UCL Energy Institute


Report from UCL-Energy seminar 'The Myth of Apathy: Going Beyond Behaviour Change'

28 November 2012


On Tuesday 20 November UCL-Energy hosted Renee Lertzman of Royal Roads University for a UCL-Energy seminar entitled 'The Myth of Apathy: Going Beyond Behaviour Change'. UCL-Energy PhD student Jenny Love reports on the event:

The several hundred-strong audience attracted by Renee bore testimony to our desire to effect ‘behaviour change’ in our society with respect to environmental protection. It is a phrase which is used by many of us without understanding of the people we are trying to effect change in. Renee, as a psychosocial researcher (this discipline addresses psychological development in, and interaction with, a social environment), brought us an insight into how people create meaning for themselves in a time of environmental degradation. Based on this, she gave advice for a new approach to engage people about climate change. I hope I do her justice in this summary.

The first topic addressed was a selection of mental states found to coexist in people with respect to the environment. These included:

  • Anxiety (e.g. “what does it mean to be a young person in this time?”)
  • Ambivalence (e.g. “I want to go and see the world, but if I do I will contribute to climate change”)
  • Aspiration (e.g. “I want to and can do something to help”)

Putting up defences (denial, disavowal, projecting the blame onto someone else, splitting of our minds into parts such that we can section off the guilty feelings and not let them influence the rest of our thoughts)

The second of these is a particularly important one to acknowledge – the coexistence of competing beliefs, such that one person’s worldview is not so much a linear set of deductions but more of a mixed bag of values and desires which cannot all win. Why is this important to know for those of us who want to try and change behaviour? Well, when we talk of ‘barriers’ to energy efficient behaviour and ‘gaps’ in people’s thinking, we are assuming that if only the missing piece of information or motivation were slotted into someone’s logical thinking process, they would be enabled to make the necessary behaviour changes. If we view people’s inner values and beliefs more as a ‘tangle’, and behaviour as what drops out from the tangle, one more piece of advice is not going to help so much.

Is it then necessary to ‘untangle the tangle’ in order to witness resulting behaviour change? From the subtitle of her talk, Renee was proposing that it is. Here, psychotherapists might have a lot to teach us, as they are used to listening to clients, understanding their thought processes however tangled they are, and aiding them: I do not know exactly how this works but I imagine they help the clients transform the shape of whatever is in their minds into a different form.

Renee gave some examples from her own PhD research in which she conducted multiple qualitative interviews per participant; as opposed to the quick alternative she called ‘drive-by research’. This detailed approach began to reveal the complexities of people’s often contradictory feelings towards their immediate environment (the Great Lakes, in this case). Renee argued that information should be elicited through a ‘lateral’ rather than ‘frontal’ approach; for example, not asking directly “do you care about the environment?”, but taking a more subtle angle. In her PhD she did not, however, attempt herself to intervene to change people’s thought topology.

There is something to be said for ‘untangling the tangle’. On the other hand, since people do hold multiple principles simultaneously, can we acknowledge this in forms of interaction with the people we are trying to influence? Can we incorporate the tensions of being pushed and pulled in different directions into a strategy aimed at, say, reducing energy consumption?

Renee has been working with an electronics environmental rating company ‘EPEAT’, to design branding and messaging for green electronics. The concept of ‘green electronics’, in itself, is a paradox: how can you consume electricity and resources and also be green? The acknowledgement of this paradox is the theme behind the branding: one slogan could be something like, “Love technology, love the planet”. Although this will not be the final slogan, it contains the building blocks of it: the acknowledgement of the paradox and also of emotion (“love”). It contains empathy (“I know you face tough decisions since you have competing desires”) and authenticity (“there is a trade-off here”). It is not saying that consumption is bad, but also it is not encouraging us to saturate ourselves with products at the planet’s expense.

My favourite bit of the talk was Renee’s courage to address the topic of the emotions us researchers experience as we go about our work. She is not afraid to admit that this stuff gets to her, and I think that is something very admirable but never acknowledged in the engineering paradigm in which I spend most of my time.

In conclusion, it was a privilege to be the host department for such an interesting talk, and I am looking forward to seeing what Renee comes up with in terms of scalability of her lateral approaches to larger sections of the population, and in terms of her marketing strategy.