Skip to content

How to get People to Change?

The climate is changing, but how to get people to actually change? Chip and Dan Heath offer a highly simplified framework based on recent research. And some of their findings are surprising. Surprisingly counterintuitive but also surprisingly simple. We will try to use this frame in the context of climate change, knowing how most people psychologically react to it.


The Heath brothers have worked a lot of change research into a framework or big mammals; we the people are pictured as elephants and riders. Our minds are the riders, trying to direct the almighty elephant: our unconsciousness, our emotions, feelings. And then there’s the rainforest: the uncertain path that elephant and rider try to navigate.

It seems pretty simple. First, acknowledge that our guts are by far the most important factor; people hardly change because they know they should, but because they feel so. Second, our guts are easily demotivated. In order not to lose our unconscious motivation, we need clear and simple steps that show immediate results.

So are people really hesitant to change? Not really. Chip and Dan demonstrate that it’s mostly misinformation and not plain unwillingness that prevent people from changing. But just giving more information is not going to do the trick. It’s not only the mind that needs to be focussed, but also our feelings and our environment.

The mind (rider) has a tendency to focus on the negative. That’s why it is helpful to focus on what the authors call ‘bright spots’. Search for examples where change did happen. Our emotions (elephant) have their own ‘language’ that is made up of stories, images, colors, music, fear and joy. The environment seems fixed, but it isn’t always. Think knot in handkerchief.

And then there is the biggest elephant in the room: we are pack animals. Our elephants all tend to follow each other. The good news is: negative behavior (overconsumption) is contagious, but positive behavior also. We tip if the tip jar is filled already; we recycle our hotel towels if we know that a majority of guests does the same. Our social antennae are extremely sensitive, it seems.

So how to apply this simple frame to behavioral climate changes?

  1. Look for bright spots: a change to renewable energy is possible, China’s increase in coal use has come to a halt, et cetera
  2. script specific behaviors with short term, significant results:
    1. auto-save for insulation of your house (buildings biggest source of CO2)
    2. (one-click) switch to utility offering green energy (often cheaper!)
    3. Meatless Monday (meat consumption second biggest source of CO2(equivalent))
    4. Next Car Electric: when will you need new car? Simple overview of options for electric car
  3. make need for change felt, not only known: show where the waterline in Amsterdam will be when children are grown. Do a hunger strike to make food shortages felt.
  4. show how much CO2 has been saved, and how much money. show how much already has been saved because cars have become more efficient over the years (‘we’re already on the way’)
  5. Have a Herd: show positive peer behavior (we solve climate change!)
  6. (just) Information, especially on ‘how bad it is’, is not enough or even counterproductive

How about an ‘APK to Paris’ (periodic car inspection), to make sure not only your car but your life is ready for the climate talks in December 2015? With the steps listed under 2. Specific Behaviors as a starting point?



Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *