Sustainability: six ways to influence behavior change

recyclingMuch human behavior is habitual. However, when external conditions change – for example as we seek to address emerging sustainability issues around all sorts of sectors (in transport, energy, biodiversity, climate change, public health, etc.) old habits may no longer be appropriate. In situations like this, we look to come up with social marketing campaigns to encourage people to change their practices. These campaigns are often based on providing information about the effects of the choices we make, and what we could, or should, do differently. However, current research reminds us that campaigns that concentrate on firing off messages and information about what target audiences should do – actually have surprisingly little effect on behavior. In many cases the way the message is communicated can be as important as the content itself, and the way in which the different parties perceive each other is also crucial. The important take home point is that we can’t actually change other people’s behaviors, rather, they decide (or not) to change their own behavior.

With this perspective in mind, those working to support practice change for sustainability can work to provide: i) an enabling environment for the adoption of desired practices, and ii) offer opportunities for people to be inspired to change – by their peers, by the idea of new possibilities, etc. Fortunately, experiences from decades of social marketing and research in fields such as social psychology do offer a range of principles and techniques that can help sustainability advocates with the latter by supporting the development of more effective communication and social marketing campaigns.

One selection of these set out in a popular book, “Influence: The psychology of persuasion”, by Robert Cialdini puts forward the following six principles: liking, reciprocity, authority, commitment, social proof and scarcity.

While these principles will have to be integrated within any individual social marketing campaign on an individual basis, it is vital to approach the audience like the individuals they are. Different groups will respond better to different influence principles, so it is important to undertake some simple stakeholder analysis as a starting point. Thinking about how to use these six principles reminds us that while it is important to understand the technical content of the message, understanding the people you are communicating with is equally as important.


People tend to agree with people they like. They also like people who like them and who they see as being like them. This is why companies often take care to use sales agents from within the community they are selling to. We are more likely to listen to people like ourselves, from friends, and from others that we know and respect.

Taking time to build a rapport can also be useful in this regard. Cialdini suggests, however, that letting another party feel that they are genuinely liked by someone trying to persuade them is actually more important than them liking the persuader. The important work here is ‘genuine’! However, spending time learning about similarities can provide the means for this genuine liking to occur and, by taking the time to do this, it is possible to build constructive relationships.


People like to give – and take. Helping someone means an individual is more likely to receive help in return, because there is a tacit obligation to repay the favor. Providing assistance in this way will increase the likelihood of people helping out in return. Helping in this way also provides a good basis for building on-going, trust-based relationships. Start the communication process by offering something. Examples include offering free information, a discounted sample, or even delivering a positive experience in a first visit.

Reciprocity also affects negotiation processes. Thus it is possible to increase the chance another party will be collaborative by being collaborative first. Being competitive and uncooperative during negotiations will most likely result in reciprocal behavior by the other party. Giving concessions and sharing information first will encourage the other party to do the same.


People like to follow legitimate experts. This means that it can be good to highlight a high level of expertise. However, it is equally important for a person to show that they are a trusted source of information, which can be difficult, particularly in situations where they are advocating for an unpopular decision already made. No amount of expertise and authority is going to persuade people that an unpopular decision that has been forced on them is a good idea. In public campaigns, however, it may be useful to point to experts that people have reason to trust.

In the end, this principle is less about authority than it is about building and maintaining trust. In fact, it is clear that if authority is used as a tool to coerce rather than inform or encourage, it can create resistance rather than cooperation. In some situations it is possible that trustworthiness can be demonstrated by admitting weaknesses – provided of course there is also evidence of strengths and expertise. In the right situations, admitting weaknesses can highlight a person’s credibility and show them to be honest and trustworthy. Remember – higher credibility, lower barriers!

Commitment and consistency

Most people want to look consistent through their words, beliefs, attitudes and deeds, because personal consistency is highly valued by society. People have a deep need to be seen as consistent. Moreover, being consistent offers a valuable shortcut through the complexity of modern existence. Instead of processing all information in similar situations, it is easier to recall earlier decision and respond consistently.

To use this effectively it is important to ask people to commit to something. Often this will just be something small such as a trial of a product or service. This means that the other person can lock in an initial commitment without having to feel trapped in a long-term relationship with a product or service that they are unfamiliar with. It’s making an initial start to thinking about something in a new way that is the important thing here.

Social proof

In the end, most people are happy to be followers. When it comes to decision making, or deciding what is important in a given situation or in times of uncertainty, people look to what people similar to them have done. Thus providing evidence of what other people have done and how they have benefited from that action can help persuade a doubtful audience.

In negotiations around sustainability issues, the situation can often be ambiguous and the issues being discussed can be very complex. In such situations, parties will look to the experiences of other similar groups and perhaps the views of unbiased experts to guide their decision. In the book Cialdini and his co-authors outline a series of experiments with the cards we often see in hotel bathrooms attempting to persuade us to reuse the towels. The standard appeal on these cards is to our concern for the environment. The researchers experimented with changes to the wording on these cards and found that people tend to do what they perceive the majority of others do. For example, guests who were told that most other guests reused their towels, were up to almost 30 percent more likely to reuse their towels than those who saw the standard message.


People assign more value to opportunities when they are seen as scarce. The use of this principle can be seen in sales techniques that suggest an offer is limited either in number or in time. The scarcity principle works for two reasons: First, things difficult to attain are typically more valuable and then when something becomes less accessible, the freedom to have it may be lost. In a sustainability context, this principle means that saying what benefits stand to be lost might be more important than saying what stands to be gained. This holds as true for face-to-face negotiations with individual groups or industry sectors, as it does for developing a television-based awareness campaign.

Using frameworks for influence

Hopefully, this overview of Cialdini’s influence principles provides some ideas that you can apply to your own communication and social marketing campaigns. They don’t just apply to product and service sales and uptake either, but also to your efforts in creating engagement and building relationships. It’s important to use these principles with integrity – to use them honestly, with a sense of public good, and with good intentions. In the end the key to these principles is that using them wisely can build your reputation, but using them for selfish reasons can just as easily adversely affect your reputation.

Remember that these are just six ways that you can influence others. More information on these principles and other frameworks for thinking about creating more effective behaviour change initiatives can be found from the Learning for Sustainability site resource pages on Social Marketing and Communicating for change.

[An earlier version of this post was developed for the Learning for Sustainability sparks for change blog (19 May 2013).]


An independent systems scientist, action research practitioner and evaluator, with 30 years of experience in sustainable development and natural resource management. He is particularly interested in the development of planning, monitoring and evaluation tools that are outcome focused, and contribute towards efforts that foster social learning, sustainable development and adaptive management.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *