Climate, Mind and Behavior Newsletter

The Climate, Mind and Behavior Program has received generous support from the Surdna Foundation and the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation.

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In this Issue:  Climate Change Engagement, Segmentation, Social Marketing and Human ValuesRestoring Joy in America's Sorted-Out Cities | Getting the Message Out - Improv for Researchers

As spring struggles to come to the Hudson Valley, we are busy preparing for the upcoming Climate, Cities and Behavior symposium, offered in partnership with the Kresge Foundation.  It is by invitation only and will convene local government representatives and service providers from around the country to address how they can be most effective at helping municipalities take action on climate change. 

In October, we will have our sixth annual Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium.  Its theme will be “The Well-Behaved Building: Developing Community, Well-Being and Resilience in Buildings.”

We are not holding a Climate, Mind and Behavior symposium this year but we anticipate holding one next year.  In the meantime, we are exploring new programs and new ways to convene conversations and extend our reach online.  As these plans develop, we’ll share them with you.

As you’ll see below, we have two very serious pieces for you and then a fun one.  The first is a review of how values impact communication concerning climate change. 

The second describes Mindy Fullilove’s book on urban climate inequalities, which can be acute since low-income neighborhoods are often located in the parts of a city that are most exposed to extreme climate events and have the least resources to deal with them. 

But save some time for the third piece, a delightful video about teaching scientists to communicate better.  M*A*S*H fans will get to see Alan Alda working with scientists to make their talks more effective -- something all of us who are trying to reach out on climate change need to do.

It’s my belief that the message of profound interconnectivity at the heart of the world’s wisdom traditions is seeping back into the collective consciousness, and it’s my hope that this is happening fast enough to make the difference we need.  As always, we feel deep gratitude for all you do every day on behalf of the planet and the multitude of peoples and beings on it.  But as hard as you work for the benefit of all, remember to care for yourself as well!

John K. McIlwain
Director, Climate, Mind, and Behavior

Letting people know when their bus will arrive – before they are standing at the stop – provides a boost in rider satisfaction, and may encourage more public transport use. Smartphone apps and real-time internet, text or voicemail updates that track bus routes allow riders to plan ahead and avoid long waiting periods at the bus stop. The technology that enables this kind of direct-to-rider data sharing is relatively inexpensive and has caught on widely, although not uniformly, throughout the country. Researchers at Washington University developed one such popular tool, OneBusAway. It is available in Atlanta, New York, Tampa and Puget Sound. This university-transit system collaboration has yielded some research on best implementation practices that is valuable for regional transportation planners working with application developers. For instance, most riders accept about a five-minute inaccuracy window for the data; inaccuracies beyond this result in less user satisfaction. By working closely with developers, transit agencies can find, relay and help solve prediction errors more quickly, leading to more accuracy, and ultimately more public transit users.


A new open-access article in the journal WIREs Climate Change offers the first comprehensive overview of research on human values in the context of climate change engagement. The authors review both peer-reviewed research and civil society publications to highlight some key issues and suggest communication strategies. They find that coupling “values around security or freedom with self-transcending values like concern for the welfare of others is one possible way of resolving the tension between the social marketing and ‘common cause’ approaches to campaigning and making best use of the available academic evidence.” And, in the context of crafting an engagement strategy, “if attempts to engage the public more effectively on climate change are to utilize insights from research on human values, these insights would be best applied in more participatory, group level, situations. In fact, there is evidence that deliberative processes themselves promote more altruistic evaluations of environmental issues like climate change.”


“Think more like Madison Avenue!” – that’s an admonition from a recent Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium participant that many agreed with. Crafting and delivering specific behavior and climate change messages would be much easier with the help of professional advertising agencies, but few program budgets can afford one. There is, however, a wealth of available social psychology literature on persuasion. Renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini wrote the book on harnessing social norms to influence behavior. He distills his insights into six “weapons of influence:” Reciprocity, Commitment, Social Proof, Authority, Liking and Scarcity. Cialdini’s research is behind the success of energy efficiency darling Opower and the well-known hotel ‘towel studies.’ He argues that it is not social pressure so much as social evidence that influences behavior change: “If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.” Cialdini recently gave a briefing to Congress, organized by the National Research Council. His informative presentation is linked below.


“Resilience” irks Mindy Fullilove, professor of social psychology at Columbia University. She’s concerned that the trendy buzzword shrouds continued complicity in the marginalization and de facto segregation of communities of color in our cities. Saying a community is “resilient” can be coded, meaning they can handle it, so it’s OK. "It's OK for them to work two-three jobs, with terrible transportation, no safety net, no health care," she writes.  But clearly, it’s not OK.  In her recent book Urban Alchemy, and in blog posts around her Main Street NJ project, Fullilove digs deep to expose the reality of main streets across her home state of New Jersey, and lays out nine steps to addressing inequality in what she calls “the sorted-out city.”  It’s a rigorous approach to building hope and change in communities torn by retrenched segregation and violence.


A computational social scientist from MIT, Alex Pentland, suggests that since big data allows researchers to gather massive amounts of seemingly objective information on human behavior, it is positioned to give the social sciences a new level of precision and to eventually efface the distinction between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences. He believes that by analyzing trends in large data sets, the social sciences’ once-tricky problem of “subjectivity” all but disappears as the numbers reveal the “social physics” underlying our choices. Through a series of “groundbreaking experiments” that use cutting-edge methods to follow the trail of “digital breadcrumbs” to re-create social networks, Pentland finds that “humans respond much more powerfully to social incentives that involve rewarding others and strengthening the ties that bind than incentives that involve only their own economic self-interest.” The finding supports what many other social and behavioral science research methods have already picked up. While the results may not be novel, the technique certainly demands attention, not least of all for the privacy implications it raises.


We’ve all sat through deadly boring, impenetrable, confusing talks given by smart, engaged researchers that left us wondering how the delivery went so wrong. The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University is doing a great public service by helping scientists and other researchers communicate with clarity. It gives workshops for researchers all over the country, using improvisational theater games to help them connect with audiences outside their disciplines. “The goal of teaching scientists improv is not to turn them into actors,” the Center’s webpage says, “but to free them to talk about their work more spontaneously and directly, to pay dynamic attention to their listeners and to connect personally with their audience.” Testimonials and some great before- and after- video clips attest to the success of the workshops, which Alan Alda leads.


In this Issue:  Influencing Conservation ActionThe Anthropocene: What Does It Mean? | A New US Grand Strategy

This month’s newsletter covers a broad span from the very practical to the deeply theoretical, and to global US policy. It is a reminder of how complex and comprehensive the issues of climate change are and how broad ranging our thinking needs to be in order to find the levers to move seven billion people to a sustainable balance with nature.

The first item links to a practical review of research on how to engage people to address our environmental challenges, expertly prepared by The National Audubon Society and partners.

The next piece links to a more theoretical discussion of the implications of the idea of the Anthropocene, the name given to the current geologic era in which humans have become the principal agents of planetary change. It’s accompanied by a complementary link to Bruno Latour’s recent lectures on the “Political Theology of Nature.”

The final item links to a recent article in Foreign Policy by Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation. He argues for a US Grand Strategy based on walkable communities, sustainable economics and multilateral diplomacy, which, he says, are the future of American power.

These pieces point to a big question, namely, is there an inherent conflict between the fundamental premises of our current culture and our relationship with the natural world? We are, of course, a part of the natural world, but is our culture an effort to deny this obvious fact? It seems that we have for too long attempted the impossible, to step outside of the influences and limitations of nature.

If there is an inherent conflict, can we evolve today’s culture to allow us to embrace nature with all of its wonders, its limitations and its fearful unpredictability? Cultures do evolve, led most often, according to philosopher Richard Rorty, by artists, poets and writers who sense a new meme emerging and give it the language and images needed to bring it into being.

It is my belief that we need to continue taking practical albeit small steps toward a more efficient and sustainable world, while recognizing that these are necessary but not sufficient to bring us into a real balance with nature. We need a deeper change in how we live on and relate to the planet. This requires global thinking and a reframing of our culture, a process both artistic and spiritual, for it is the artists and poets who often most deeply sense the profound wisdoms of spiritual paths.

John K. McIlwain
Director, Climate, Mind, and Behavior


Influencing Conservation Action

The National Audubon Society, in partnership with government and academic researchers and a host of prominent conservation institutions, recently created a user-friendly guide to understanding how environmental behavior change occurs. It handily summarizes research on understanding, changing and reinforcing pro-environmental behavior. It’s written in an accessible question-and-answer format, and for those who want to delve further, each section cites key published research. Some of the questions addressed are: Can children influence their parents’ environmental behaviors? (Yes, think ‘pester power’); Does knowledge lead to action? (A necessary but incomplete motivator); and, Is the messenger as important as the message? (In many cases, yes, and the crux is trustworthiness). This guide is one of four in a series created to aid practitioners in conservation engagement. The series, or toolkit, also covers issues of diversity and the power of storytelling along with offering a host of illustrative case studies.


The Anthropocene: What Does It Mean?

In certain circles, talk of the Anthropocene has been igniting new paths of understanding humanity’s interaction with the world and how we think about that interaction as a basis for ‘political’ action. The Anthropocene is an unofficial term for a new geological era in which humans have become the principal agents transforming planetary systems. It was coined in the early 1980s by ecologist Eugene F. Stoermer and popularized by Nobel Laureate chemist Paul Crutzen, whose work showed human activity depleting the planet’s ozone layer, and who perceived a trend going back to the early 1800s intimately linking humans to the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Thinking through the Anthropocene demands new ways of approaching the problematic but stubbornly persistent nature/culture binary. This past October, two prominent French intellectuals, Bruno Latour and Phillipe Descola, debated its political (and academic) implications at the University of British Columbia. Drawing on “anthropology, science studies, and other allied disciplines, these two thinkers discuss[ed] their views on how intervention in the natural world has not only transformed planetary ecosystems, but also the very ideas and models we use to think about the planet as a whole.” The talk, which took place at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at the UBC Museum of Anthropology, is dense but rewarding. It’s available online and well worth a listen.


A New US Grand Strategy

Few would argue that the US can carry on business as usual. Our economics are depressed, outdated, and unsustainable; environmental resources are polluted, stretched thin or corrupted; our social system continues to stratify – in short, our society is in crisis. In a piece for Foreign Policy, Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation reckons that the US has  operated historically either as “Empire America” or “Fortress America,” and that neither extreme is sustainable. He argues that the US needs a new “grand strategy… a generation's plan to create the global conditions necessary for the country to pursue the great purposes set forth in the preamble of the U.S. Constitution.” How might we do that? He says “the task is clear: The United States must lead the global transition to sustainability.” What follows in his essay involves American exceptionalism, exploiting novel demands, carbon markets, a revolution in resource productivity, walkable cities, healthcare and retirement income for all - and this is just a preamble to the “clear task.” While such sweeping policy agendas may at first appear outside the remit of behavior change, clearly the discussion he is sparking is intended to change behavior on a very large scale. His argument will provoke reflection and good conversation.



In this Issue:  Real-Time Data Increase Bus Rider SatisfactionPower of Persuasion | A Novel Approach: “Social Physics”

Our three offerings this month range from practical to persuasion to big data. I can personally testify to the validity of the first report, on how real-time information on bus arrivals impacts users. I was a regular bus rider when I lived in Washington, DC, and well remember when the real time system was installed. It made using the bus feel much more reliable (even though it really wasn’t!). I don’t know if more people began using the bus, but the whole experience was greatly improved.

In the next piece, renowned psychologist Robert Cialdini says it is social evidence that influences behavior change: “If this is what people around you have decided is a good choice, it’s a great shortcut for you to determine what’s a good choice.” This points to the power of culture, which, after all, is what everyone around us is doing, our combined habits, as Peter Senge has noted. As the habits of those around us change, i.e., as their culture changes, we key off that: “If ‘my people’ are buying Subarus this year, maybe that’s the car I should buy.” If this is so, how can we accelerate the cultural shifts now beginning, and ramp up their pace from linear to exponential?

The third piece suggests how this acceleration might be encouraged. MIT computational social scientist Alex Pentland’s findings using “big data” confirm the teachings of the Buddha and all the great wisdom teachers, namely that we are wired to seek the well-being of others and to deepen our ties to them. This flies in the face of the “ME” culture Madison Avenue would have us believe is our real driver. It suggests promising ways that may accelerate a shift toward enhanced collective well-being.

Thank you for being part of our community and our work together. While each of us may only be able to make a small difference (though many of you make a very large difference), remember the wise words of Garrison neighbor Pete Seeger: “Be wary of great leaders. Hope that there are many small leaders.”

John K. McIlwain
Director, Climate, Mind, and Behavior

In this Issue:  Using Behavior Change Theory to Promote Climate Change AdaptationWater Conservation and the Power of Film | Public and experts' views about climate change

This month we share two articles, a movie, Blue Gold, and a timely collection of articles in a journal. The first two articles focus on the practicalities of how best to approach people about climate change and preparing for it, from understanding the five basic steps we all go through as we come to terms with the impact of climate change and how best to meet us at each stage, to how to best tell the story of the changing climate. The movie is an example of an effective way to tell one aspect of this story. The issue of the journal Nature Climate Change looks at the reasons for the wide gap between the public and experts when it comes to accepting the reality of climate change.

Part of the reason for this gap, I believe, is that we have gotten as much public attention to and acceptance of climate change as we can using fear, telling people all the awful things that are happening or about to happen. My experience is that people are actually running for cover now, overwhelmed by the news and the scare stories. I know I have to take a deep breath each time a new article or book comes along detailing what is unfolding before I can read it.

I am taken by the suggestions of some that it might be more powerful to begin developing a practical vision of what a truly sustainable world might be, based on a culture of sustainable, shared prosperity and an economy based on realistic limits instead of constant growth. This is no easy task, to be sure, but parts and aspects are emerging. Can we collect these, add to them, and in time develop the outlines of the world we aspire for our children to live in? It has to be practical, achievable over time, and appealing to a large majority of people. Hard as it may be to do this, there is no substitute for the power of hope and possibility in the human heart.

Here at Garrison, we are busy planning for 2014 and beyond. We have plans for a cities and climate change symposium in May funded by the Kresge Foundation. This will be invitation only. The next Climate, Buildings and Behavior symposium is scheduled for October 7 to 9, 2014. As in the past, it is for those in the building and real estate industry. We will continue to work more closely with the hubs and find ways to provide them more support and a closer relationship with them. Other plans are afoot – stay tuned.

John K. McIlwain
Director, Climate, Mind, and Behavior


Using Behavior Change Theory to Promote Climate Change Adaptation

The University of Rhode Island’s Climate Change Collaborative is actively using the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change in their climate change adaptation work. The theory is a platform from which to build programs that have a better chance of actually achieving behavior change, and their explanation of its use is refreshingly straightforward and practitioner oriented. For instance, the model outlines five stages of behavior change that can help tailor communications strategies: “a homeowner in the first stage, Precontemplation, has not even considered preparing yet. Mailing that individual a flier with a long list of things to do to mitigate storm damage will likely overwhelm him or her. A sheet of information about the impacts of flooding, with local photos and two or three actions to consider taking, may encourage someone in Precontemplation to start thinking about changing.”


Water Conservation and the Power of Film

During our June, 2013 Climate, Mind and Behavior Symposium Beth Karlin, of UC Irvine’s Transformational Media Lab, spoke about the power of documentary films to motivate behavior change when specific actions are explicitly invited.  An example of this was provided at our September 2013 Climate, Buildings and Behavior Symposium when Resident Engagement Specialist Erica Brabon of Steven Winters Associates mentioned engaging young adults in water conservation by asking them to watch the film Blue Gold. This simple act got many of the would-be water conservationists to install aerators on their home faucets. The film is available in its entirety on YouTube and may prove to be a useful tool in your work.


Public and experts' views about climate change

The journal Nature Climate Change has curated recent and archived research, opinions and letters on the topic of ‘Public and experts' views about climate change.’ In this collection of interesting articles is one by our colleague Elke Weber of Columbia University's Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, entitled "Seeing is Believing." Here's the abstract:

Most people will start suspecting that a coin is not fair if it overwhelmingly comes up 'heads' in toss after toss. The fact that the public in the USA or UK is less likely to believe in a changing climate than climate scientists has been attributed to the abstract statistical nature of climate change, making it a phenomenon difficult to 'see'. This would suggest that belief, together with willingness to mitigate, will increase if and when the public personally experiences the manifestations of climate change — a prediction that has received some support. Alternative explanations of such results turn the connection between personal experience and climate change belief around, suggesting that stronger beliefs in climate change may make it more likely that people will look for — and thus see — evidence supporting it.




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