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How to change behaviour

By Adam Ferrier

So, recently there was another report from the scientists of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) telling us that climate change (what used to be called global warming) is upon us and there are real changes happening now. The scientists urged us to heed their warning and change our behaviours, and we ignored them in droves. Why we ignored them is interesting. The information they are giving us is dire. The environment is already changing for the worse, and will continue to change. We must all act now to avert some pretty disastrous outcomes.

However, the real issue is that humans just don’t really care about the information they have to hand. We never have. We’ve just lived through the wonderfully coined ‘information age’, a time where all of the world’s information was organised for us and made available to all of our fingertips. How many of the world’s problems did all of this easily accessible information solve? None.

The presentation of information alone is rarely a powerful enough motivator to get people to change. Especially when the information is complex, negative, or about the future (such as information about climate change). Due to various cognitive biases and a desire to believe everything is ok just the way it is we tend to tune out. How then can scientists get their message across, and effect genuine behavioural change within the broader community?

Well, there is a very handy behavioural change tool in existence, one that has proved itself capable of changing behaviour en-mass time and time again. This tool has been used to get people to loose weight, make them move more, volunteer their time to good causes, and cook healthier meals for themselves. This tool is one that if scientists could get hold of it, and use its powers effectively could get people to change their behaviours and start to look after the environment. The tool is called ‘reality TV’.


It pains me to say this, but over the course of the last 15 years, high-rating reality TV shows have continually proved themselves to be the best changers of mass behaviour. In my country of origin, Australia, we only need to look at what Bondi Rescue did for surf club enrolments, what The Block has done for the home renovation industry, and what Masterchef has done for the sales of Wagyu beef. Every country would have its own proven examples of reality TV changing the behaviour of the masses.

Reality TV is a great behavioural change agent because we like to be entertained first and informed second. An entertaining platform helps to make information that will be useful easier to digest. However, this is not all. To change people’s behaviour, you need to consider their motivation to do something and how easy it is for them to do it. Reality TV shows are a great way of increasing motivation for a particular activity as they make something feel like it’s already popular and thereby change the social norms (i.e. if there is a reality TV show about something it must be popular; therefore, I should get involved). People like to conform so if they think others are already doing something, they’ll do it too. However, reality TV shows also make a new behaviour easier to do by modelling it. Ever watched a reality cooking show? They model how to do the behaviour. So reality TV, in more ways than one, increases people’s motivation to undertake that behaviour and makes it easier by skilling people up via modelling.

So, the people who can make us start taking proactive steps towards saving the environment are the producers of reality TV. They will also need to convince the broadcasters that a TV show about the environment will rate. Thus, the show needs to be an extremely compelling reality TV series where you have lovable winners and lots of losers battling it out to save the environment.

Those who come up with good ways to make a difference to the planet will, just like the contestants on the cooking shows who dream up a great way to cook cous cous, act as models for all of us. We, too, will adopt the winning behaviours, and momentum will build to start acting in a pro-environmental way, becoming mainstream very quickly.

Unfortunately, there is a saying in TV that states ‘green doesn’t rate’, and this is largely because they have been treated as overly worthy, or blandly in the past. No one has sensationalised and popularised environmental issues as only reality TV can. This means, even more so, that we have to dumb down the environmental messages and turn them into a reality TV show. There you go Simon Cowell, here’s your new big challenge. You got the world singing, now get us all to take positive action to save our wonderful planet.

Adam Ferrier is a consumer psychologist and Chief Strategy Officer at independent creative:media agency Cummins & Partners. His book http://www.oxford.com.au/ferrier.” target=”_blank”>The Advertising Effect: How to Change Behaviour is out May 28th.

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Image credit: Close up of a hand holding a remote control with a television concept. © scyther5 via iStockphoto.

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