A guide for sustainability advocates

Niki Harré

Creating a sustainable world is about getting individuals, organisations and nations to shift their perspectives and practices. What can you do to influence this process? I describe three psychological principles to help sustainability advocates be more effective.

Most discussions about how to change the world focus on the big picture. We have endless debates about what is wrong with “us” as a society and what “they” (usually politicians) should do. In this chapter I’d like to suspend those debates for a while, and talk instead about what you, as a single individual, can do to effectively advocate for a world in which both people and the ecosystems we depend on can flourish. Most of us have many places in which we can begin — our personal lives, our workplaces, as members of political parties or social action groups, as citizens of democratic nations. In this chapter I offer three research-based psychological principles that I hope will strengthen your efforts to create a better world.

Be (mostly) positive

There are several good reasons to be positive. The first is that if you want to effect social change, you will need to bring people with you. You might be able to get your children to do what you want by setting and enforcing rules, but when you are working with other adults, simply stating that it is going to be done your way will not usually work. (Even if you are the boss!) Positive approaches are inspiring, uplifting, engaging, fun, and all those other good things. This means they attract people. Your audience can imagine themselves as happy thriving people, doing what you are doing, and they will want to be part of it.

Second, there is intriguing research, mostly led by Barbara Fredrickson, on how emotions affect our thinking.[1] According to Fredrickson, negative emotions are like signals that something is dangerous and they act to focus our attention on removing the potential threat. Our thoughts narrow as we try to directly and immediately tackle the problem at hand. Positive emotions, on the other hand, are a signal that things are going well. One of the implications of this is that we can afford to look around at what the world has to offer. We might try things we haven’t done before, even take a few risks. Positive emotions are therefore conducive to creativity, expansion, and looking for and seizing opportunities.

Numerous studies have supported Fredrickson’s theory. For example, in one study, people who saw films that made them feel cheerful or serene had more ideas for actions than people who were shown films that made them feel anxious or angry.[2] Another study showed that doctors who were given candy to induce a positive mood were quicker to make a correct medical diagnosis than those who were not given candy.[3] This was primarily because the doctors who were feeling positive thought more openly, and didn’t linger for as long on initial, incorrect ideas as to underlying cause of the patient’s symptoms. Other research has shown that people in a good mood cooperate better with others and that positive emotions encourage people to attend to, rather than avoid, threatening information about their personal habits.[4]

The key message here is that when we are facing an immediate threat in which focused attention and quick decision making is needed, then anger, fear and other negative emotions are useful. But when we are attempting to change the social world before we reach a state of undeniable ecological crisis, then positivity will be much more likely to bring about creative and cooperative solutions. Intriguingly, for good mental health and group functioning, it appears we need a ratio of at least 3:1 positive to negative emotions.[5] This, I suggest, might be a good ratio to aim for in our advocacy.

So, next time you have the opportunity to talk about ecological or social issues, remember that a little anxiety can keep your listener focused, but you should spend much more time talking about solutions. If you are organizing an event or meeting, I suggest you pay careful attention to those little gestures that put people in a good mood. The studies I presented earlier used a variety of means — nice food, music, funny cartoons, even a pleasant smell, to open people up to the issue and each other. (Could the battle be lost because we didn’t feed people well enough? Perhaps.) Ideally, too, it helps if you are cheerful. Emotions are contagious; misery doesn’t just love company, it creates company — uninspired, unproductive company. Think of it like this — striving to be happy isn’t just good for you, it is also good for the cause.

Work with people’s worldviews

For most readers of this book, it will be patently obvious that we can’t go on as we are. Many of us find it baffling that people can deny climate change in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is happening, or that they fail to see how chemical fertilisers are damaging our soils and rivers. Psychological research has provided some clues as to what fuels this resistance and how we can work with it as sustainability advocates.

One of my favourite studies on this was recently conducted by Dan Kahan and his associates in the USA.[6] In the study, participants were given a one-sentence definition of nanotechnology — “the scientific process for producing and manipulating very small particles” — and asked if the benefits outweighed the risks. Sixty-seven percent judged they did. They were then given two paragraphs to read, one describing the benefits and the other the risks of nanotechnology:

The potential benefits of nanotechnology include the use of nanomaterials in products to make them stronger, lighter and more effective. Some examples are food containers that kill bacteria, stain-resistant clothing, high performance sporting goods, faster, smaller computers, and more effective skincare products and sunscreens. Nanotechnology also has the potential to provide new and better ways to treat disease, clean up the environment, enhance national security and provide cheaper energy.

While there has not been conclusive research on the potential risks of nanotechnology, there are concerns that some of the same properties that make nanomaterials useful might make them harmful. It is thought that some nanomaterials may be harmful to humans if they are breathed in and might cause harm to the environment. There are also concerns that invisible, nanotechnology-based monitoring devices could pose a threat to national security and personal privacy.(p. 89)

Now, prior to even mentioning nanotechnology to the participants, the researchers had measured their worldviews. One group was classified as egalitarian/communitarian. This worldview emphasises collective interests, acknowledges the need for regulation and restrictions, embraces social change, is positive about social diversity and believes resources should be distributed equally. Another group was classified as hierarchical/individualist. People who endorse this world view believe that self-regulation and individual negotiation are the most desirable way to distribute resources and that those who are “superior” should have authority over those who are “inferior”.

When the participants had just the one-sentence definition of nanotechnology to go on, their worldview made no difference as to whether they agreed that the benefits outweighed the risks. However, having read about the risks and benefits, this changed dramatically. For the hierarchical/individualist group, agreement that the benefits outweighed the risks shot up to 86% while in the egalitarian/communitarian group, it plummeted to 23%.

Dan Kahan explained this in terms of cultural cognition. Whenever we approach new information, we do so through a cultural lens. From a hierarchical/individualist perspective, technological risk will be managed by the experts in whom they trust and the benefits suggest opportunities for individual advancement. Therefore the benefits of nanotechnology (almost) literally leapt off the page for them, and the risks seemed negligible. For those with the opposing worldview, it was the risks that captured their attention. Their worldview predisposes them to be suspicious of new technologies. They do not trust the current social order and see no value in technology as a means to accumulate private wealth.

Similarly, a study on attitudes to climate change found that the 7% of people who responded to the idea of climate change with “nay saying” by using phrases and terms such as: “environmental hysteria”, “hoax” and “junk science” also tended to be Republican, politically conservative, pro-individualist, pro-hierarchical, distrustful of most organisations and highly religious.[7] On the other hand, the 11% who responded with “alarmist” phrases such as “bad…bad…bad…like after nuclear war…no vegetation”, “end of the world as we know it”, and “death of the planet” held pro-egalitarian worldviews, were anti-individualism and -hierarchism and were politically liberal. They also strongly supported government actions to mitigate climate change.

As with the participants in the nanotechnology study, these differences are probably due to cultural cognition. In particular, at least as presented in the media, almost all climate change mitigation involves regulation of some sort and restrictions on the freedom of business. The concept of climate change is therefore going to be politically congenial to egalitarian liberals, but most uncongenial to conservative individualists. The latter group will have a high threshold for “believing” in it, and will pay close attention to any flickers of hope that it may all be a socialist plot.

Cultural cognition provides a powerful explanation for why some people resist and others embrace evidence that human activity has led to environmental damage. But what are the implications for you, as sustainability advocate? There are three. One is that you need to accept there are certain people you will find very difficult to influence, given who you are and what you have to say. These people will wear you out if you let them; are they really the best target for your attention?

If your answer to the above question is “yes”, research has shown that sometimes people who are resistant to a particular perspective can be influenced by those whom they perceive to be like them. For example, one study showed that people with pro-logging attitudes could be shifted towards conservation, when the message was presented by someone who represented the timber industry.[8] So, the second implication is that if you feel compelled to reach the unconverted, consider drawing on a valuable identity you have in common, perhaps as employees of the same firm, as parents or as citizens of the same nation. The logging study also showed that when a representative of “Friends of the Forest” tried to persuade those who were pro-logging with a conservation message, it was worse than useless, they became even more entrenched in their pro-logging views. So, if you do not share any identities in common with those you are trying to persuade, once again consider if your energy is better used elsewhere. However, if you remain determined to reach them, you could try presenting “factual” information in a consistent, non-emotional style, as sometimes outsiders can have delayed influence when they present information in this way.[9] Delayed influence is when the people targeted reflect on the message retrospectively, and change their minds a little. But this is hard and patient work, involving persistence in the face of apparent rejection.

Third, there are many people you will be able to influence, and you should look out for them. Which of your co-workers is green-leaning? How could you work together to design a policy for social responsible procurement? Which politicians are on your side? How can you give them the feeling of affirmation they need to continue? Are there other parents at your children’s school who would like better cycling facilities? Could you fund-raise for these and then work with sympathetic teachers to get children biking to school? I firmly believe that if we could mobilise our allies, the world would rapidly change and the resisters would simply be swept aside in the mass movement.

Utilise people’s tendency to imitate others

If you were to force me to give one reason why we continue to replicate our unsustainable way of life over and over each day, I would say it is because we are caught in an imitation-cycle. It works like this: I see you driving your car, buying takeaway coffee, taking plane trips and watching a large television and get the message that is what people do. I then also drive my car, buy takeaway coffee and so on, playing my own part in spreading the message. For any one of us to be different takes careful analysis, social courage, and usually the willingness to endure inconvenience.

The reason imitation keeps it all going is that imitation is probably the primary way in which people learn. In a fascinating article called Learning a culture the way informants do: Observing, imitating and participating, the anthropologist Alan Fiske describes how inept people of all cultures are at teaching their way of life through explanation.[10] As an example, he discusses how stumped Americans (or New Zealanders for that matter) would be if asked why we celebrate people’s birthdays with cakes and candles that are blown out by the person whose birthday it is. We cannot clearly articulate why we do so, and our children certainly don’t learn this tradition because of explicit instruction on our part. We bake cakes and put candles on them because we witnessed it being done as we grew up and we copied what we had witnessed, as our children will do after us. For most of us it simply feels like the right thing to do.

Numerous psychological studies have shown how readily people imitate others, often without conscious awareness they are doing so. For example, one study showed how babies less than three days old were able to imitate an adult’s facial gestures.[11] Another found that when people were interviewed by someone who rubbed her face or shook her foot, they tended to mimic these activities.[12] Research has also shown that people find it easier to copy a model than to follow written instructions to carry out a target behaviour, especially when they are getting conflicting instructions from the two sources.[13] This may well have something to do with mirror neurons, specialized brain cells that fire both when we are carrying out a particular action and when we are observing the action.[14] It could be that these neurons put us in a state of readiness to perform the actions we are witnessing.

Intriguingly, we don’t even need to directly witness a behaviour in order to figure out what is the normal behaviour in a particular setting and feel compelled to do the same. In one experiment, Bob Cialdini, a social psychologist, observed the littering behaviour of people in two different environments, one in which there was a lot of litter lying around and one in which there was none.[15] A handbill was placed on the windscreen of their car — an object most people want to get rid of as quickly as possible. In the highly-littered environment, 32% of people dropped their handbill on the ground; in the clean environment only 14% did so. Incidentally, the number who littered in the highly-littered environment was substantially increased by adding a model who also littered. In that situation, 54% did so.

If direct and indirect imitation are part of the problem, for us as sustainability advocates they also hint at solutions. The most obvious solution and one that we can all engage in, is to display and leave clues indicating that sustainable behaviour is normal, whenever possible. A recent Canadian study found that 36% of restaurant diners who observed the people before them using a compost bin and discussing with each other their decision to do so then composted themselves, but only 22% of those not exposed to models did so.[16] What this means is that acts such as riding your bike, taking a reusable coffee cup to your local café, wearing Fair Trade shoes and so on, are not just personal acts, they are social acts; they will help send the message to people that these are viable choices. If you are able to affect organisational practices, you have even more ability to spread the message that sustainable actions are normal. How about locating bike racks in front of the building so everyone absorbs the message that biking is the way to get around? When you send out invitations to events, think about highlighting the availability of cycle racks and public transport options, and mentioning car parking last in the list. I cringe when I see notices for sustainability related events in which instructions for car parking are the first, and often only, transport option mentioned.

One particularly fun idea is to make a film of your family, organisation or community as you would hope to be in the future. This comes from Peter Dowrick’s theory of self-modelling.[17] Research on self-modelling has provided compelling evidence that people not only copy others, they also copy themselves, and sometimes change their behaviour if they see themselves in a different light. For example, several children who were selectively mute at school, were shown films of themselves in which, due to the editing of the film, they appeared to talk at school.[18] Having viewed the film, the children were no longer mute. Imagine getting together with your colleagues or members of your community group and making a film in which you are living in an ecologically and socially vibrant 2050? Ideally the project would include collectively working out exactly how you’d like your community to be, and then involving multiple people in piecing together and starring in a film showing this reality.[19] The film can then be shown internally, posted on the Internet and become a magnet for your organization, pulling you towards such a future.


When I encourage people to focus on what they can do, given who they are and the opportunities provided by their various social locations, they sometimes ask me: “But is it enough? Will it save us?” My answer to that is I don’t know. But I do know it is all each of us has. I hope that if enough of us do what we can, and concentrate on bringing others along with us, we will slowly shift the social direction towards one that is better for us and the ecosystems around us. I also know that if we concentrate on those who are likely to be allies, maintain a positive focus and openly live the behaviours we believe to be sustainable, we will be enriched by the process at the same time. None of us has “the answer” to the sustainability “problem”, but the more of us who work in good faith towards a sustainable world, the more likely I suspect it is we’ll create one.


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  2. Fredrickson, B. L. and C. Branigan (2005). “Positive emotions broaden the scope of attention and thought-action repertoires.” Cognition and Emotion 19(3): 313-332.
  3. Estrada, C. A., A. M. Isen, et al. (1997). “Positive affect facilitates integration of information and decreases anchoring in reasoning among physicians.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 72(1): 117-135.
  4. Baron, R. A. (1990). “Environmentally induced positive affect: Its impact on self-efficacy, task performance, negotiation, and conflict.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology 20: 368-384.
    Reed, M. B. and L. G. Aspinwall (1998). “Self-affirmation reduces biased processing of health-risk information.” Motivation and Emotion 22: 99-132.
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  6. Kahan, D. M., D. Braman, et al. (2009). “Cultural cognition of the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.” Nature Nanotechnology 4: 87-90.
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  9. Martin, R., M. Hewstone, et al. (2008). Persuasion from majority and minority groups. Attitudes and Attitude Change. W. D. Crano and R. Prislin. New York, Psychology Press: 361-384.
  10. Fiske, A. P. (In preparation) Learning a culture the way informants do: Observing, imitating and participating.
  11. Meltzoff, A. N. and M. K. Moore (1983). “Newborn infants imitate adult facial gestures.” Child Development 54: 702-709.
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  13. Brass, M., H. Bekkering, et al. (2000). “Compatibility between Observed and Executed Finger Movements: Comparing Symbolic, Spatial, and Imitative Cues” Brain and Cognition 44: 124-143.
  14. Iacoboni, M. (2009). “Imitation, Empathy, and Mirror Neurons.” Annual Review of Psychology 60: 653-670.
  15. Cialdini, R. B. (2003). “Crafting normative messages to protect the environment.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 12(4): 105-109.
  16. Sussman, R. and R. Gifford (Manuscript only). “Effectiveness of prompts and models on food composting by restaurant patrons.”
  17. Dowrick, P. W. (1999). “A review of self modeling and related interventions.” Applied and Preventive Psychology 8: 23-39.
  18. Kehle, T. J. and M. A. Bray (2009). “Self-Modeling”. Behavioral Interventions in Schools: Evidence-Based Positive Strategies. A. Akin-Little, S. G. Little, M. A. Bray and T. J. Kehle. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association: 231-244.
  19. This has parallels to “backcasting” which is advocated by The Natural Step. Backcasting is when a group decides on the desired future and extracts the key principles that underlie it. These principles then underlie decision making. It is contrasted with the more common forecasting which assumes that current — and often destructive — trends will continue. See Holmberg, J. and K.H. Robèrt (2000). “Backcasting from non-overlapping sustainability principles — a framework for strategic planning.” International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology 7: 291-308.