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Tricks of the Trade – 3

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Some people describe themselves as “commitment-phobic”. Others rush headlong toward commitment as if their life depended on it. What’s curious in human behaviour is – irrespective of how we feel about commitment in personal relationships – when an individual (even better a group) commits to a small request it almost always invariably leads to the likelihood of them agreeing to something bigger and better.

Get someone to sign a petition and you’ve got their love for life. That’s the theory anyway.

As McKenzie-Mohr & Smith outline in their book, Fostering Sustainable Behaviour (1999), when people make a small gesture of commitment to a cause (whether it’s to stop logging of old-growth forests or support wheelchair access to the local library), this simple expression of values alignment can subtly alter a person’s attitudes on a topic. Through the simple act of signing a petition, they come to see themselves as the type of person who supports the initiative to which they have signed their name. What is interesting is that, later, when that same person is asked to comply with a larger request (to make a donation, for instance), they are likely to experience a strong internal pressure to behaviour consistently.  As McKenzie-Mohr & Smith assert: “saying that you “think” you would volunteer for the Cancer Society, vote in an election, give blood or wear a lapel pin, alters your attitudes and increases the likelihood that you will later act in a way that is consistent with your new attitudes”.

Even though we humans frequently contradict ourselves, consistency is widely accepted as an important character trait. If people repeatedly say one thing, then do the other, they risk being perceived as untrustworthy and unreliable. Conversely, when a person “walks their talk” they identify (and may be identified) as being honest, authentic, having integrity.

McKenzie-Mohr & Smith highlight an interesting case-study that demonstrates the human need to behaviour consistently. The case study occurred some years ago on a New York City beach:

“In this study, a researcher posing as a sunbather put a blanket down some five feet from a randomly selected sunbather. He then proceeded to relax on the blanket for a few minutes while listening to his radio. When he got up he said to the person beside him, “Excuse me, I’m here alone and have not matches…do you have al light?” He then went for a walk on the beach, leaving the blanket and radio behind. Shortly afterward, another researcher, posing as a thief, stole the radio and fled down the beach. Under these circumstances, the thief was pursued 4 times out of 20 stagings. However, the results were dramatically different when the researcher made a modest request prior to taking the walk. When he asked the person beside him to “watch his things”, in 19 out of 20 stagings the individual leapt up to pursue the thief. When they caught him some restrained him, others grabbed the radio back, while others demanded an explanation. Almost all acted consistently with what they had said they would do” (McKenzie-Mohr & Smith, 1999).

Interestingly, commitment and consistency aren’t necessarily time-bound. Numerous studies indicate the potential for humans to behave consistently (in line with a previous commitment) after a substantial amount of time has passed.  Again, this provides food for thought for our work as environmental communicators and educators.  In short, if you’re developing a social change campaign, remember to keep commitment and consistency well and truly in the mix.

To be continued tomorrow…

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