Wake-Up Call
February 2008
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Welcome to Wake-up Call, Awakeís monthly newsletter for research, news and views about behaviour change for sustainability.

In this edition of Wake-up Call…


Feature Article - The Gap Between Believing and Doing
60 seconds with… David from Flinders Organics
Research Finding of the Month - To Walk or Not to Walk
Exercise of the Month - Where am I out of Alignment?
Awake at the Sustainable Living Festival 2008
Report from the Cultivating Sustainability Pilot Workshop

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Feature Article - The Gap Between Believing and Doing

When it comes to sustainable behaviours, have you ever felt like a hypocrite? Like youíre not walking the talk?

Chances are, the psychological term for the feeling you are experiencing is Cognitive Dissonance. It is probably not a pleasant feeling, but it is very handy for telling us we are out of alignment with ourselves, and a potent catalyst for change.

Cognitive dissonance describes conflicting thoughts or beliefs that occur at the same time, or when engaged in behaviors that conflict with one's beliefs. The term was first coined in 1957 by Leon Festinger, while studying the behaviour of a UFO doomsday cult, specifically their reaction to the world not ending on the day they predicted. To alleviate the discomfort of misalignment between their belief and their actual experience, the group decided that they had been spared by the aliens because of their unwavering faith!


Cognitive dissonance has relevance to sustainability because it is one area where we often observe that peoples actions and their beliefs are not in alignment. The proportion of people who describe themselves as being concerned for the future of the planet far outweighs the number of people who are actually behaving that way. So how do we explain this inconsistency? How are we functioning, without being weighed down by a crippling sense of hypocrisy?

When we experience a sense of cognitive dissonance, we have 4 options. They are outlined below, along with the example of a common dissonance-arousing situation, a person who considers themselves "green  who travels regularly by plane.
  1. Ignore it - just push it to the back of your mind
  2. Rationalise it - "my need for a holiday is important for my wellbeing, and besides, I buy carbon offsets"
  3. Change your belief - "maybe I am not so green after all"
  4. Change your behaviour - "I will find another place to holiday that is easier on the environment 
As sustainability advocates, our job is to try to get people to choose option 4 on as many occasions as we can, while still being compassionate and recognising that we canít all be perfect all of the time.

Limited research has been applied to question of which strategy people are using to cope with their dissonance around sustainability, but it would be safe to say many are choosing to rationalise. For instance, claiming that the incentives, facilities and availability of green options are not adequate to meet their needs. We can also bet that there is a fair bit of ignoring going on too.
Another thing which may explain the apparent ease with which we are acting hypocritically could be that fact that, in order to experience dissonance, we first need to recognise our own inconsistency. If we are not in touch with our values and beliefs, we do not know we are out of alignment with them. Therein lies an opportunity for behaviour change. If we can somehow raise peoples awareness of what is important to them, then contrast that with their behaviour, we can induce a sense of cognitive dissonance. It is then a matter of making option 4 (behaviour change) an attractive option at that very moment we are most acutely aware of our inconsistency.

In fact, this approach has been used before in an environmental setting.
A 1992 study evaluated the effectiveness of efforts to reduce shower time in a campus gym. In short, water-wasting students were given feedback on their wasteful ways, then asked to personally endorse a water saving campaign. This created a situation of hypocrisy - "I am publicly endorsing water saving, yet am a water waster myself  - which subsequently resulted in significantly reduced shower times. The interesting thing to note is that those who only received feedback on their waste, but were not asked to sign the pledge, showed no change in their behaviour. Neither did those who only signed the pledge, with no feedback. Therefore, just giving people feedback is not enough to stimulate the necessary dissonance to create behaviour change. It would appear that there also needs to be a contrast with a stated position.

An earlier study in Western Australia surveyed householders on their attitudes to energy conservation, then contrasted this with their electricity use. Those who were informed of an inconsistency between their espoused duty to conserve and their actual behaviour were more likely to make subsequent cuts in energy use, compared to those who just received feedback on their high energy use.

Both studies above have implications for the use of DIY carbon calculators and other forms of self-auditing - these measures alone may not be sufficient to stimulate behaviour change.

So, how do we harness this apparent powerful psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance to create behaviour change for sustainability? The research methodologies above would appear to have practical application as they stand. The key steps appear to be:
  1. Get people to connect to their beliefs, attitudes or values around sustainability issues, either privately or publicly
  2. Contrast this with their behaviour
  3. Provide opportunity for them to be supported, prompted or incentivised to choose behaviour change as their preferred method to ease the discomfort of the resulting dissonance
By harnessing cognitive dissonance as a strategy for changing behaviour, we may not only ease the suffering of the planet, but also ease the unnecessary discomfort caused by our own hypocrisy. A win-win outcome!
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60 Seconds with… David from Flinders Organics
Flinders Organics, 260 Flinders St, Melbourne

What first got you focused on sustainability?
When I moved to Australia from the US, and became much more aware of the effects of environmental issues, via the drought etc.

What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?
Shunning plastic bags, choosing green power, and washing clothes with cold water.

What is a less sustainable choice that you are not so proud of?
I usually use public transport, but I do have an old car which I drive a bit. Itís been reported for blowing white smoke once already, which is pretty bad I guess.

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Research Finding of the Month - To Walk or Not To Walk

Where?
Mariela A. Alfonzo (2005) To Walk or Not to Walk? The Hierarchy of Walking Needs , Environment and Behavior, Vol. 37, No. 6, 808-836

What is it about?
The author reviews research into barriers and motivations for walking in order to identify a "hierarchy of needs  in relation to walking, where certain factors need to be satisfied before a person gives further consideration to walking.

What did they find?
The author identifed 5 levels of need. Feasibility refers to the actual possibility of walking (eg. is the distance practical?). If so, then the next layer of need is Accessibility. Then comes Safety, followed by Comfort. Pleasureability is the final, highest order criteria considered before a decision to walk is made. If a lower order criteria is not satisfied, then the individual will not consider higher order factors. For instance, if a potential walker feels that it is unsafe to walk, then s/he will not even consider the pleasureability of the journey.

What can we take from this?
Walking is one activity which has great potential for lightening our eco-footprint, as well as alleviating many other social, infrastructure and health challenges. By understanding this hierarchy of needs, planners can more effectively target initiatives which will encourage people to undertake journeys on foot. For example, if it is revealed that people feel unsafe walking, then any effort spent on making walking more comfortable and pleasurable will be wasted until safety issues have been handled. This study also raises a few questions to ponder. What is the hierarchy of needs for other pro-environmental behaviours? What about behaviours we wish to discourage? Could we use this knowledge to discourage environmentally damaging behaviours by disrupting the degree to which their lower level needs are met?
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Exercise of the Month - Where am I out of Alignment?
  1. In relation to your commitment to sustainability, complete the following sentence "I am….  (eg. "I am a greenie", "I am committed to lightening my footprint")
  2. What is one behaviour you regularly undertake which contradicts that?
  3. How do you explain that contradiction?What would it take for you to change your behaviour in order to relieve that feeling of misalignment?
We often ignore, rationalise and make exceptions for our hypocritical behaviour. In fact, this is a valuable way to cope with lifes uncertainties and competing priorities. But sometimes it is useful to take the time to consider, "what would it take for me to make the change?"

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!
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Awake at the Sustainable Living Festival 2008

A packed house in the "Feel Tent  at the 2008 SLF heard Tim Cotter provide an overview of the Psychology of Sustainability, and run a brief values exercise to get people thinking about their behaviour towards the planet. At 4pm on a Sunday afternoon with the mercury in the mid 30ís, this was an outstanding effort by all concerned.
Congratulations to the SLF team for putting on such a fantastic event, this festival is truly an annual highlight on the Melbourne calendar.


If you have a captive audience who you think would be interested in hearing a talk and/or mini-workshop on the psychology behind sustainable behaviour, let us know.
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Report from the Cultivating Sustainability Pilot Workshop

A highly successful pilot workshop was recently conducted, where 14 intrepid sustainability advocates came together to digest and discuss theories and tools for promoting environmentally sustainable behaviour. A constructive, robust debrief was held in order to solicit the input of these sustainability experts as to changes, additions and deletions which will make the workshop even more practical, fun and valuable.

It was particularly pleasing to have the views of a diverse range of participants, including local councils, state government, corporates, consultancies and industry groups. Thanks to all those who participated.

Watch this space for confirmation of future Cultivating Sustainability workshops. For more information on the workshop,
click here

To register your interest in a future workshop, email timc@awake.com.au
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©Awake 2008