Motivating Sustainable Behaviour

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More people than ever before are conscious of what is meant by ‘sustainable behaviour’ – recycling, being energy efficient, saving water, using public transport, buying local.

Even so, we seem to be encountering a lot of this when it comes to actually getting people to engage in these behaviours at the individual level, and particularly in relation to system-level change nationally and globally:


n. The tendency to think or act irrationally in certain situations, despite having sufficient intelligence.
dysrational adj. 

Along with many other people, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to bring about behaviour change, and looking to psychology, neuroscience and studies on motivation and values for insights.

Here’s a few learnings that could help your work.

5 Things Change Agents Should Know About People

In terms of ‘why won’t people do x?’ (usually accompanied by a few #@&%*s!) here are five things change agents need to remember about the psychology of people when designing programs and messages.

1. People don’t always do what you want them to do, even when they have clear information

seagull perched on a sign featuring a pic of a seagull with a red line through it

Even when you’ve made the signals obvious, people make decisions unconsciously, as being on ‘autopilot’ stops us from having to make an unmanageable number of decisions a day.

Neuroscientists have estimated that our five senses receive 11 million pieces of information every second with our conscious brain only processing around 50 pieces. The rest is being assessed automatically by the unconscious brain.

2. People will do what is easiest, most convenient and time saving

…even if they know it’s not the ‘right’ thing.

car being driven along with owner holding leash of dog trotting alongside the car

3. People will resist change when it conflicts with their most deeply held values

Sesame Street's Cookie Monster sitting at his computer exclaiming 'Delete Cookies?!' in horror

This is called cognitive dissonance, a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas, beliefs, values, or emotional reactions simultaneously. If something conflicts with an existing belief or value, people will be more likely to move out of the discomfort by rejecting the new information or request than changing their belief or value.

4. People will resist change until the pain of not changing is greater than the effort involved in changing

cartoon of the Capitol, with water from sea level rise lapping at the upper dome, and cartoon caption 'the special committee to investigate climate change hysteria will now come to order'

It literally takes more energy and effort to change habits; how many of you go to the same places for lunch each week?

5. People will respond more positively if they know you’re making the effort to understand their perspective

cartoon of king on a balcony, talking town to his people with the caption 'try to see things from my point of view'

If people feel they’ve been heard, they’ll be more likely to hear what you have to say. Cultivate being a good listener, before asking something of them.

What Kind of Change?

To bring about change, it helps to recognise whether you are dealing with a technical problem or an adaptive challenge.

Technical Problems

Technical problems are those for which we already have answers, necessary know-how and procedures.

Darth Vader attempting to fit a new fluorescent tube into his light sabre

Heart surgery is a technical, or tame problem, because although it is complicated it has clearly defined processes and a knowledge base.

Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. It is an adaptive situation when the solution is unknown, and diverse participants have to work together to create a new approach.

camel driver leading camel with solar panels mounted on its hump through the desert

Climate change is an adaptive challenge, or wicked problem, because the problem is complex rather than complicated; because what appear to be simple solutions can trigger unintended consequences; and because there is no single, known process or easy answer.

A situation can also straddle the two and be technical-adaptive, where although the solution is known and the processes exist, new learning is required. Recycling falls into this category.

Understanding whether your challenge is adaptive or technical can help you choose the right tools and approaches.

Treating adaptive problems as technical challenges is a leadership failure.

For more on distinguishing technical from adaptive challenges, see Harvard University’s Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky’s book ‘Leadership on the Line’, or flick through this presentation (long, but comprehensive overview of the book).

Which Brain?

Which brain are you dealing with in a given situation?

conceptual image of three layered brain - reptilian at the core, limbic overlaying the core, and neocortex enclosing the first two as the most recent brain layer

The triune brain model is a theory developed by neuroscientist Paul MacLean in the 1960s to explain how the human brain has evolved – we don’t have one brain but three. These are all layered on top of each other, and were developed during different stages of evolution. We all use all three of our brains, depending on context.

The Reptilian Brain

Wile E Coyote in pursuit of the Road Runner

The reptilian brain is the oldest, most primitive part of the brain, and is primarily concerned with instinctual behaviour and survival – it is constantly scanning the environment for threats and benefits. It is also in charge of automatic functions such as heartbeat, breathing and regulating body temperature – in other words, it repeats the same behaviours over and over again.

The Mammalian (Limbic) Brain

Pepe Le Pew and his kitten love

The mammalian or limbic brain is the primary seat of emotions, memories and attention; it is where positive or negative feelings arise, and is involved in emotional bonding between parent and child. MacLean proposed that rather than the rational brain, it is this emotional brain which is responsible for perceptions of what is true, and the biological basis for the tendency of thinking to be subordinate feeling ie. to rationalise desires.

The Neocortex

Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny, often engaged in battles of wits

The neocortex is the logical/rational part of the brain that gives us higher cognitive functions, such the ability for language and abstract thought. It reasons, plans, worries, invents.

Although we have three brains in the same skull, and they are connected, each brain does not communicate well with the others, and often the ‘unconscious’ brains are dominating the conscious mind without us realising it.

A useful metaphor for understanding the triune brain is the elephant and rider:

elephant with rider atop - elephant represents our subconscious minds, the rider our conscious brain

We think the rider, or the conscious mind, is directing traffic, but we’re unaware of the power and intent of the unconscious brains.

Knowing which brain you’re dealing with can help inform how you approach someone, or frame an issue – if you’re making what you think is a reasonable, rational request, being aware that you may be encountering a reptilian or limbic brain response, and understanding what’s driving that can help you to be more successful in your work.

This theory has application from the level of personal interaction right up to the global level.

Conservation biologist Paul Ehrlich, who authored The Population Bomb in the late 1960s, recently formed the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere (MAHB – originally the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior) at Stanford University in the US.

screenshot of MAHB web site

This is a social and cultural counterpart to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which was a comprehensive scientific study of the state of the Earth’s physical systems. MAHB is researching why it is that despite overwhelming scientific evidence, we can’t get any rational response to tackling serious, global system issues like species extinction and climate change.

What Motivation?

What kinds of motivational approaches are you using?

Extrinsic motivators – punishment, threat, reward – can work, but behaviour is less likely to be sustained once these are removed.

cartoon of carrot and stick - carrot thinking 'psycho' about stick; stick thinking 'wimp' about carrot

Intrinsic motivation leverages our values which are directly tied to our emotions, and which underpin our attitudes to almost everything we encounter.

In his excellent TED presentation ‘The Surprising Science of Motivation’ (18 mins), career analyst Dan Pink talks about how people are intrinsically motivated by:

  • autonomy – the desire to have control over their lives;
  • mastery – the desire to get better and better at something that matters; and
  • purpose – the yearning to do what they do in the service of something larger than themselves.

Which Values?

Which values are you appealing to?

In a previous post about Values, Campaigns and Change, I highlighted the work being undertaken in the UK, where three decades of extensive values research has enabled creation of Values Modes, a nationally representative database and mapping system.

Developed by recording people’s responses to questions in accordance with grouped values, it reveals what values motivate different groups of people with respect to sustainability, and how communication needs to be adapted so that it resonates with each group. It’s like a Myers-Briggs for sustainability.

screenshot from Campaign Strategy Values Planner showing distribution of values into typologies

Click on image for higher res version

There are of course overlaps, as people tend not to fall exactly inside the lines of such typographies, and all of us have some of each type within us. However in summary the three main segments are:

Prospectors – outer-driven, esteem-seeking, success-oriented people; communicate with Prospectors in ways that enhance self-esteem and status.

conceptual drawing of what appeals to prospector values - red car, money, sunglasses

Pioneers – inner-driven, oriented toward self-actualisation, ethical living, global issues; communicate with Pioneers in ways which involve self-fulfilment, ideas, innovation or ethics.

conceptual image of diverse group of people (age, race, gender) and what some pioneer values are - knowledge, value, people-focused

The environment/sustainability movement has made the mistake of designing communication approaches that speak to everyone as if they were Pioneers.

Settlers – primarily sustenance driven; communicate with Settlers in ways that enhance safety, security, identity or belonging.

conceptual drawing of castle, house and some 'Settler' values, security, family, thrift

If you can better understand a person’s values, then you will be able to understand more about why they do what they do, and better placed to influence them – not in the sense of being manipulative or controlling, but by framing the issue so that making a choice or behaviour feels natural for them.

Campaign Strategy has compiled this useful resource for communicating with the three top level Values Modes – ‘Some Guidelines for Communicating with Settlers, Prospectors and Pioneers’ (pdf).

How People Learn

Peer to Peer

While instruction and abstract thought is one way to learn, the main way we’ve evolved through millennia is to learn by doing, from each other.

What happened when a Nintendo DS was accidentally dropped into the gorilla enclosure of a zoo…

a nintendo DS game was dropped into the gorilla exhibit at the zoo - here the parent gorilla plays with the DS while baby looks on intently

Through Story

Storytelling is a method of persuasion, and works almost like the process of hypnosis. People tend to suspend rational thought when they’re thoroughly engrossed in reading or hearing a story, allowing engagement to occur in layers of the brain beyond the neocortex.

black and white stylised cartoon, silhouette of storyteller holding an audience captive

Listeners are still fully conscious, but their mind is operating at a different level as they actively visualise the situation, generating images to accompany the words they are reading/hearing, which creates emotions.

Inspiration Rather Than Instruction

Develop your own interpersonal and communication skills – to move people, is it more effective to rationalise and instruct, or to inspire and involve people, and give them a sense of agency over their situation?

Martin Luther King appealed to people with ‘I have a dream’ – not ‘ I have a plan’.


Martin Luther King Jr acknowledges a large crowd on the day he delivered his 'I Have A Dream' speech in Washington

Key Questions for Motivating Sustainable Behaviour

  • What kind of challenge? Are you trying to solve an adaptive challenge with a technical approach? Is the problem within the known realm of how to solve it, or is it a ‘wicked’ problem?
  • Which brain are you interacting with? People are not always rational or logical, and behaviour does not follow information, instruction or reasoning.
  • Which ‘world’ are you speaking to? Understand the different types of people and their values.
  • What kinds of motivators are you employing? Foster intrinsic motivation wherever possible, and be mindful that people are intrinsically motivated by autonomy, mastery, and purpose – or more poetically:

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Poet, Aviator, Writer

yacht in open ocean, spray over the bow, under full sail, perspective of person standing on deck

And if you still find yourself dealing with the frustrations you feel when people just don’t get it…

statue of Superman, hands on hips, with president Obama standing in front of it, shirt sleeves rolled up and hands on hips, appearing to resemble the Man of Steel

…remember that even the most powerful people in the world are in the same boat as you!

president obama appearing to explain something with cartoon-like caption: 'why do I constantly feel like I'm explaining shit to you people?'

Which motivation techniques have you tried in your work? What worked, what didn’t, and  what do you think were the reasons for their success or failure?

What other areas of people’s lives reflect the Elephant and Rider metaphor?

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A note on images – its almost impossible to find the original source for many of these images; all have been used in a spirit of illustrating an idea. Please contact the author if you are the owner of any of these images and would like an image credit.



  1. Terrific post, and I am delighted to continue learning from you! Do you have attribution for “People will respond more positively if they know you’re making the effort to understand their perspective”? This is, without doubt, true in practice, but I would love to have research to support the assertion.

    • Hi Thaler, thanks for reading and for your supportive words! I don’t have a reference for that sentence as such – anything without one is anecdotal, my opinion or an observation I’ve made through my own experience, which is that if people feel heard/understood, whatever the context, it is more likely that there will be a positive exchange than if not. I started this blog to share my own experience/learnings to help better equip other laypeople like myself with approaches and tools that can help them in their work. If there is any research out there (and I do keep an eye on psych blogs/sites), it would be great to hear about it!

  2. Nice overview on human behavior Sharon.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    Thanks for the post. After being in the ‘sustainability’ business for more than a decade I must say that I think the ‘green’ building movement has failed at it’s most important mission: changing people’s behavoir. It isn’t enough to install gadgets so we use less energy or less water. We needed to change our consumption behavoir. It was an uphill battle to begin with – fighting against a consumer driven economy, and I’m afraid now it’s too late. I really like the elephant and the driver metaphor. Thanks – Jb


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