or chasing up replies. It could be having a quick chat with a local business, school, or supermarket. Or maybe completing an application for grant funding, writing a press release for a local paper, or developing a co-created poster with the Local Youth Network. We all have different skills that can be pressed into service.

Are you ready to act? One project I recently shared on Facebook is a potential Chippenham Repair Café. The initial meeting for this project was originally scheduled for 23 March 2020, which turned out to be the beginning of the first lockdown. In the interim, the other organiser and I have discovered that we have too much on our plate to properly take this on. However, a small committee of dedicated people would be able to bring this waste reduction project to life. Please get in touch if you would like to be involved.

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