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 rorandall.org.
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.