Finding Benefits in Unexpected Places
April 26, 2012
“I started biking to work because…”
Understanding what inspires people to make and maintain environmentally sustainable changes is core to our mission at Cool Choices. To facilitate change, we need to understand what works. Accordingly, we aim to remain current with the latest research in various behavioral fields and we partner with researchers, asking them to help us understand behavioral patterns in our own programs.
We recently published findings from an Energy Center of Wisconsin study on participants at the Miron Construction iChoose game facilitated by Cool Choices. The research provides interesting insights into what inspired and motivated change in that setting.
Probably the most important finding is that social norms matter—a lot. Indeed, it is clear that norms matter far more than people tend to think. When asked about the reason behind our actions, most of us provide rational explanations—we did that to save money, we chose that product because of the information we heard. At Miron, for example, when asked about why they played iChoose just 36% said that they played due to encouragement from co-workers and only 4% said they did specific actions because co-workers were doing them. The Energy Center analysis, though, suggests that encouragement from others strongly influenced play and that those players who talked about the game with others tended to take more actions, report that they had learned more and that they were more likely to maintain new habits started during the game. As we’ve noted elsewhere, social matters a lot.
There was another finding, though, that really struck me—relative to why people played. Again, the number one answer people gave for their play—either in general or relative to specific cards—was that they could save money. And that’s fine. It’s rational and it’s consistent with the framing we provided at the beginning of the game—there were opportunities to save money.
The second most common answer given for playing was that they played because they liked “the lifestyle benefits associated with playing.” Here they were referencing family dynamics, a personal sense of well-being, etc. More than half of respondents indicated that this was one of the reasons they played.
Cool Choices did not frame the game as delivering lifestyle benefits up front. Frankly if we had have said that participating in this game would lead to more family together time, improve your relationships, or enhance your sense of well-being, people would have put up their shields. We would not have been credible if we had offered potential participants an idyllic picture of how these actions would transform their lives. More, though, we did not know that the actions would have as much impact as they did on participant lifestyles.
It was the participants who articulated this benefit. Early in the game the players started talking about how the game affected their families, especially their children. Lots of players shared stories about how they were filling the time that they were not spending watching television, for example. As participants compared stories about their efforts gardening and watching the sunset and talking, all sans television, the connection to lifestyle benefits grew stronger and stronger.
Some of the lifestyle benefits came where I least expected them. Players shared stories about how eco-driving habits affected their moods, leading to fewer stressful moments at home and work. We did not anticipate that benefit but now, in other projects, we talk about how less aggressive driving habits can make your morning commute less stressful, in addition to saving money. (Reducing the stress of driving is also a way to promote carpooling, of course.)
Ultimately, as players talked about these benefits a few even got philosophical. They talked about how easy it was to lose sight of the real priorities amid all the noise and consumption of modern life. And they marveled at the pleasure of being able to hear yourself think once all the televisions were turned off.
Last week I heard Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, the Minister of Works and Human Settlement in the Kingdom of Bhutan talk about Bhutan’s commitment to measuring success in terms of Gross National Happiness. The notion seems entirely impractical until you reflect on what we heard and saw at Miron where people saw real benefits in environmentally sustainable choices. There are burgeoning conversations about new ways to think about how we define economic success, consistent with Bhutan’s approach. When I look at the results of our pilots I’m less skeptical about these ideas – because I’ve seen the broad and unexpected benefits people get when they slow down and make conscious decisions about their consumption, reducing waste and focusing on human interactions.
I encourage you to give it a try. Turn off the devices and go outside; plant a flower or just enjoy the sunshine. Take one small step and then pay attention to how the ripples can enhance your life.
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