Human nature is the biggest challenge in the climate crisis

Idun Aune
Idun Aune
Mar 6, 2020 · 7 min read

In my first article “Moving away from product focused wellbeing” I argued that a user-centric approach is no longer sufficient when facing one of our biggest challenges: the climate crisis. I believe each of us has a responsibility to contribute to the solution, and I will use my design superpower to do so.

I started getting more interested in behavioural design four years ago after attending the design conference UX Copenhagen, about designing for emotions and trust. It led me to start reading up on design psychology, like Susan Weinschenk´s very accessible book “100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People”. This article is an accumulation of insights from bright professionals across the fields of sociology and psychology and explores why truly understanding humans is the key to solving this crisis.

Why a change in behaviour is important: Individual versus systemic change

It is easy to feel small in the face of a global crisis. How can anything I do make a difference in the bigger scheme of things?

Personally, I believe in systemic responsibility when it comes to solving big wicked problems like climate change. We are dependent on global collaboration and governance to reach the big targets, and both governments and companies need to take responsibility. Many companies have made it a mission to shift focus from their own unsustainable businesses to individual responsibility, stating “we give people what they want”. Trend Watcher points out that green pressure in one of the most important consumer trends in 2020 and the days of carefree consumerism is over.

Sami Grover writes about what he calls an eco-hypocrisy, when people start to compete in being most environmentally friendly, and the discussions on the effect of personal lifestyle changes.

“I also fly & use A/C. Living in the world as it is isn’t an argument against working towards a better future.” — US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

We have all experienced the feeling of shame for flying, going on a shopping spree or choosing a less environmentally friendly choice. Grover’s point is that there is no perfect way of sustainable living, and the biggest effect of lifestyle changes is not the reduction of carbon footprint itself, but the ripple effect it creates. It is when we reflect and discuss behaviours can be enforced. And when consumers change behaviours, companies adapt to the new demand. There is really no either or, we need to use our powers as consumers to put pressure on companies, but more importantly, we need to use our powers as professionals helping companies transition.

We all need to change behaviour

Most of you are probably aware of the UN’s 2030 sustainability goals. A lot of companies and governments use them to tie their sustainability efforts to something bigger, which is also how they were intended to be used. A lot of the solutions are focusing on technological and scientific changes and progress. Reading a statement from US climate advisor Gus Speth really opened my eyes. The quote is long, but says so much about what we are truly facing.

“I used to think that top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that thirty years of good science could address these problems. I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a cultural and spiritual transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.” — Climate advisor Gus Speth

We have all the scientific evidence to show what is happening, what the core problems are, and what we need to do in order to mitigate the climate crisis from going beyond the point of no return. The solution does not lie in technology, but in people. However, reaching the current sustainable development goals implies that the modern urban lifestyle will need to reduce consumption by ten times(!!) (Charter & Tischner, 2001). Are people willing to do so? Are you?

There is a difference between attitude and behaviour

If you ask almost anyone about their willingness to change in order to save the planet, they will say they are. In my own context, 83% of Norwegians are either open to, or positive to reducing their overall consumption within the next 5 years. That sounds promising, right?

As designers, we know that asking people what they are willing to do only reveals their attitude or what they perceive to be the “correct answer”. We know, to really catch what people will do we need to track their behaviour. Let’s look at one example. If you look at repairing instead of buying new stuff as an action, 69% in the nordics are positive to repairing, but only 27% have done it more than 5 times. Might sound like a high number, but taking into account all the stuff we own, on average 300,000 items for Americans, (no reason to believe we own much less in the nordics) fixing only five of them is really only the tip of the iceberg. To address the reasons behind this, we need to understand more about how humans behave and why.

Finding incentives for changes in behaviour

Sociology professor Dr. Jeni Cross brilliantly points out myths about change that are keeping us from actually making a difference. The most important is the notion that education will change behaviour. Normally, information campaigns or education efforts speak to the logical part of us, but we know that 95% of the choices we make are done in the subconscious mind largely affected by habits, social norms and cultural context. For education to work, we need it to be personal and tangible, not only appealing to our sensible side but to our core human triggers.

This is also connected to the common misconception that attitude will change behaviour. Actually, you don’t need people to change their attitude about climate change as long as you find a way for them to behave differently. In other words; attitude follows behaviour, not the other way around. This leads to the last myth; that people actually know what motivates them. In fact, Cross points out that people really don’t, and we need to attack the blockers and take advantage of the human triggers and underlying social norms.

Breaking the myths:

  1. Education about climate change will only work if it is personal and interactive
  2. You don’t need people to change their attitude, as long as they behave differently. Attitude follows behaviour.
  3. People don’t know what motivates them, you need to understand the underlying social norms.

Earlier I spoke about the different feelings you might have experienced when talking about climate action, ranging from shame to hopelessness. These feelings are actually part of our own inner defence mechanisms. Per Espen Stoknes, a famous Norwegian psychologist with a PhD in economics, explains how these five inner defences that stop us from acting on the climate crisis.

  1. Distance: “This does not affect me”
  2. Doom: “The problem is too big”
  3. Dissonance: “This makes me feel bad about how i live”
  4. Denial: “I’m sure it’s not that bad”
  5. Cultural identity: “This does not speak to me”

All of these defence mechanisms are meant to help guide and protect us. The problem is when they become limitations for change. By taking advantage of the knowledge we have about human behaviour and flipping the defences to advantages, we can affect the way people act.

A technique we use a lot in design is the creation of “How might we” statements. Using the problem of Distance, and reframing it, the statement might sound like “How might we make the user feel like climate change affects them?”. This opens up a room of possibilities to ideate and investigate different hypotheses around what might make the user feel less distant.

“Open the Pandora’s box known as culture and employ it as the powerful means that has enabled us in so many defining moments of humanity to use our human nature for true progress.” — Hanna Helmke

Circling back to Gus Speth asking for a cultural and spiritual transformation to solve the climate crisis. We see that the selfishness, greed and apathy Speth talks about is actually just manifestations of the inner defences, and we can tackle them using our knowledge of human behaviour.

  1. Make it personal. Make it personally relevant to the users life, and build stories that makes the user emotionally connected to the topic.
  2. Make it achievable. Support the user in the process by giving them achievable intermediate objectives towards a larger goal, and enable change by giving tips and guides.
  3. Make it effortless. Make it hassle free to do, and give incentives to change. Build on default behaviour to make it easier, and motivate and cheer along the way.
  4. Show the effect. Make the user commit to a goal. People find it harder to quit if they do, because people care about keeping promises to others. Visualise the progress to show the effort is paying off.
  5. Match the value set of your users. Make the message come from someone they trust by showing that people they look up to are doing it as well. Play on the ego to make them feel better about themselves.

The bottom line is; humans are social animals, and we care about what others think of us and do. Seeing others act, will increase the likeliness of you acting as well. Instead of hearing how everything will “go south”, getting support on positive and doable efforts and tracking the progress is very important, to feel you are making a difference.

Main references:

A tribute to paradoxes Hanna Helmke

Sustainable Solutions, Charter & Tischner, 2001

Three myths of behavior change, Dr. Jeni Cross

What we think about when we try not to think about global warming, Per Espen Stoknes, 2015

Designing for emotions and trust, Rune Nørager, designpsykologi

The nordic market for circular economy 2019. Attitudes, Behaviours & Business Opportunities. SB Insight

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