Welcome to the April 2009 Wake-Up Call, Awake’s monthly newsletter for research and news about behaviour change for sustainability.


To view this newsletter as a webpage, click here


In this edition of Wake-up Call…


·          Feature Article – Consciousness and Competence

·          Upcoming Workshops – Cultivating Sustainability in Australia

·          60 seconds with… Lisa from Macro Wholefoods

·          Interesting Article of the Month – Why Isn’t The Brain Green?

·          Exercise of the Month – Becoming More Competent


Feature Article – Consciousness & Competence


Is there a skill involved in living sustainably?  If we decide that that answer is “yes”, then it might be useful to consider ways in which that skill is developed.  One valuable model for examining skill development is known as “The Four Stages of Competence” (although is referred to by other names also.  See Wikipedia for some background).  The model illustrates that learning a new skill can involve 4 distinct stages of consciousness and competence, as follows

1.       Unconscious Incompetence – where we don’t know what we don’t know.  We are either not aware that we lack a certain skill, or we are deluded about our lack of skill

2.       Conscious Incompetence – where we are aware that we lack a skill.  This is where we know that we are incompetent at something.  This can be a bit frustrating and disillusioning, but is also the first stepping stone to learning a skill, as it contains an acknowledgement that we need to improve.

3.       Conscious Competence – where we have a skill, but we have to concentrate to perform it effectively.  At this level,  we have developed the ability to perform a task, but it takes a lot of our mental resources in order to do it well. 

4.       Unconscious Competence – where we can do it without thinking.  This is where we have integrated a skill so well that we do not have to dedicate many of our mental resources to performing it.  We talk about it coming naturally, being instinctual or “like riding a bike”. 


How can we apply this model to educating people to act more sustainably?  Firstly, it should be acknowledged that “incompetence” is probably not a constructive label for behaviour which we would like to influence.  There is a good chance that people will react badly if we label their transport choices, water use, or recycling behaviour as “incompetent”.  However, in the interests of examining the model, we will stick with the original labels, while acknowledging their limitations. 


Although the Four Stages model is usually applied to conventional skill development, it also makes sense when we apply it to behaviour related to sustainability.  For instance, in relation to recycling behaviour, we see the following levels


1.       Unconscious Incompetence – We don’t know that things can be recycled, and continue to throw paper, glass, plastics etc in the general waste bin. 

2.       Conscious Incompetence – We have found out that there are a lot of things which we are throwing in the waste bin which could be recycled.  But we are choosing not to bother, or perhaps are not sure which things are able to be recycled.  Maybe we are feeling a bit rebellious about it, or guilty, but our behaviour has not changed. 

3.       Conscious Competence – We are now taking care to recycle as much as we can remember.  Every time we go to put something in the waste bin, a voice inside our heads reminds us to check if it can be recycled.    It is taking a bit of effort, but we are doing an OK job.

4.       Unconscious Competence – Recycling is now our default behaviour.  We automatically choose recyclable products, and our first instinct is to use the recycling bin, rather than the waste bin – which is only there as a last resort .


Knowing that these different levels exist can be useful for any educators, including those who are trying to influence behaviour related to sustainability.  If we can identify at which level our target audience is currently operating, we can more effectively choose an intervention. 


Moving from Level 1 to Level 2 can be achieved by simple awareness raising.  Recognising that there is something different we could be doing is an important step in behaviour change.  If we don’t know it’s broke, we can’t fix it.  Role modelling can also assist at this point.  When people see something being done differently, they often relate it to their own behaviour and recognise the gap.


The step from Level 2 to Level 3 involves skill development or attitude change.  This can range from water saving tips around the home or education in composting skills, through to providing incentives and outlining the benefits of acting sustainably. 


Lastly, moving from Level 3 to Level 4 requires the formation of habits.  While some habits are undesirable from a sustainability point of view, they can also work in our favour.  When something becomes habitual, we no longer have to invest many mental resources in it, and we are likely to be consistent in our behaviour. We can support the formation of habits by providing stable, consistent conditions for that behaviour to be performed (eg. a regular recycling service, reliable public transport)  (Habits are discussed in more detail in a previous Wake-Up Call).


If more people can be supported to increase their “competence” around sustainability, to the point where it is no longer a difficult choice, but rather a natural way of living, then we can not only invest our time and resources in the next group of people to influence, but we also have a new set of allies and role models at our side.




You can, as long as you include this complete blurb with it:


Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info




Upcoming Workshops – Cultivating Sustainability in Australia


Cultivating Sustainability workshops have been scheduled for the following Australian locations and dates.


·          Adelaide, Tue May 12th

·          Hobart, Tue June 2nd (note change of date)

·          Brisbane, Tue June 14th (note change of date)



These are public workshops with all welcome to attend.  


Cost:       For-profits $250pp

               Not-for-profit/Government $200pp

               Individuals/Community Groups $120pp



More information, including online registration details, can be found at



Cultivating Sustainability is a 1-day workshop which provides sustainability advocates with insights, models and practical tools to support their behaviour change efforts.  Anybody who has taken on the challenge of influencing others to live and work more sustainably will find this workshop a valuable addition to their skills.



In-house Workshops

Space has been left in the schedule for groups requesting an inhouse workshop in any of the locations above, which is a great option if you have a number of people wishing to attend.   If you are part of an organisation, green team, or community network that would benefit from an in-house workshop, contact timc@awake.com.au to discuss.  



For more information about the Cultivating Sustainability workshop, see www.awake.com.au/cultivating.html



60 Seconds with… Lisa from Macro Wholefoods


What first got you focused on sustainability?


Nothing specific, but I have been vegetarian since the age of 13.   I didn’t like the idea of eating animals.


What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?


Buying locally and organically.  I don’t have a garden to grow my own vege’s, but I make sure I don’t waste anything.


What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?


Long showers.  I try to be mindful of it, but it doesn’t always work.


Interesting Article of the Month   Why Isn’t The Brain Green?”



Why Isn’t The Brain Green?

By Jon Gertner

New York Times Apr 16 2009


What is it about? 

This article looks at the growing body of research into our decision-making processes when we are considering green choices. 


What did they find?

In a fairly wide-ranging discussion, one of the most interesting points concerns the difference between individual decision-making and group decision-making.  When asked to make a decision with regard to environmental matters, groups are more likely to undertake more inclusive deliberations, and come up with more long-term decisions, compared to decisions which are made as individuals.


What can we take from this?

The finding above demonstrates the importance of engaging groups when long-term decisions are being made about natural resources and sustainability.  By connecting people to others and fostering a sense of community, research such as this indicates that we are more likely to think like a community and engage the pro-social values which are critical to rising above the short-term self-interest which drives much unsustainable behaviour. 



Exercise of the Month – Becoming More Competent


This months exercise is an opportunity to explore the consciousness and competence model in the feature article above, to get a sense for where our own skill level lies on various aspects of living sustainably. 


1.       What is one aspect of living sustainably where you are Unconsciously Competent? A pro-environment behaviour or skill which you undertake without even thinking about it.

2.       What is one aspect of living sustainably where you are Consciously Competent?   A pro-environment behaviour or skill which you undertake which requires a lot of thought, perhaps something that you need to constantly remind yourself about.

3.       What is one aspect of living sustainably where you are Consciously Incompetent?   A behaviour or skill which undertake which you know is not great for the environment.

4.       What is one aspect of living sustainably where you have been Unconsciously Incompetent?   This category is slightly different, because you may not be aware of current areas of unconscious incompetence (otherwise it would not be called “unconscious”!).  Instead, think about one behaviour which you recently discovered was not environmentally friendly.


Once you have recognised your behaviours at each of these levels, you can then consider what it would take to move them further up the scale towards unconscious competence, so that living sustainably becomes an automatic choice.


The exercise of the month provides a tool to help you get engaged, inspired, aware and in action around sustainability.  Feel free to use it on your own, with a friend, or in your work.  If you do use it with others, please tell them where you got it!



About Awake

Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit www.awake.com.au for more info



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