The Compassionate Systems Theory of Change

Most of our attempts to make change rely on a belief that people can change, that change is possible. Of course, this is true—but just barely. So, this is not much of a theory of change, but rather a Theory of Unchange—a theory of why change is so hard.

Our brains are physically limited in the amount of thinking and decision making we can do; just a few hours each day is all we have. This is not a choice. This is a physical limitation, and is no more changeable than our height or eye colour.

If we were irrevocably bound by this limitation, humanity would literally still be shivering in caves. But instead we have developed coping mechanisms that allow us to recycle past decisions so we can use those few daily hours for new problems—as well as for the quotidian minutiae of life.

These coping mechanisms include: habits, rules of thumb, laws, social conventions, religious strictures, myths, superstitions, writing and publishing, social structures, governments—and especially physical infrastructure.

That I say “especially physical infrastructure” signals my bias. But I am a designer of products and systems, so rather than bias I like to think of this as my special insight.

We say, “like a fish in water” to draw attention to something that is so taken for granted it cannot be seen. But the fish is probably aware of temperature, density, salinity, taste, smell, and currents—without naming these things as properties of water. And so with humans. We are aware of wide roads, narrow roads, bumpy roads and smooth roads, but we seldom ask Why Roads? Or what would happen if roads were different.

Roads are something that many of us interact with regularly, perhaps for several hours a day, and some of us spend some of our few conscious hours thinking about them. But what about the things we are less aware of, like the insulation in our walls, the method of generating our electricity, or the type of piping that irrigates our food?

The way our electricity is generated can lock in orders of magnitude more pollution that we can ever affect by turning our lights off. The way our cities are built can lock in order of magnitude more pollution than we can affect with personal driving choices. We built these systems to cope with our limited ability to pay attention—to think and choose. Changing systems is the most powerful lever we can pull.

Of course, everybody knows this—people who care about these things sagely nod over Donella Meadows’ essay on leverage points. If she had known about recent brain research that shows how little conscious thought we have, Meadows probably would have been even more insistent that we focus on systems. And yet, probably because system change is so daunting, almost without thinking we default back to advocacy and education for personal changes—the same finger wagging about light switches and shorter showers that we know does not work.

We say these tactics aren’t working—and that implies that they could work, if only we did them better, or bigger. Better framing, more fundraising, better creative, more crowdsourcing, viral this or that.

But it is not that they don’t work, it is that they can’t work. They can not work.

Attention is a physical resource, which means our attention is exhaustible—in fact, it is very easily exhaustible—and finite. This means fighting for attention—as we do with our campaigns, social media, and documentary films—is a zero sum game. Attention is a limited commodity, and when you use it, it is gone. It is not that the tactic needs to be bigger, it is that the attention is already used up—gone.

This means this sort of work is fundamentally competitive. In order to succeed, something else must fail.

If you are going to get attention, you must take it from somewhere else. Essentially, you must stab your friends in the back. If your friend has a cookie that you want to eat, there is no amount of community engagement that will make that cookie multiply. You can take the cookie from them or share the cookie with them, but either way, your friend gets less cookie.

This may not be bad when we are talking about cookies, but when we are talking about medical research, food aid, endangered species, climate change, social justice, addiction…you are taking the cookie from some very important issues. Furthermore, these issues are already fighting for brain space against work and family and television and magazines and facebook…

Now, some very smart academics who study these things think that 80-95% of our behaviour is determined by the context we are in. I think these smart academics are like fish, and so can’t see the water they are swimming in—the physical context. They don’t see the way our behaviour is profoundly shaped, not just by roads and plumbing, but by building codes and zoning regulations and trade agreements.

One researcher thinks 99.999% of our behaviour is shaped by our context, and I think he is much closer to the truth. I developed this pyramid model to show what my hunches of the relative sizes of behavioural influences are.

behaviour pyramid

So, we should start by asking how we can change the system. Only after we have relentlessly eliminated any hope of ever changing the system should we try to fight for attention. If you can’t change the system, most of the time it would be better to do nothing at all rather than rob attention from an issue that has a chance. Fighting for attention is our last gasp, the thing we do when we are convinced we have no choice and our issue is so important we are willing to stab our friends in the back in order to steal attention from the issues they are working on. And even then, we will probably fail.

If we truly want to make change, we must stop asking for attention; we must work on the system. We need to look for the way to educate the fewest people—just the right people, the bare minimum needed to create the change we seek. We must build compassionate systems—systems that make our desired behaviour as effortless as turning on the tap or flicking the light switch.

We must build water.




Language shapes our thoughts? Who cares?

Despite being regular humans with the same eyeballs as the rest of us, did you know that if a language has words that finely differentiate shades of blue and green, the speakers of that language are better able to distinguish colours in the blue-green range?

This is just one of the Five examples of how the languages we speak can affect the way we think, which showed up in my social media courtesy of the TED blog.

This blog seems to show language shapes us. It is interesting, but I think what it implies about behaviour rests on bad assumptions that are closely tied to TED culture, so I would like to bring them into the sunshine.

The centrepiece of the blog is a proposition from behavioural economist Keith Chen, who has analyzed reams of data and found that people who speak a language that separates the future from the present, like English, save less money. People who speak a language that is futureless, like Chinese, save more money.

Chen wrote his own post on the TED blog, where he supplies more detail, gives links to a blog called Language Log, and links to no less than four other people who discuss why they think his conclusions are off-base. He also wrote a guest post on Language Log to expand the conversation. I found all the posts to be concise, interesting, and refreshingly civil and supportive of advancing research. I would encourage you to read them if you like to geek out on this sort of thing.


So, the Five Examples show us how language can shape us. But as interesting as this research is, the question isn’t whether people who speak different languages think differently, or even have different skills, or even sometimes behave differently. TED doesn’t put things up just because they are interesting, TED wants to change the world.

I think the implication is if we choose our words carefully, we can change behaviour. If only we share TED’s Ideas Worth Spreading then, at last, everyone would stop being so dumb and do what I want them to do.

The question is can we say something in a way that changes people’s behaviour en masse. We can’t reverse engineer a language, to make English futureless like Chinese. This isn’t about differentiating between shades of blue and green, this is about real-world propositions—can we word something in a way that changes how populations recycle, shop, or drive?


The belief—the Myth—of behaviour is that what we think is what we do. If only we could find the right words we could change people’s thoughts. If only we gave people the right information they would act differently. If only we could raise their awareness and make them Wake Up.

Sadly, thinking controls almost none of our behaviour. Most of our behaviour is determined by the physical and social system we are in. How your house is constructed is far more important to your heating bill than your behaviour. How your city is designed impacts how you drive far more than your thoughts about climate chaos.

Now, the system still allows us some choice, but within those parameters our social group makes most of our decisions for us. This isn’t a bad thing. It is pretty obvious we don’t have the time or energy to analyze everything—we need to save our thinking for important things, so we outsource thinking to our social group. This ability to outsource thinking and choice has allowed humanity to accomplish all it has; without it, we wouldn’t even be hunter-gatherers.

When you ignore these facts and focus on language, thoughts, beliefs, and values, you are choosing to continue blaming the victim, not the system. And this is why I disagree with the implications of this post. Sure, language may be able to shape our thoughts. So what? Our thoughts have very little impact on our behaviour.

What has a huge impact is systems. We must build supportive systems, what I call Compassionate Systems, instead of soothing ourselves with the old myths of behaviour.



Why is changing behaviour so hard? In this slidecast I share a way of answering that question, and how Compassionate Systems can increase the effectiveness of our work.

This was recorded at the Invasive Species forum in Richmond, BC, in January 2013. Apologies for the occasionally tinny sound—and, of course, it is only a slidecast. Think of it as a podcast with a screensaver.


Compassionate Systems

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.

behaviour pyramid

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.

black and white threshold edited

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.

black and white threshold edited

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.


The Top Ten Myths of Behaviour Change

The Top Ten Myths of Behaviour Change from Brock Macdonald of the Recycling Council of British Columbia, on Vimeo.