We’ve all had moments where our sustainability actions fall short of our best intentions. Whether it’s biking to work, composting, remembering the reusable mug, or purchasing organic products, there are numerous barriers – structural, cognitive, and cultural. It’s often a challenge to align values and behaviors, even for the most enthusiastic environmentalists among us. We know that we “should”, so why is doing the right thing so hard sometimes?

In a recent blog The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make, AlterAction founder Mike Walker lays out ten common traps organizations should avoid when crafting campaigns aimed at getting people to adopt pro-environmental behaviors. The first mistake:

“Focusing on changing people’s minds instead of facilitating the desired behaviors.”

Dozens of social science studies have found that values and attitudes don’t necessarily drive behavior. This is what’s known as the “value-action gap”. For example, people may say they wish to protect the environment and yet fail to perform very simple pro-environment behaviors, such as purchasing low-energy light bulbs or walking instead of driving for a short trip. This would seem to suggest that the value-action gap is unbridgeable. But is this really the case?

Walker suggests that we “forget about changing minds.” Yet for true sustainability to emerge, we will need new ways of thinking about the world and how we orient our societies. In the words of Albert Einstein, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” While it may be convenient in the short-term to overlook attitudes and values when designing interventions for specific behaviors, an appropriate response to the scale and enormity of the challenges we face necessitates a fundamental shift in thinking and values.

Anything less and we will find ourselves in a similar situation to the age-old tale of people in a rowboat: they row and row and row but remain stuck going nowhere because they forgot to untie the boat. So long as we remain tethered to the dock of outdated, myopic, take-make-waste mental frames we will continually reinforce and perpetuate the current unsustainable system.

This reaffirms a finding of systems thinker Donella Meadows in her classic essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Can you guess the highest and most powerful leverage point for effecting change in any system? That’s right. It’s the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises — its goals, power structure, rules, and culture. Not surprisingly, the higher the leverage point for effecting change, the more the system will resist changing it. But when you succeed, the results are stronger and long lasting. 

Back to the Gap: Don’t Mind the Gap

When we choose to overlook the importance of values and how they influence behavior, we do so at our own peril. Believing we should forget about changing minds causes us to disconnect from the important “why” of doing sustainability work in the first place. Granted, if the aim is to change specific, isolated behaviors in a piecemeal fashion – for example, recycling or turning off the lights – perhaps you don’t need to worry about changing minds. Perhaps you can just work on creating good habits.  It all depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. But the mistake of the 10 Mistakes is the underlying impression it gives that values and mindsets don’t really matter.

The problem is not that values fail to correspond with actions, but that a host of other personal and social factors  - sometimes beyond one’s control (e.g., level of income, physical mobility) - also affect environmentally related behaviors. It’s true, translating abstract values into concrete actions can be tricky. But this doesn’t mean values and attitudes are irrelevant or insignificant. One of the unfortunate downsides of social marketing is that we may have lost sight of the forest for the trees in our efforts to convince, cajole, mobilize, and nudge people into behaving sustainably.

All of this is by no means to suggest that sustainability professionals should set out to “change” people’s values. As Natural Step founder Goran Carstedt says in his TED talk Leadership for a Sustainable Future, “What if people don’t mind change, but they do mind being changed?” Humans have an innate capacity for change and it doesn’t always have to be arduous. This is where inspiration comes into play. Remember that Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, not a nightmare. He was able to mobilize a movement around a cause that was deeply rooted in the values of equality, compassion, and social justice. These values influenced behaviors that drove change.  

The Big Picture

What are the values that motivate you to work on sustainability? Are you motivated by self-enhancing, extrinsic values (money, power, status) or self-transcending, intrinsic values (benevolence, community, universalism)?

Source: Common Cause

Source: Common Cause

If you answer the latter, it’s a case in point of the value-action gap being bridged. And while it may be difficult to quantify the impact, it’s an undeniably valuable contribution towards building a sustainable society.

When it comes to fostering sustainable behaviors, appealing to self-enhancing values may motivate behavior change in the short-term, but intrinsic motivation is more durable and long-lasting, as a new study in Nature finds. It says, “Long-term environmental problems call for long-term motivators.… [H]arnessing people’s hard-wired biological capacity to care about others and the environmental is likely to far outlive the utility of trying to sway the public with short-sighted incentives.”

Bringing It Home

Now more than ever, people see the value in creating a sustainable society. The challenge for sustainability professionals is to remember the bigger picture and expand our thinking about how to channel that energy into meaningful action and meaningful change.

For more on how values influence behavior, see the Common Cause handbook The Case for Working with Values and Frames