Welcome to the July 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 – Don’t Give Up

·          Upcoming Workshops – Cultivating Sustainability in New Zealand, August 2009

·          Interesting Article of the Month – Overcoming the Social and Psychological Barriers to Green Building

·          60 seconds with…  Daniel Mackey from Fairtrade Labelling

·          Exercise of the Month – Approaches to Behaviour Change

·          Notice - Website and Email Problems Last Monday


Feature Article – Don’t Give Up


If an animal feels a sense of failure every time it tries to help itself, pretty soon it gives up, even when presented with future opportunities to progress.  This is the conclusion from the studies which gave rise to the term “learned helplessness”.  In these studies, dogs were given mild electric shocks (back in the 60’s, rules around ethical treatment of animals were more liberal!), with no chance to escape them.  When they were later given the opportunity to escape the shocks by jumping over a low fence, most had become so conditioned to be helpless that they stayed put. 

It is common to hear people say “what’s the use, the problem is too big for any of us to solve”, in response to big environmental issues such as climate change. Is this an example of learned helplessness developing in society in response to environmental challenges? Looking at some of the key indicators of learned helplessness may help us recognise if this is the case, and how we might support people and groups who have developed it.

According to Stipek, learned helplessness is "not trying as a consequence of a belief that rewards are not contingent upon one's behaviour".  It is based on 3 key beliefs

1.       Internal blaming - "It's my fault"

2.       Global distortion - "It will affect everything I do"

3.       Stability generalization - "It will last forever"

If we were to view these beliefs in relation to climate change, it is easy to see how they would be developed in a sizeable percentage of the population. 

“It’s my fault” is a natural consequence of being told that everything we do releases greenhouse gas, and that our very existence is destroying the planet – pretty hard to argue with that one. 

“It will affect everything I do” is also being increasingly emphasised in reports about climate change.  Add peak oil, resource depletion and drought, and it is easy to make the leap that life as we know it is in serious peril.

Finally, the idea that “it will last forever” is virtually unquestionable.  A consistent theme of every dire prediction about the future of the planet is that the changes we are witnessing are irreversible. 

So it is a fairly safe bet that the conditions for learned helplessness do exist with regard to climate change, and probably environmental issues as a whole.  The likely effects of this are varied.  Although there is some evidence to suggest that worrying about climate change is causing some people to become depressed, this is at the more serious end of the range of possible outcomes of learned helplessness.   It is more likely that the condition will impact on the way in which people behave in relation to the environment – they will give up trying to change.

There is plenty of evidence that inaction with relation to environmental issues is based on the sense that we have no control, in other words, that we are helpless.  A study by Allen and Ferrand was one of a number which showed a strong relationship between the sense of control we feel, and our actions with relation to the environment.  

The feeling of having no control is one of the major reasons why communicating the dire consequences of climate change needs to be considered carefully.  People like to feel in control of their lives, and if they feel overwhelmed by the information they are receiving, they are likely to feel helpless and switch off.   A leading researcher in this area, Stephen Kaplan, comments that “many who appear uninterested in environmental issues, may distance themselves to avoid pain, not because environmental issues are of no concern to them”.

Changing our routines and comfortable habits often requires considerable personal resources.  Habits, for instance, develop to reduce the need for us to make new decisions each time we encounter a situation, thus freeing up mental resources for other things.  If we are feeling overwhelmed and helpless by the challenges we face, we are less likely to feel strong enough to go outside our comfort zone and try a new behaviour which we may perceive as untested or less convenient. 

In clinical settings, learned helplessness is often addressed through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which helps to identify and challenge beliefs which are holding negative emotions in place.   Although the context in which most environmental behaviour change advocates operate is vastly different, it is useful to be aware of the potential for learned helplessness, and to adapt our approach to minimise it’s likelihood of developing. 

1.       In communications, remember to include positive steps which people can take to address the problems.  Not just as a token afterthought, but as the main call to action.

2.       Provide tangible support for people to take action.  Rather than just saying “this is what you should do”, an approach which guides and supports people to make change is more likely to succeed.

3.       Along with individual actions, provide examples of the way in which collective actions can address the big environmental challenges, to foster a sense of hope that the problems are surmountable.

4.       Provide reinforcement for changes which have been made, in order to build on people’s sense of power and control over their lives.

For a community to be engaged and empowered to change, people need to feel, at an individual level, that they have some power to influence the future – otherwise they may just roll over and accept the pain. 




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 New Zealand, August 2009


Spaces are filling quick for the Cultivating Sustainability workshops in New Zealand in August.  A Dunedin date has been added too!


Dates and locations are as follows


·          Christchurch, Mon August 17th

·          Dunedin, Tue August 18th

·          Wellington, Wed August 19th   

·          Napier, Fri August 21st

·          Hamilton, Mon August 24th

·          Auckland, Tue August 25th


These are public workshops with all welcome to attend.  


Cost:       For-profits $250pp

               Not-for-profit/Government $200pp

               Individuals/Community Groups $120pp



More information and online registration, can be found at  www.awake.com.au/cultivating.html


To enquire about any of the workshops above, email info@awake.com.au


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.



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


Interesting Article of the Month   Overcoming the Social and Psychological Barriers to Green Building



Overcoming the Social and Psychological Barriers to Green Building

By Andrew J. Hoffman and Rebecca Henn

Organization Environment 2008; Vol 21; 390-419


What is it about? 

This is an in-depth essay on the barriers to acceptance of green buildings, at an individual, organisational and institutional level.   After reviewing the barriers, the authors provide advice for overcoming them and encouraging the uptake of green building.


What did they find?

Rather than a single piece of research, this article reviews numerous studies to draw conclusions.  Among the more interesting barriers identified are those relating to individual barriers to green building acceptance, such as “overdiscounting the future” – where our construction decisions vastly underestimate the significance of savings which can be achieved by greening our homes – and “ego-centrism” – where we make decisions which we consider to be fair, but in fact are contrary to a sustainable environment.  There are also some startling findings about the ignorance of environmental issues in the general public (cited from research undertaken in 2005).


What can we take from this?

Anybody interested in promoting the uptake of green buildings will find this a useful guide on a number of angles, from marketing green homes, through to developing an organisational culture which is conducive to acceptance of sustainability principles.



60 Seconds with….. Daniel Mackey from Fairtrade Labelling


What first got you focused on sustainability?


A fundamental value of what is right and just.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do for a living, so I went to uni and studied trade etc.  I guess it was just a general dissatisfaction with the world of work which took me down this path.


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


Maintaining ethical awareness in purchasing decisions. Where possible, buying Fairtrade or local products. I’ll go the extra mile to find an ethical product.


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


Occasionally I daydream in the shower and realise I’ve spent longer in there than I intended.


Exercise of the Month – Approaches to Behaviour Change


The work by Kaplan, cited above, distinguishes between 3 approaches to behaviour change


1.       Telling people what to do

2.       Asking them what they want to do

3.       Helping people understand the issues and inviting them to explore possible solutions


Kaplan argues that #1 is most often employed, #2 is used to encourage participation, but that #3 has the most promise for supporting people to get involved in change.


This month’s exercise invites you to look at some of the behaviour change efforts around us, and try to identify which of the approaches above are being used. 


1.       Pick a behaviour change message or communication related to environmental sustainability that you have been exposed to. (e.g. water saving, energy saving, taking public transport)

2.       Try to identify which of the approaches above was used.  Were you told what to do? Were you asked what you wanted to do?  Were you supported to explore solutions?

3.       Did it work? Did you change your behaviour?  What could have made that approach more effective?


When I tried this, the water savings program I looked at was quite good at linking the big picture to individual actions, and provided a variety of possible solutions. 

The efforts to encourage public transport, however, seemed to fit more into category #1, with limited attention to supporting people to work out an alternative to the car which suits them.

What did you find?



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!


Website and Email Problems Last Monday


The web host used by Awake experienced a fault last Monday 27th July, which meant the Awake website and all emails were out of action all day.  If you tried to access the website, or had email bounced back, please accept my apologies and try again – all is working fine now.  Thanks



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



Subscribing to Wake-Up Call


If you know someone who is interested in behaviour change for sustainability, please forward Wake-Up Call to them so they can subscribe.


To subscribe to Wake-Up call, email subscribe@awake.com.au


If you do not wish to receive this newsletter in future, please email unsubscribe@awake.com.au with “unsubscribe” in the subject field.



© Awake 2009