Earth Matters: Talking tough (in a nice way)

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Earth Matters: Talking tough (in a nice way)

By Lynn Capuano

My son and I enjoy listening to audiobooks together. We’re currently listening to one that features a wealthy, right-wing talk show host’s attempt to have the local public animal welfare agency issue a permit to allow the hunting of a mountain lion accused of killing his small dog. The main character is a high schooler who has a knack for solving mysteries. He’s been engaged to investigate the dog’s death.

Despite clear indicators early in the story that the mountain lion had nothing to do with the dog’s death, there is overwhelming public demand for issuance of the permit. The public and the government officials all accept the version of events as told by the radio talk show host after the government officials’ half-hearted investigation before deciding whether to issue the permit.

As we listened to a clip of the talk show host ranting about the incompetence of government officials (because they haven’t issued the kill permit) and that he is the only one saying the truth and that his listeners should not listen to anyone else, I remarked how true to life this is. We briefly discussed why people accept and believe misrepresentations, despite evidence to the contrary. This led, of course, to my making a connection to environmental behavior and why people often don’t do what needs to be done despite knowing better.

I’m not a psychologist or sociologist, so I won’t try to explain people’s behavior. But examining why people do what they do and studying how we can change their behaviors are important efforts that impact our daily lives. The inquiries are not because we want to be right, but because we know certain things, based on science, and we know how we need to act in response.

One of these realities we need to address is climate change. Climate change is a fact and it’s a fact we have known about for decades. Yet we are still disagreeing about how much we need to do in response, despite the volumes of research providing clear guidance on what needs to be done to arrest the progress of climate change’s consequences.

In the course of my efforts to learn more in this area, I’ve read some and taken some classes. I’ve learned that knowing information is not enough to change most people’s behavior. This blew my mind when I was first exposed to this concept. But then I thought about it, and it made perfect sense. How often do we eat something even though we know it’s not good for us? How many people smoke even though they know the risks?

There are many reasons we do things even though we know better. Often the reasons we do these things are the very ways that will get us to change behavior. For example, people often smoke in social situations, because everyone is doing it.

Social connections are a powerful mechanism for changing behavior. Consider how we maintain our homes and how much of that is influenced by our neighbors and the unspoken expectations for what the neighborhood should look like. These expectations about the neighborhood are norms set by a community and are very indicative of people’s behavior. If everyone in a particular community or social circle dresses a certain way, it’s unlikely any one individual is going to go against that norm and dress very differently.

It is the same with environmental behaviors. They can be influenced through norms, social connections, and other factors such as feeling connected to and invested in your community as a place that meets your needs and satisfies your interests. Some other factors that influence environmental behavior are how effective you believe your behaviors will be and the values that guide your behaviors.

I recently read an opinion piece in The New York Times by Adam Grant about reasoning with someone who holds a different opinion from yours. He described something called motivational interviewing which involves using open-ended questions to understand a person’s opinion. It occurred to me that what he described applies to influencing environmental behavior. Through the process of questioning, you try to uncover the person’s goals and help guide them to see how an alternate opinion can help them reach their goals.

It is important to focus on how questions rather than why questions (for example, asking how will their opinion work in practice rather than why that is their opinion) and look for indications of a willingness to change. Grant wrote about talking to a friend opposed to COVID-19 vaccinations, but the method can be applied in any context, including discussions about climate change. The desired outcome is to understand where the other person is coming from and not on winning the debate.

Through the process of questioning, you look for indications that the person is open to other opinions. It’s not necessarily about changing minds, but about opening minds to other ways of thinking and thereby creating the opportunity for people to change their minds.

I was struck by this approach because, at its root, it is drawing on what I have learned about influencing environmental behavior and how those efforts need to first address other outcomes, like social connections, norms, values, efficacy and connection to place. Those are the things that motivate people and influence their opinions.

If we can listen to people talk about their opinions, how they will work when put into practice and, most importantly, listen for those indications of open-mindedness, we can offer alternative opinions tied to those motivating factors influencing their opinions. That suggests an effective, powerful and admirable approach that demonstrates respect and sincerity without avoiding facts and without getting distracted by proving your rightness. It may not make for a good children’s book, but it may make for a better world by changing people’s behavior

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