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


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In this edition of Wake-up Call…


·         Feature Article – Keeping Promises: Do Pledges Work?

·         Workshop Reminder– Cultivating Sustainability in Melbourne

·         Interesting Article of the Month – Making The Stairwell More Attractive

·         60 seconds with…  Natasha Lewis at Cocolo

·         Exercise of the Month – Making A Commitment


Feature Article – Keeping Promises: Do Pledges Work?


A popular component of many behaviour change efforts involves asking a person to make a commitment, or “pledge”, to undertake the desired behaviour.  This typically involves getting them to sign their name to a promise to save water/energy/emissions.  The common perception is that this will make them more accountable, and thus more likely to follow through on the requested behaviours.  This months article asks the question as to whether the commitment approach actually works, and if so, how and why?


There is a certain amount of evidence across a variety of settings to suggest that gaining a commitment does indeed have an effect on behaviour.  For example, strong support has been found for the effectiveness of “promise cards” to encourage people to wear seatbelts, discussed in a 1991 review by Geller and Lehman. In a series of studies, drivers were asked to sign a written statement of commitment to use seatbelts for a period of time (1-2 months).  Subsequently, the researchers found that “In every case, a significant number of promise-card signers increased their use of safety belts”.  More importantly, the effects of this intervention were found to be more effective in influencing lasting change than similar approaches which used incentives to entice people to wear seat belts.


In the environmental field, the results are similarly compelling.  A couple of studies have shown the effect of commitment on recycling behaviour.  Pardini and Katzev conducted a simple study where groups of households were either a) given an information leaflet about recycling, b) asked to make a verbal pledge to recycle, or c) asked to make a written pledge.  Both groups which made the pledge showed higher recycling behaviours, with the written pledge resulting in the strongest, most enduring behaviour change. 


As with all behaviour change efforts, it is important to consider if the intervention is likely to make a difference long-term, rather than just for the duration of the intervention.  A 1990 study in a retirement home found that residents asked to sign a 4-week group commitment increased their recycling by 47%.  When the researchers checked in after another 4 weeks, this increase had been maintained.  The same study also looked at recycling behaviour of a group of students and found that both individual and group pledges worked to change behaviour, but only those students who signed individual pledges maintained the change over a follow-up period.  This study echoed the seatbelt finding mentioned above, that signing a commitment is a more powerful facilitator of long-term change than providing incentives.


So it appears that gaining a commitment from people is a worthwhile, and fairly cost-effective, step in increasing the likelihood that behaviour change efforts will be effective.  It is worth considering why commitments work.  The theory of “Personal Norm Activation” suggests that, once we have committed to a course of action, we have cemented it as a personal norm, or something that we see as a moral standard in ourselves.  Any action which is at odds with that commitment therefore triggers a personal norm, providing a motivation to act. 


Similarly, the theory of Cognitive Dissonance, which has been discussed at length in previous issues of Wake-Up Call, goes some way to explaining the effectiveness of commitments.  When we perceive a misalignment between our actions and our beliefs or values, then we experience discomfort and/or confusion.  Thus, we work hard to maintain “cognitive consistency”.  Making a commitment serves to create a belief that we are on board with the behaviour being proposed, so we do our best to ensure that our actions match this belief we have about ourselves. 


This process does, however, rely on us being self-aware - of our commitments, our behaviour, and any misalignment between them.  If we are not conscious of our behaviour in relation to our beliefs, then dissonance is unlikely to occur, thus removing the motivating factor.  This is one reason why highly habitual behaviour (which tends to occur at an unconscious, “auto-pilot” level) is more resistant to the effects of commitments.  This phenomenon is discussed at length by Matthies and colleagues, who states that “when car use habits are strong, the whole process of norm activation and evaluation is blocked, and situational cues will lead directly to the habitualised choice of travel mode, without moral or other motives being considered”.  As a result, it is suggested that some form of habit disruption is combined with the commitment, as demonstrated by the Matthies team.  (Habits are also discussed in a previous Wake-Up Call).


Reviewing the evidence for the inclusion of commitments or pledges as part of a behaviour change interventions, a few recommendations can be made

·         Public commitments appear to work better than private ones

·         Try to get written, specific commitments, rather than vague verbal ones

·         A combination of individual and group pledges is ideal if possible, so that people can hold each other accountable, while also taking personal responsibility

·         Ensure that people are aware, conscious and reminded of their commitment and their behaviour


Finally, as always, this approach is best used in combination with other tactics, including a thorough consideration (and removal where possible) of real and perceived barriers to the desired behaviour. 





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


Workshop Reminder – Cultivating Sustainability in Melbourne


Awake will conduct a Cultivating Sustainability workshop on Tuesday, November 24th at Abbotsford Convent, Melbourne


This is a public workshop 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.


Feedback from attendees of the most recent Cultivating Sustainability workshops included…


“Great framework for encouraging behavioural change within organisations”

“Provided me with tools and insights to challenge me to review how I am approaching my sustainability project”

”This workshop has given me good insight into the motivating factors in people’s behaviour and ways to get lasting change”

“I found the workshop useful to help me learn practical and positive/inspirational ways to change peoples attitudes and behaviours towards sustainability”


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


Interesting Article of the Month   Making The Stairwell More Attractive



The Use of Prompts, Increased Accessibility, Visibility, and Aesthetics of the Stairwell to Promote Stair Use in a University Building

By M. E. van Nieuw-Amerongen, S. P. J. Kremers, N. K. de Vries, and G. Kok

Environment & Behaviour – Onlinefirst Article, October 2, 2009


What is it about? 

In this study, the researchers set out to increase the percentage of people choosing the stairwell instead of the elevator, by making a number of changes to it’s accessibility, aestethics and signage.  Interventions included posters highlighting the health benefits of taking the stairs, addition of glass doors to increase visibility, and a fresh coat of paint.


What did they find?

The changes resulted in an 8.2% increase in stairwell patronage, a trend which remained stable over the 4-week period of observation.


What can we take from this?

The authors discuss at length the health and wellbeing benefits of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, and also consider the results in relation to theories of habitual behaviour (of which elevator use is an example).  The key thing to note is the simplicity of this intervention.  Although 8.2% is a modest increase, it is significant and did not require a really sophisticated behaviour change intervention.  Which raises the question as to what other behaviours can be influenced by simply putting a bit of thought into the environment cues which encourage them.


60 Seconds with….. Natasha Lewis at Cocolo


What first got you focused on sustainability?


I originally studied naturopathy, then practised as one, but missed the sustainability aspects of organics.  So I got involved in food, and quickly moved into the Fair Trade area as one of the founders of the Fair Trade Association.  I basically believe that it’s no good eating food if people are struggling to live in order to produce it.  


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


I try to never go into a shop without my jute shopping bag. If I do, I end up carrying 50 things in my arms rather than use a plastic bag!


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


Sometimes staying in the shower too long.



Correction:  In last months Wake-Up Call, the interview with Jessica from Cottonbottom incorrectly stated her response to the question “What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?” as “Using disposable nappies”.  This was, of course, a glaring error on my behalf, and the real response was “Using cloth nappies”. Sincerest apologies to Jessica for the mistake. 



Exercise of the Month – Making A Commitment


Following on from the article of the month above, this months exercise is an opportunity to try to use the idea of an expressed commitment to shift one of your own behaviours.


1.      Pick an eco-friendly behaviour which you would like to adopt, but haven’t.  Perhaps something that you have been struggling with, or have just not got around to.

2.      Make a decision to do it.

3.      Now tell somebody that you are going to do it.  Perhaps one person, or a group of friend, or a public proclamation on a blog or Facebook etc.

4.      See if this makes a difference to your motivation to do it.  Be sure to account for any of the other enabling factors which will support you (such as getting the right information or resources)


Based on the research outlined in the above article, you should stand a better chance of taking on the behaviour once you have made a pledge to do it.  As an optional next step, you could try sharing this information with someone else, and offer to be a “receiver” of their pledge, thus supporting and encouraging them to take steps to live in a more eco-friendly way.



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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