Following last month’s “Be. Hive: Climate Change Needs Behavior Change” summit organized by the group, Rare, and National Geographic in Washington, the nonprofit Oceanic Society listed five important takeaways from the conference: Social norms are powerful, Momentum breeds momentum, When it comes to making decisions, identity outweighs information, People favor the status quo – and can adjust to a new one if it shifts; and Individual behaviors add up.
“Across behavioral science research, it’s well understood that social norms play a critical role in shaping individual behavior; people are more likely to do things that they think or see other people are doing,” Lindsay Mosher, the Oceanic Society’s Blue Habits project manager wrote following the March 19 conference.
The full-day summit brought together a diverse set of speakers including renowned climate and behavioral scientists, business leaders, artists, and entertainers — even a magician.
The goal of the conference was to explore how to use human behavior insights to create solutions for climate change.
At the event, Cornell University professor Bob Frank cited the contagion or “neighbor effect,” observed with installations of residential rooftop solar panels across the United States.
Studies have shown that once an individual in a neighborhood installs solar panels on their roof, it significantly increases the likelihood that other neighbors will follow suit.
To further Oceanic Society’s takeaway that momentum breeds momentum, the conference highlighted research that shows that people are willing to change their behavior if they witness new behaviors that indicate a new social norm is forming, even if that means behaving in a way that is out of step with current social norms.
“For example, researchers at Stanford University found in a series of studies that people ate less meat and conserved more water when they were provided with information suggesting that those behaviors were part of a growing societal trend,” Mosher said.
She also noted that presenting facts, statistics, and information – regardless of how compelling – is largely ineffective in spurring long-term behavior change.
“What really works is tapping into the complexity of why people do what they do and understanding the inner workings of how individuals view and respond to the world around them,” Mosher said.
Chris Graves, president of the Olgivy Center for Behavioral Science, shared several examples emphasizing that in order to change behaviors the problem or desired behavior must be presented in a way that’s concrete, tangible, and related.
“We respond to people and situations we can relate to and identify with. If we cannot picture or imagine a scenario in our own lives, we place less value and importance on it,” Graves said.
At the day-long conference, Professor Elke Weber of Princeton University highlighted the tendency to favor the status quo, but also individuals’ ability and quickness to adjust to a new status quo; while Rare’s President and CEO Brett Jenks closed the summit by presenting a simple, 7-step guide for individuals to combat climate change.
“His inspirational message was that if just 10 percent of Americans adopt seven behaviors, the U.S. would still meet our emissions reduction target set by the Paris agreement, even as our government withdraws from the agreement,” Mosher said.
Conference organizers said that over the last 30 years, climate change has emerged as the most pressing threat to species and to life on the planet.
Human behavior lies at the center of this issue, both as the problem and the solution. At the summit, attendees were afforded an opportunity to learn about the latest academic insights from behavior science, receive inspiration from the world’s leading environmentalists, artists, storytellers and explorers, and they were able to identify some of the greatest opportunities for shifting human behavior to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“[The conference was] really hopeful and motivating. Climate change is touching every single one of us so it can’t just be scientists solving this problem. We have to bring in people who know how people work,” said Dr. Kate Marvel, a climate scientist with Columbia University and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.
“What have we learned? We learned that while the challenges are great, solutions are everywhere,” said Lynn Scarlett, Vice President of Policy and Government Affairs for the Nature Conservancy.