Welcome to the October 2008 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 – Does Fear Work?

·          Upcoming Workshops – Cultivating Sustainability in NZ

·          60 seconds with… Sudha Hamilton from Eco Living Magazine

·          Interesting Article of the Month – Persuasive Trash Cans

·          Exercise of the Month – Self-Reflection


Feature Article – Does Fear Work?


As far as fearful images go, the perils of environmental degradation are pretty vivid.  Rising sea levels, storm surges, starvation and resource wars are just some of the nightmare scenarios regularly presented, not by Hollywood producers, but increasingly by normally sober, conservative scientists.   So that should make it pretty easy to mobilise people to start taking action now – just scare them into it.   But does fear work as a motivator?


Much research has been conducted into the effect of fear-based messages as a means to raise concerns about a variety of issues, and to get people into action.  Environment-related messages are different to most, in that they are designed to encourage largely selfless behaviours for which there is not always a visible benefit to oneself.  In contrast, campaigns to discourage smoking or unhealthy diets, for instance, are appealing to people to take action for their own immediate personal benefit, possibly an easier concept to sell. 


Research by Paterson and Neufeld (1987) found that, for a threat to have an impact on us, it must contain severity (i.e. have consequences for something we care about), probability (there must be a good chance it will actually happen) and imminence (it must be perceived as happening soon).  


If we are to look at climate change as an example, it is probably fair to say that we have severity covered.  Aside from the benefits of growing bananas in Melbourne, most people would agree that the projected changes are bad.  Probability is also increasingly being accepted.  While it has taken a while to convince a lot of people, and many BBQ conversations still debate the great green conspiracy, the majority view appears to be an acceptance that climate change is happening.  Probably the biggest challenge to establishing the required level of threat awareness is imminence.  In order to be stunned into action, we need to see danger in the immediate vicinity.  Even as the timeframes to doom presented by scientists are shortened with every new report, we are still struggling to see vividly the downside of a 30cm sea level rise by 2100.  


Meijnders, Midden & Wilke (2001) investigated the impact of fear-inducing communications about CO2 emissions, and found that “exposure to strong arguments only resulted in stronger intentions to purchase the (low-energy) bulb… if moderate fear was induced”.  The implication is that, when people are alarmed, they are motivated to more carefully and systematically process information relevant to the threat. 


The authors concluded “appeals to negative emotions should be combined with a crystal-clear explanation of the relation between the depicted threat and individual behaviour.”  The second requirement is that “effective and feasible recommendations on how to mitigate the threat should be provided”.  So people need to see that they are part of the problem, and how they can be part of the solution.


One way of looking at the way fear works is to see it in terms of the distinction between responsibility and power (for an explanation of this distinction, see previous issues of WakeUp Call).  While the initial emotional impact of a fear message has us saying “I should do something about this”, we are not going to act until we possess, and perceive, the power to act.  So any message which is delivered with the purpose of making us care has to be accompanied with something that supports us to act.  Without the latter, we are likely to be left with the feeling of being “willing, but not able”, which can have the effect of reducing our interest and connection as a way of reducing our frustration and dissonance.  The commonly accepted “fight or flight” responses to stress may be relevant here.  People need to be supported to fight the problems, otherwise we run the risk that they will turn their backs when it all becomes too hard.


A final issue which should be considered when it comes to using fear as a motivator is an ethical one.  Many in the behaviour change field take the position that there is enough angst in the world, and that scaring people is cruel.  This makes it especially important, if fear tactics are to be used, that the message is supported by some avenue by which people can realistically make a change.  This has the effect of moving people out of helplessness into empowerment, which is repeatedly shown to have psychological benefits in many settings. 


Given the alternatives, I’d prefer to see people jolted into action, rather than sitting complacency waiting until they can see the effects out the kitchen window.




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


Cultivating Sustainability workshops are being held in NZ in on the dates below.  Exact venues are still to be confirmed.


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 info see www.awake.com.au/cultivating.html



When:     Auckland: Monday, November 24

              Hamilton: Thursday, November 27

               Wellington: Monday, December 1

               Christchurch: Wednesday, December 3


Cost:       For-profits $250

               Not-for-profit/Government $200

               Individuals/Community Groups $120


An online registration system will be up and running soon, in the meantime…


For registration and enquiries, email timc@awake.com.au or phone +61 3 9387 1181



60 Seconds with… Sudha Hamilton, publishing editor of Eco Living Magazine


What first got you focused on sustainability?

It’s part of an overall holistic approach and philosophy which I have


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

Being involved in spreading the message through the magazine


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

I read a lot of newspapers, and therefore create a lot of recycling.  I have tried to reduce it, and read online, but I like the tangible thing in my hand.


Interesting Article of the Month – Persuasive Trash Cans



Persuasive Trash Cans: Activation of Littering Norms by Design

By Yvonne A. W. de Kort, L. Teddy McCalley, and Cees J. H. Midden, Environment and Behavior 2008 40: 870-891


What is it about? 

This study looked that the effects of designing trash cans with the intention of invoking social and personal norms.  The designs included such interventions as adding a sign which read “do you leave your litter lying around”, and simply placing a mirror above the trash can.


What did they find?

People were less likely to litter, and more likely to use the trash can, in situations where a norm was invoked, in comparison to situations where the trash can was left blank.  The effect was less strong, however, for young people.


What can we take from this?

This research provides further evidence of the powerful effect of social norms in guiding our behaviour.  When we are faced with cues as to “the way things are done around here” we are more likely to act in pro-social way. 


Likewise, the use of personal norms in this study was interesting.  This tactic draws attention to our own personal moral standards, which, when made vivid to us, has been found in many situations to be a powerful motivator to “do the right thing”.  Merely placing a mirror above the trash can was designed to raise self-awareness in order to activate the personal norm – and it worked to reduce littering.



Exercise of the Month – Self-Reflection

This is one I just thought of after reading the article of the month above.  It’s brief, but following the logic of personal norm activation, it might work.  See how you go.


1.       Take a decision you have to make about whether to choose a greener option or not.  Maybe one where you are weighing up the pros and cons of 2 or more options, such as whether to drive to work or take the bus.  Or maybe whether to replace the blown lightbulb with a cheap conventional one, or a more expensive energy efficient one.


2.       Make the decision while looking in the mirror.


That’s it.  The theory goes that, by looking at yourself in the mirror, your self-awareness will be enhanced and you will make decisions more in line with your conscience.  Which, given that you are reading this, is probably at least a little bit green.


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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