Come to Dinner


By Eva-Maria McCormack

Conversations among neighbours, stories from friends, the experience of acquaintances who are already a step ahead: New research by behavioral psychologists at Yale, Cambridge and Gothenburg universities shows that this is what makes us change the way we act on environment and climate issues.

The upshot is, once again, that neither ever more data, nor appeals to reason or “knowing what’s right” are best in motivating us to adopt more sustainable habits and lifestyles. Of course, facts are important, but it’s the example of others around us which is the far better incentive.

You may have experienced this, too: While travelling through the countryside, you discover one village in which neighbour after neighbour has solar panels on their roofs, while there’s not a single one in the next village just a few kilometres down the road?

Or your brother has installed a new heating while renovating his house: You are celebrating the end of all that building work, and while he is telling you about how it all went and how much money he now saves, you are beginning to wonder, maybe I should too? And suddenly you are talking numbers and savings and tips for heat pumps and good builders …

Anybody who has ever started to seriously change a habit – whether going running in the morning or trying to lose weight – knows that it is easier when you are not alone. When you follow the inspiration of others. Or when you are simply stuck with serious peer pressure.

Transformation research shows that big shifts in society follow a similar pattern: First a few people do it. Others follow. A behaviour becomes the norm. Rejecting it becomes old-school. And suddenly we wonder why we ever acted differently.

The sustainability shift we need, of course, requires more than just individuals or individual behaviour changes. Political regulation is needed, new economic standards, large-scale social change. But at the end of the day, political pressure flows and grows from individuals who turn into social groups and then movements. US climate communication expert Susan Joy Hassol calls it “social contagion”.

Isn’t it inspiring that our own power starts with something as simple as us talking?

What the research by Magnus Bergquist, Maximilian Thiel, Matthew H. Goldberg and Sander van der Linden, who pooled the results of 430 individual studies on environment-related behaviours, shows is:

  • Personal conversations make a difference.
  • Sharing our personal climate solutions –  rather than just fear or doomsday scenarios on climate – makes a difference.
  • And most importantly: Everybody has power to affect change.

This research is hugely encouraging. At Talking Hope, we focus on these goals: We work to invite people in the conversation on climate, who are not yet included. We believe in finding ways forward through dialogue, participation and collaboration. And we are convinced and committed that everybody has the power to affect, advance and be a force of change.

Let’s start at the dinner table. Your funny Uncle Jim and weird cousin Mary might just take the cue from you.