Editors’ note: Researchers at SRC explore many ways to implement resilience thinking with multiple partners and approaches. Rethink invited this commentary from the conservation organisation WWF on how to turn behavioural science insights into real change.

Information alone won’t change behaviour1 1. Amel, E. et al., (2017). “Beyond the Roots of Human Inaction: Fostering Collective Effort toward Ecosystem Conservation”. Science 356(6335): 275. See all references . Humans – and human societies – are complex, with different dynamics, feedbacks, and structures in place that are not easy to change. While science helps unpack these complexities, many of the useful insights on how to actually transform behaviour remain hidden inside scientific journals and laboratories, with integration in practice only just beginning2 2. Reddy, S. M. W., Montambault, J., Masuda, Y. J., Keenan, E., Butler, W., Fisher, J. R. B., … Gneezy, A. (2017). “Advancing Conservation by Understanding and Influencing Human Behavior”. Conservation Letters, 10(2), 248–256. https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12252 See all references .

Practitioners and scientists are starting to realise that we need to get better at turning behavioural science insights into real change for sustainability. Some insights have been put to use, for example, through targeted campaigns to increase recycling habits 3 3. Byerly, H. et al., (2018). “Nudging pro‐environmental behavior: evidence and opportunities”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 16(3), 159-168. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1777 See all references or the use of nudging techniques for sustainability. But there are still countless insights and tactics applied in other sectors that are yet to be explored for sustainable development. Also, nudging campaigns and other behavioural interventions that are conducted for sustainability are seldom adequately evaluated and analysed, with little sharing of insights to advance thinking and practice.

Practitioners and scientists are starting to realise that we need to get better at turning behavioural science insights into real change for sustainability.

How can increasing our understanding and using what we know about humans and human societies make sustainability initiatives more effective? No one has all the answers, but the pool of knowledge is deepening. Here are a few things we’ve learned at the WWF:

Inspire the ‘feel-good’ factor and tap into empathy

Building empathy motivates people to change their behaviour 4 4. Zaki, J., (2014). “Empathy: A Motivated Account.” Psychological Bulletin 140(6): 1608-47. See all references , and it is relevant in addressing impacts of behaviour that can be difficult for individuals to perceive directly, such as how their behaviour affects climate change1 1. Amel, E. et al., (2017). “Beyond the Roots of Human Inaction: Fostering Collective Effort toward Ecosystem Conservation”. Science 356(6335): 275. See all references .

Messages about sustainability or environmental issues are often “doom-and-gloom”, telling stories about degraded ecosystems or a threatened species. The messages are put together with good intentions – on the assumption that with increased awareness, people will change their behaviours 5 5. Christiano, A., Neimand, A. (2017). “Stop Raising Awareness Already”. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/stop_raising_awareness_already See all references . But this type of messaging often makes people feel guilty 6 6. Genevsky, A., Västfjäll, D., Slovic, P., & Knutson, B. (2013). “Neural Underpinnings of the Identifiable Victim Effect: Affect Shifts Preferences for Giving”. Journal of Neuroscience, 33(43), 17188–17196. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2348-13.2013 See all references and can have the opposite effect or unintended effects on how they behave7 7. Lertzman, R., Baragona, K. (2016). “Reducing Desire for Ivory: A Psychosocial Guide to Address Ivory Consumption”. WWF. http://reneelertzman.com/ See all references .

Research has shown that people are more likely to develop empathy and be inspired to act based on positive feelings and social desirability, and in fact they avoid empathy with negative-inducing cues such as suffering and material costs4 4. Zaki, J., (2014). “Empathy: A Motivated Account.” Psychological Bulletin 140(6): 1608-47. See all references . In other words, messaging that makes us feel good is more likely to build empathy and lead to proactive actions, compared with messaging that makes us feel guilty or helpless.

Ronan Donovan, a National Geographic explorer with a background in biology, has been tapping into the power of empathy through his work as a wildlife photographer. Donovan turned to photography as a tool not only to show people the beauty of nature: he has experimented with different techniques to build empathy and inspire people to care about chimpanzees, and put that care into action. By creating visual narratives with carefully crafted storylines, Donovan works to build relationships between viewers and his subjects, so that the viewer experiences any pain or joy with the chimpanzees. This approach – focused on providing the viewer with a “positive aroused effect” – is new, and not widely used in the sustainability community to inspire action.

Know the context – learning from Los Humos de mi Barrio

The World Health Organization estimates that over 4 million premature deaths per year are attributed to smoke inhalation from cooking over an open fire. The development sector has responded with massive investments in the development and dissemination of clean cookstoves, offering an affordable and healthy solution for cooking. Not only are clean cookstoves better for the users, they also help reduce pressure on forests by reducing firewood use, potentially lowering deforestation and degradation and limiting climate-warming emissions. Despite this seemingly simple solution, many cookstove initiatives fail.

Behavioural science might help explain why in so many cases cookstoves are not adopted by intended users. Both behaviour and drivers of behaviour vary from place to place, and the members of the target audience for cookstove advertising are likely to respond to different tactics relevant to their specific needs and circumstances.

A woman using a bio-gas stove to cook with. Through the help of WWF, bio gas units have been installed in a number of homes throughout the Bardia district, western Terai, Nepal. Bio-gas units produce clean methane gas from cow manure and human waste and mean local people rely less on firewood from surrounding forests. Copyright: Simon de Trey-White/WWF-UK.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves has been exploring how tailoring interventions to local users and their situations can encourage a more widespread adoption of cookstoves. In Guatemala, listening to radio soaps is a common practice and a natural vehicle for communication. Embedding messaging on clean cookstove use in a radio soap, Los Humos de mi Barrio, made learning about cookstoves more fun and, more importantly, prominent in daily life.

The Alliance took a different approach in Kenya and co-developed a reality TV show called Shamba Chef that introduced viewers to Kenyan families using clean cookstoves to make nutritious and traditional meals. The approaches in both Guatemala and Kenya were surrounded by a series of locally tailored events and information that focused on the needs, perspectives, and cultural context of the cookstove users. An evaluation in Guatemala showed a statistically significant impact on intention to purchase a cookstove and an increased knowledge of the benefits of improved cookstoves. Efforts are being made to develop more approaches to understand if these tactics can help increase cookstove adoption more broadly.

It takes a village to make a change

Rare Indonesia is a non-profit organisation that works for sustainable fisheries in Indonesia. For decades, its staff have been taking a behavioural approach to their work. By engaging with fishers and fishing communities, Rare’s staff were able to better understand fishers, their techniques, and the issues that were most important to them. Rare’s work has also shown the importance of understanding the perceptions and needs of all actors in changing behaviour.

This came to light very strongly in one of the villages where Rare’s project nearly failed when fishers stopped attending community meetings. After asking around in the village, it became clear that the fishers had stopped because their wives did not understand why they were spending so much time away from home. When the local project managers realised that they were losing participants because of a lack of trust, they engaged with the women and brought them into the project.

Local fishers in Sulawesi, Indonesia, collect their catch of the day. Copyright: Jonne Seijdel/WWF-Netherlands.

Getting the women to participate required also making room for the children, and the team used a squid mascot to make it a fun and engaging experience. As a result, women became advocates and started helping their husbands participate in Rare’s efforts. While the women weren’t the original target of Rare’s project to encourage sustainable fishing behaviours, they were instrumental in fostering the sustainable change the project sought to make.

Behavioural science for systemic change

Over eight years, Rocky Mountain High School in Colorado, United States, managed to reduce the energy consumption of the school by 50%, bringing it down to a level below that required for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification in the district and earning the school a higher Energy Star rating8 8. Schelly, C., Cross, J., Franzen, W., Hall, P., Reeve, S. (2011). “Reducing Energy Consumption and Creating a Conservation Culture in Organizations: A Case Study of One Public School District”. Environment and Behaviour, 43 (3): 316-343. Doi: 10.1177/0013916510371754 See all references . LEED-certified schools are designed to be high performance schools that save energy and water and are cost-effective. What made Rocky Mountain High School successful in achieving such a drastic reduction over a short period of time was the involvement and engagement of teachers and students, and the eventual ownership of the challenge by the whole school community9 9. Schelly, C., Cross., J., Franzen, W., Hall, P., Reeve, S. (2012). “How to Go Green: Creating a Conservation Culture in a Public High School Through Education, Modeling, and Communication”. The Journal of Environmental Education, 43(3): 143-161. See all references . The headteacher didn’t simply create a top-down process, providing information about the links between energy consumption and climate change and expecting everyone to adjust their behaviour. He involved every part of the school, so that each group could recognise the role they play in the use of energy and engage in the process of making decisions to reduce energy consumption.

The head caretaker made changes to their team’s routines, such as cleaning the school under security lights rather than turning on the main lighting. The environmental science teacher sent reminders to staff and students about turning off lights and computers, and his advanced placement class was responsible for the school’s successful recycling programme.

An American high school managed to cut the energy consumption by half through the involvement of teachers and students. Photo: Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education/Flickr.

The school communicated the results directly to students, teachers, and parents through emails, newsletters, student-written announcements, newspapers, and posters. They used metrics such as the reduction of carbon gases, tons of coal not burned, and dollars saved by the school 8 8. Schelly, C., Cross, J., Franzen, W., Hall, P., Reeve, S. (2011). “Reducing Energy Consumption and Creating a Conservation Culture in Organizations: A Case Study of One Public School District”. Environment and Behaviour, 43 (3): 316-343. Doi: 10.1177/0013916510371754 See all references .

Individual and collective behaviours exist in complex systems, and system structures are often the biggest barriers to behavioural change. Donella Meadows, a pioneer in systems thinking and practice, points out that a thorough understanding of the systems we seek to change is a vital prerequisite for solving complex problems. With this understanding, practitioners are better equipped to design and implement interventions that help build or transform to systems that foster sustainability, resilience, and a better balance between people and nature 10 10. Meadows, D. H., & In Wright, D. (2008). “Thinking in systems: A primer”. See all references .

Changing behaviour on energy use at Rocky Mountain High School was successful because of the cultural shift that emerged from thinking of the school as a whole system. The actions taken targeted both the structures and the embedded behaviours within the system.

So what next?

There is still a lot we don’t know about human behaviour and how it relates to environmental and sustainability challenges, but research exploring the nuances of human behaviour and connections to the environment is rapidly progressing. With these insights, more opportunities are emerging to develop new tactics grounded in science that can be integrated in practice to promote sustainability.

In some sectors, insights from behavioural science are already applied with great success. While sustainability challenges are unique, there is still much to learn from how behavioural change tactics work elsewhere.

And we’re getting there. In 2017, international consultancy GlobeScan led a market research study commissioned by WWF and the wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic to understand ivory consumption patterns in areas of China that have active ivory markets. They found that awareness of the ban on the elephant ivory trade in China was extremely low, especially outside major cities. The results also indicated that of people who still purchase ivory, those who travel overseas had bought significantly more ivory than those who never travel. Gathering these key insights required conservationists to step outside their comfort zones and venture into the world of marketing and market research.

Seized elephant tusks in the east of Cameroon. Long viewed as a valuable commodity the illegal killing of elephants for ivory and meat has been identified as one of the species’ major threats. The Central Africa region is the principal source of illegal ivory in trade today. Copyright: Peter Ngea/WWF Carpo.

While the ban on ivory trade has closed retail outlets and factories, raising awareness and reducing demand will be led by non-governmental organisations. The GlobeScan study shows that typical conservation messages do not always work with ivory in China. For instance, trying to influence potential purchasers who are buying items as luxury goods by discussing the future extinction of a species can actually influence people to buy more products as they see ivory as rare and valuable. The challenge that lies ahead is determining what can work and testing whether tactics that tap into social norms or human empathy will reduce and possibly even eliminate the demand for ivory.

Bringing science into practice

More and more people and organisations are working to address the gap between research and action11 11. Cook, C. N., Mascia, M. B., Schwartz, M. W., Possingham, H. P., & Fuller, R. A. (2013). “Achieving conservation science that bridges the knowledge–action boundary”. Conservation Biology, 27(4), 669-678. See all references . New programmes such as Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment aim to bridge the divide by creating space to test behavioural theories in practice, promote field-based learning, and build stronger partnerships. The Wildlife Consumer Behavioural Change Toolkit developed by Traffic compiles resources and tools grounded in behavioural science to support practitioners who focus on consumer demand for wildlife products. And six organisations are partnering on a Solution Search crowdsourcing challenge “Climate Change needs Behavioural Change” to highlight, catalogue, and spur the generation of promising grassroot solutions to sustainability problems.

Organisations need to better understand and incorporate behavioural insights to achieve their goals. Given the complex nature of problems and the difficulties in testing behavioural insights, the best way to turn behavioural science insights into real change is to close the gap between science and practice, and truly work together12 12. Byerly, H., & Fisher, B. (2017). “Studying human behaviour for species conservation”. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 15(8), 419–419. https://doi.org/10.1002/fee.1536 See all references .