Maybe it’s time to stop talking about behaviour change? 8

Ro Randall is founder and director of Cambridge Carbon Footprint, a Cambridge based charity that uses approaches drawn from psychotherapy and community work to engage diverse audiences in work on climate change. She blogs at

Behaviour change is the new black – although the idea has been around for a while it is increasingly the mantra of those working on climate change. Funders are interested in it. Government swears by it. Researchers puzzle over it. Voluntary organisations take it as their agenda. What’s not to like?


What’s a behaviour change programme?

Behaviour change programmes identify problem behaviours in a target group or audience and then devise interventions that might bring about change. The programmes are usually devised by professionals and the approach is rooted in cognitive behavioural and social psychology where it has had some success in tackling health issues. The approach is usually a rational one, aimed at tackling the most obviously soluble aspects of a problem.

The theoretical models that lie behind behaviour change programmes are often complicated but they are rarely concerned with feeling, with the subjectivity of the individual who is targeted or in the relationship of that individual to the person making the intervention. The client or audience remains ‘other’, a problem to be solved. And although processes of change are posited they generally focus solely on the behaviour that has been designated problematic. The formula is usually ‘we’ need ‘them’ to change their lightbulbs/take the bus/waste less food. The interventions suggested range through the provision of information and exemplars, processes of rational learning, rewards and disincentives. DEFRA’s 4 ‘E’s model is an framework from the environmental sector.

Are behaviour change programmes likely to be helpful in tackling climate change? It is of course welcome to see attention being turned from technological solutions to ones that involve people, but behaviour change programmes are fraught with difficulties – from the question of who defines a behaviour as problematic through to whether the right questions can be addressed in this way.

Behaviour as symptom

As a psychotherapist I see problem behaviour as a symptom. It’s often what brings someone into the consulting room – ‘I get angry all the time’, ‘I’m scared of dogs’, ‘I’m drinking too much’ – but these are surface phenomena. Something has given rise to them. Somewhere there are disturbed relationships, unrealistic dreams, defensive solutions to earlier difficulties and a miserable and confused knot of feelings. Without exploring and understanding the complex nexus of desire, identity, history and relationship the symptom is unlikely to give way. Rational explanations of the symptom’s dysfunction or suggestions of sensible alternatives do not often have much effect. And if they do, another symptom pops up somewhere else. Overeating is replaced by anorexia. Rage at the children reappears as depression and a stomach ulcer.

The behaviours that are targeted in climate change interventions – leaving appliances on standby, exceeding the speed limit, wasting food – are also symptoms. Behind them lie our disturbed relationship to the rest of the natural world, our fragile identities dependent on ‘stuff’, our anxious preoccupations with security and status. Impacting on each one are the decisions of governments and corporations, the predations of marketers, the values of the dominant culture and the opinions of our peers. And just as with psychological symptoms, if one behaviour is vanquished another pops up to take its place. In climate change work, this is what economists describe as the rebound effect. The money saved by insulating the loft and swapping out the light-bulbs results in the thermostat being turned up and the lights being left on for longer, or is blown on a flight to Madrid. The underlying problem remains.

What’s needed for personal change?

Psychotherapy argues that in order to change, we have to talk about what is wrong. It relies on creating a safe relationship where conversation is possible. We have to accept the painfulness of mixing everything up, questioning our assumptions and letting go of solutions that have seemed sweet and seductive but have also been damaging. We have to face inner conflict and ambivalence and accept that our rationalisations may hide unconscious destructiveness.

In making the changes that climate change demands the same holds true. We have to talk. We have to feel safe to talk. We have to face grief, pain, anxiety and guilt. We have to accept that the problem is bigger than we hoped and will ask more of us than we feel able to give. We have to deal with conflict with family, friends and colleagues. We have to find the courage to act socially and politically – inside and maybe outside the law – in defence of the future and of justice. Words like empathy, compassion, relationship and respect, that are fundamental to the practice of psychotherapy and which make it possible to face this bigger picture are missing from the language of behaviour change. Its focus is rational and on the part not the whole, on the simple not the complex, on the doable not the necessary.

Being ‘nudged’ towards the recycling bin or rewarded financially for installing PV is unlikely to deliver on the bigger agenda but does this mean that behavioural change programmes are all pointless? It would be a brave person who would say so. Undoubtedly the behaviours targeted are ones that need to change. But the risks of this approach are many. Although it deals with people and acknowledges some aspects of their psychology:

  • It doesn’t reflect the complexity of individuals’ psychological difficulties about climate change and the range of feeling engendered by the subject.
  • Its models of change are cognitive and don’t deal with the affective domain and the whole person.
  • It doesn’t reflect our deep implication in the socio-cultural-economic system that has caused the problem.
  • By encouraging us to approach others as units whose behaviour needs to be manipulated into the required pattern it may diminish our sense of ourselves and other people as responsible citizens. It may infantilise us.
  • It avoids the need for political engagement and lets the big culprits off the hook.
  • Its focus on small, achievable steps may avoid deeper engagement or produce despair at the scale of the problem.
  • Its focus on financial rewards may reinforce counter-productive materialistic values. (See the Common Cause report).

Well – that’s a big charge sheet – argue back someone – let’s have a conversation about this.


  1. Jan Paul van Soest Jan Paul van Soest

    Thanks for sharing your doubts on behaviour change, analysed from a psychology perspective. I could add some more doubts from an environmental sciences and policy making perspective:
    In our economic ‘waterbed’-system, a good deed goes seldom unpunished: the first order gain is lost (eaten up) to a large extent by second order system feedbacks (rebound effects). E.g. by using highly efficient light bulbs, cost per lumen-hour are lower, implying that additional lighting will be used, which indeed is the case. It may also imply saving money, which is then usually spent on additional activities, e.g. an extra holiday (flight) to Whereveristan.
    Secondly, the ever growing economy (production, consumption) is always as least as fast as the pace of energy and climate savings.
    Third: empirical research analysing behaviour, attitude, income, motives and what have you, reveal that personal income is the one and only factor explaining one’s individual carbon footprint. All other factors are just random ‘noise’. Income explains 60%.
    Fourth: technological development is fast, meaning that behavioural do’s and dont’s lose validity within a couple of years.

    The conclusion from an environmental scientist/economist perspective is: only hard caps to emissions, reinforced either by a cap-and-trade-system or by sufficient pricing of external costs, will have the desired effects such as keeping global temperature increase below a certain limit.
    These caps have to be achieved politically. Attempts to change behaviour are ineffective, frustrating for both the change agents and the consumers, and undermine the only effective way forward: setting planetary boundaries within which the economy can safely operate.

  2. Phil Korbel Phil Korbel

    A very persuasive argument well put Ro –

    but what do we do instead given that we have to engage the mass of the population in changing their carbon guzzling ways? We need to both cut carbon and build a consensus for the other tech/policy measures that need to be put in place. Mass therapy perhaps?

    best wishes


  3. JamieB JamieB

    It’s abundantly clear that technology will only take us part of the way to the kind of carbon reductions that we need so behaviour change is absolutely key to achieving the rest. So I don’t agree that it’s time to stop talking about it but I definitely do agree that the emotional and cultural side is almost completely ignored. But then I think that’s unsurprising due to the way the information is delivered.

    We need messaging about behaviour change because people need the hard facts about what can be done and what kind of impact (both environmentally and financially) it has if done right. People are mostly choosing to ignore that messaging at the moment but I think that will change as energy prices continue to rise and other financial pressures bite ever harder over this decade and the messages will be there in peoples’ minds to be adopted when the time is right for them.

    The reason why I think it’s unsurprising that the emotional aspects are currently ignored is because the organisations that deliver the bulk of behaviour change messaging (central and local government, companies etc) aren’t the right organisations to do that – I think I would find it quite strange if the government started incorporating the emotional aspects of dealing with climate change into their messaging. Surely that side of things has to come from within – from our communities, friends and families? They’re the groups who we trust and empathise with.

    So I think a two pronged approach is needed: top-down enabling of mass action from the powers that be (messaging, incentivisation, legislation etc) coupled with bottom-up action from within communities (the building of a genuine low carbon culture). And it’s that second prong where the real change is going to come from.

  4. eccemarco eccemarco

    @Jean Paul: thank you for the excellent comment! Very thorough indeed.
    @Phil: perhaps your idea is not that crazy. In the last years different authors have been talking about the need to change radically our percetions, wordldviews, the way we relate to the planet and our role in it. So I think that the bold statement “collective teraphy” might hold some good intuitions there!

    Ro, thank you for a nice article, I found it full of insights as I work in the field of strategic sustainable development and behavioral change is part of the game (we teach theories of advanced societal leadership as an elective course). For me your article speaks to the importance of the “quality” of the engagement. Increasingly, there seem to be theories of social change that are trying to get people together and host deep conversations where some profound commitment (and meaningful discoveries, hopefully) can emerge. Theory U by Otto Scharmer come up as a good example for me. The idea is to create a safe space for a collectivity to explore its purpose as a single group, their place in the world, and what they want to bring about in the world as a result on that “presencing” state. I see that the role of skilled psychologists and facilitators will become increasingly valuable as people will realize the magnitude of the changes needed.

  5. Marilyn Marilyn

    I’d love to argue back, Ro! Really nice and insightful piece.

    There’s a dimension I’d like to bring to the fore: the fact that so many people (even) in the rich world are dissatisfied with their lives and lifestyles. According to many surveys, 60% or more. When asked what they truly value, they tend to name things that are much more sustainable than current ‘norms’. They (we) don’t say we want more ‘stuff’.

    We have the odd situation that 2/3 of the population wants something different – but only 1/3 of us believe others feel the same, so most of us keep quiet.

    So sure, mass psychotherapy could work wonders… and in the meantime we may get a long way by starting and maintaining conversations. Daring to talk to others about what we care about, what matters to us (even before we’ve been through a therapeutic process) can produce startling results.

    We’ve been working along these lines for 21 years now and have reached a few million people. Definitely not enough! – but we have been and are learning along the way, and we love to share our experience with others who are willing to help us learn even more.

    Our ideas, programs, methods etc. are of course not ‘THE’ solution. I don’t think there is one. But we have found out that it’s possible to do far better than is currently the outcome of most ‘sustainable behaviour-change’ programs.

    Who wants to join us, argue with us, improve on our work?

  6. Harold Forbes Harold Forbes

    “The formula is usually ‘we’ need ‘them’ to change their lightbulbs/take the bus/waste less food.”

    Which rather illustrates the heart of the problem with climate change: the majority of people believe it is a problem for, or will only happen to, someone else.
    For me, the core issue is money. It is the most powerful tool man has ever invented but its value is entirely dependent upon our collective imagination. However, the way we account for it in our economies makes the assumption that the use of the Earth’s resources and services is free of charge as they are believed to be abundant enough & with sufficent regenerative powers to be consider inexhaustible. That might have been a workable assumption with a world population of a few hundred million but it is simply a recipe for disaster with a population of 7 going on 9 billion.
    Anyone who has worked in a growing company knows that management systems need to change as the company grows bigger: what would work with a family business simply doesn’t function for a medium sized enterprise, never mind a multi-national.
    Individual behaviour change is important to gain moral authority but it is we individuals who should be demanding that our leaders address the core workings of the world economy such that sustaining behaviours are encouraged and destructive ones made to pay their full cost.

  7. Ro Randall Ro Randall

    Some really interesting comments there.

    I don’t think mass therapy is required (you can only do therapy with people who have signed up for that) but I do think we need to up our game about personhood, citizenship and the structures of feeling in society. When I look at myself or those I love, or those I meet day-to-day, I don’t see behaviour, I see people, full of conflicting emotions and desires that pull them in opposite directions, I see citizens with political views and civic responsibilities, and I see the wider social currents that make particular responses and values rise to the fore in the form of visceral, gut reactions that are sometimes hard to explain – hatred for particular people or technologies, disdain for compassion, glorification of the ephemeral for example. For me, behaviour is just one small part of the jigsaw that makes up a human being and focusing on it to the exclusion of everything else creates an unbalanced picture which can push aside a deeper understanding of people in all their complexity.

    I am less optimistic than Jamie about community solutions as local groups sometimes show the same tendency to rely on information and exhortation that government can (although in a different way). I would like to see community groups become more sophisticated about the methods they use and clearer about their likely impacts, because I agree with Jamie that they are likely to be a much better messenger than government for some aspects of this work. It’s hard though, because none of us are necessarily sensitive to the needs and desires of those we seek to influence. Most of us want to defend ourselves against uncomfortable ideas or other people’s distress and it is hard to really open ourselves not just to how we feel about the climate crisis, but how others may too, beneath the surface. .

    So I agree with Marco that it is the quality of engagement that matters. Safe spaces and deep conversations are key for me. This is what I have tried to create in the Carbon Conversations project where we bring people together in small groups to share their experience of confronting climate change and trying to reduce their carbon emissions. We can’t match Marilyn’s millions, but like her we are trying to facilitate change through small groups and connection.

    Marilyn’s point about people’s dissatisfaction with life and what they value deeply is an important one. There could be important leverage here. But for me it’s essential to be alive to the conflict that may exist. When you ask someone what they truly value, they are unlikely to say “Sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll”. They are likely to speak from an ethical, reflective part of themselves about aspiration and purpose. But if you ask them what they would like to do for the weekend, then shopping, sex and other hedonistic pursuits are much more likely to be on their minds. In other words there is a conflict that is managed by compartmentalising contradictory aspects of the self.


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