We are swamped with requests—seductions—for our attention. Most of these will fail, and if you are in the business of changing people—say you work for a government or non-profit—most of your work will fail too.
This is because change hurts.
Behaviour is hard to change, and we make it harder by ignoring basic facts of behaviour. The most ignored fact is that our brain has limited attention. We often say your brain is a muscle, but even a well-fed muscle has limited capacity. And just like a muscle, no amount of energy drinks or gels will allow you to work, play—or think—indefinitely.
If we spend our attention on cute kitten videos instead of endangered spiders, then that attention is gone for now. Most change campaigns ask for attention, and so they fail.
So failure to create change is mostly because we are thinking about change wrong. It is not because people are apathetic or stupid, or because the communications are bad or change isn’t fun! It is just that when we choose to fight for attention, we choose to fail.
Success requires changing the approach. We must work with people—and their brains—to build new systems that support different behaviour. I call these Compassionate Systems.
Compassionate Systems are necessary because our behaviour can be roughly divided into three arenas, shown here as a pyramid. Conscious Behaviour is just the tiny tip, Social Behaviour is several times larger, and the vast majority of the pyramid is built of Systemic Behaviour.
So while most of our behaviour is determined by the systems we live in, our current systems are often not built for us—like suburbs with no sidewalks, built for cars, not for people. Compassionate Systems are built for real human beings, built to support us so we can do more.
We need the support of Compassionate Systems because we humans are beautiful—and flawed. Our flaw is we think our mind controls our behaviour, but in fact we are social creatures, not rational.
We have built a world—we have built our systems—for the rational person, not the real person, so we have built a world that hates us. We have built a world with infinite hot water, and then we are blamed for taking long showers. We have built a world with wide highways and fast cars, and then we are blamed for driving too much. We might as well blame the giraffe for eating leaves from the top of the tree.
Rather than blaming us for not caring, compassionate systems recognize we can only do so much. If we are to be effective against climate change—or the other critically important social and environmental issues—we must build a world that loves us, a world that accepts our limitations.
Compassionate systems accept human limits, both physical and cognitive. They are user-centred and based on observation and testing. We see them all around us—every car comes with a seat belt, it is not an extra feature you must pay for. Lead was removed from paint so people didn’t have to debate the pros and cons of painting their child’s crib with lead or lead-free.
If you want people to recycle more, you can tell people to buy a recycling bin, and then, if they don’t recycle, you can complain they don’t care. The compassionate system gives them a recycling bin, but more importantly, the system innovates to eliminate packaging so people don’t need to recycle—the recycling bin signals system failure. The compassionate system regulates fisheries so people don’t need to spend attention at the fishmonger, green labelling systems signal system failure. The compassionate system builds Net Zero homes, energy feedback displays signal system failure.
There are thousands of important issues that need our attention, and thousands of businesses that want it. Our attempts to create change often carry an undercurrent of blame—You need this app because you are lazy; We need better sound bites because you don’t care; You need this website because you are ignorant—but the data shows people aren’t the problem, bad systems are.
Though we tend to act like our brain is infinitely capable, Dr. Roy Baumeister has found we have actual, physical limitations to our attention, analysis and decision making. Just like you can only run so fast and jump so high, you can only think so much. We have evolved ways of conserving our brain resources by filtering information, using rules of thumb and building habits. But even still, we can only do so much.
So, failure to capture attention is not necessarily because your work has poor communications or is disengaged from the audience; it is likely your audience is just spending their limited attention elsewhere. This means if you successfully get your audience’s attention they cannot give their attention to something else—climate change at the expense of overfishing; aid for hurricane victims at the expense of cancer research. Success on one issue means you are stabbing other important work in the back.
The key is to stop asking people to pay attention, because paying attention exacts a literal cost. Stop using the finite resource of attention, and start drinking from the deep wells of Social Context and especially System Change. A few simple rules allow birds to dip and swirl in beautiful rhythm—clearly we must find the rules for environmental behaviour that birds have for flocking;
Dr. Michael Gazzinaga says, “Probably 99.999 percent of what goes on in the brain is automatic and unconscious.” MIT’s Dr. Sandy Pentland thinks 95% of behaviour is social, and Dr. Alex Bentley has shown how the mode of social transmission can seen in the shape of the graph of transmission over time.
So good framing and communications can help increase the effectiveness of that 1-5% of our behaviour that is consciously chosen. Community engagement and social norms start to work on the 95% of our behaviour that is socially determined.
That neatly adds up to 100%. But we have forgotten about the system.
Our flaw is we think we are rational, but we are social creatures. But society itself is built on and within the choices of hundreds and thousands of years. And so, most of our behaviour may be thought of as being neither rational, nor social, but systemic—the behaviours are determined not by conscious choice, nor by the peers we engage with, but rather by the world we have built.
From the littlest things like how high the light switches are in your home to the biggest things like energy generation or international trade laws, much of our day-to-day behaviour is locked in by the system we live in. In explaining the design of the International Space Station, Jim Plaxco tells a fascinating story of path dependancy, tracing through NASA, Victorian train rail gauges, the Roman Empire, and finally to pre-Roman history, only to find the determining factor is the hindquarter width of draft horses.
So how much of our behaviour could be locked into the system? Dr. Robert Ayres studies Industrial Metabolism and finds, on average, 94% of material never makes it into the finished product, it is consumed or discarded in manufacturing. So, when we try to communicate, engage, or change the choice architecture around recycling, we are still only affecting 6% of the material.
Does this mean 94% of our behaviour is determined by the system? Does this mean our conscious and social choices are only 6% of our behaviour? Obviously the correlation is not going to be so neat and tidy, but just as obviously, we must go upstream. Donella Meadows eloquently told us the power of system change, and the even greater power of paradigm shifts.
System change is not smart meters or video gaming energy conservation—those tactics may be more effective than current outreach strategies, but they still demand attention; therefore, they can only work in the tiny arena of conscious behaviour and the small arena of social behaviour.
Choice architecture does changes the system to exploit our cognitive limits, but we must still be aware of how far upstream our choice architecture reaches. Altering choice architecture can, for example, greatly increase the choice of healthy meals, but the diners largely will not, and cannot, make choices to affect the farms upstream of their dinner. The choice architecture changed behaviour in the dining room, but not on the farm—the lettuce may be doused in pesticides and harvested with forced labour.
So, understanding the scale of the three arenas of behaviour; Conscious, Social and Systemic allows us to draw a few conclusions:
- Changing systems will have the greatest impact
- We must be very strategic about who we ask to think and what we ask them to think about
- We must be very skilled in how we ask them to think
- We must ask them to think about changing the system
- Asking them to think about their own behaviour should be a last resort
By understanding the scales of the arenas of behaviour change, we can greatly increase the effectiveness of our work. This simple pyramid model can help us identify what arena we are working in, and can help us question the assumptions keeping us in that arena rather than working in a larger and more effective arena. The pyramid model dramatically and clearly illustrates the challenges of certain strategies and offers motivation to work in other ways.