Last week, my enormous head and I did a video interview with the energy-focused cable news show EnergyNow! (which incidentally just got a national distribution deal through Bloomberg TV). The topic was behavior change. They’ve split the video in two. Here’s the first bit:
And the second bit:
As always, I find my performance on video somewhat disjointed. I can make myself much more clear in thousand-word blog posts nobody reads!
There’s one thing I didn’t mention: It’s almost impossible to talk explicitly about “behavior change” without getting some folks’ backs up. It sounds like you’re talking about manipulating people — paternalism at best, mind control at worst. In 2009, Glenn Beck et al made huge hay out of a modest bill from then-Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.) to fund behavioral research at the Department of Energy. The proposal ended up stillborn, killed before it was ever debated. Especially in the current ideological climate, it’s difficult to have a serious discussion about government behavior programs without sparking cries of tyranny and socialism and so forth.
Nonetheless, it’s important to understand that the alternative to conscious, openly debated efforts to shape behavior is not behavior that goes unshaped. Every act of communication, every piece of technology, every public policy, every bit of infrastructure, everything influences our behavior. Every human act has social effects, i.e., influences the behavior of others. We are a social species; it’s woven into our nature. Despite the fond dreams of “objective” journalists, there is no view from nowhere, no such thing as pure information dissociated from any affective valence or social significance.
What social science can do is help us understand the often unconscious cues and signals that shape behavior. That knowledge can help every single policymaker better achieve their goals. It can help speed adoption of greener technologies. It can help marshal conservation efforts. It can help every one of us more effectively translate our intentions into real-world effects.
Yes, such knowledge can be used for suspect purposes. Perhaps the most powerful behavior-change organization on the planet is the U.S. advertising industry, which drives an endless appetite for material accumulation. The U.S. government is also always and already in the business of shaping behavior, and not always for laudable ends. All knowledge can be used for ill. But that’s no reason for progressives and climate hawks to remain ignorant of this stuff! And it’s no reason for democratic governments not to put it to use improving the efficiency and efficacy of its laws and regulations.
Advertisers and conservative polemicists understand something that progressives too often do not: It is not information but meaning that changes behavior. It is not scientific evidence but social cues that shape how we think and act. If we want to make ourselves (and our children) safer and more prosperous, we would do well to understand what kind of meanings and cues are conveyed by our words and policies, and to shape those meanings with conscious intention.