Professor Geoff Beattie interviewed about behaviour change

Professor Beattie, author of “ Why Aren’t we Saving the Planet?”(reviewed here) talks to MCFly writer Laurence Menhinick about his research and his conclusions about between our explicit behaviour (what we say we do) and implicit behaviour (what we actually do which matches our core values).


Professor Beattie, could you explain to us how you came to do this research? What were the main questions you were trying to answer?
As a psychologist, I am fascinated by the notion that human beings don’t know themselves as much as they think, and I was fascinated by the notion that a lot of people (big retailers, government through DEFRA) thought they could read people’s minds. To me that was a bit of a challenge because everyone was saying that they all had the solutions to the whole climate change issue, that the scientific evidence seemed pretty convincing and a lot of the public say they get the message… but don’t do what they say.

That raises a lot of interesting psychological challenges: Why is that? Why aren’t we all cycling? Why aren’t we all selling our cars? Why aren’t we buying low carbon footprint products in supermarket? If you read DEFRA reports, they say you have to take into consideration people’s ability to change and willingness to change, to me that is like mind-reading and I wasn’t sure that was correct. Do we even know what our fundamental attitudes are?

As I have said at the conference [Consumption: A Multi-disciplinary Point of View, SCI Manchester 8-9 March 2012] “There are people who think they can read minds, but it’s more difficult than they think because human beings don’t have a mind. They have two.”

Some aspect of behaviour are not conscious and reflective, they are automatic and impulsive.[the implicit behaviour]. People are discrepant, they are conflicted. People say one thing but their implicit attitude seems to be at odds with it; what I am arguing is that conflict within human beings is important; therefore if we are going to do anything about climate change we have to start of with that assumption.

Now if behaviour is automatic and not open to reflection, how are you going to change it? There are a number of things you are going to have to do: start considering the concept of implicit attitude, and how do we change that? We know it can be done because if you look at the great alcohol and cigarette adverts in the 1950s and 1960s, they turned something cancerous into something glamorous and sexy. How? The answer is in understanding how to promote things implicitly. I have an article coming up in Nature Climate Change on this very issue: people put the carbon footprint information on cartons but we have done the eye tracking: it is obvious it doesn’t work, people are not looking at it (…). If you look at an Easter egg, you will look at the calorie content, and the fat content too, but the carbon footprint? People don’t look- partly because it is not clear what it means, and also because it “doesn’t mean anything personal and emotional to them” so it raises all sorts of challenges: how do you make it personal? Or emotional? How do you get it noticed in the first place?

Your research was based on a very small number of people, how do we know that it may be representative of the general public?
I presented the results based on a tiny sample, suggesting that the implicit /explicit are discrepant as I believe that it is universal, but I don’t believe it is representative of the whole population- I wanted people to start thinking along those lines, but the beauty is that we have now an online version of the Implicit Association Test (IAT)* and access to enormous database of shopping habits and we have the opportunity to get a sample of shoppers to fill the IAT – so we will be able to link those two things up.

(…) I have also been trying to understand the enormous variation in cultural value, for instance I went to Newcastle in Australia and to the US to try and run similar tests there. Let’s see how it translates there. But if you are going to think about behavioural change and changing attitudes, you have to take into consideration this weird implicit system which governs much of our every day action especially when we are under stress or tired.

In your book I was surprised that you included yourself in the study. Is this usual in psychology?
I am aware of that – I have written autobiographical novels and academic papers and the two worlds were completely separate, but the Planet book was where it all started to collide and I wanted to do so, and the [new] “Our Racist Heart?” book, even more so. I am interested in the issue of the divided self and I didn’t want to keep myself out of the loop. When it comes to the environment it looks like I fall within the same group as the “green fakers”.

I am interested in the “green fakers”. Could you tell us a little more about who they are, and can we change them?

They are a group of people who explicitly say they care hugely about the environment and when we measure them implicit attitude it doesn’t seem to be the case; the two things don’t converge. These are conflicted individuals – It seems to me that regarding the environmental change issue they are the interesting people – (…)

They may be aware that their behaviour doesn’t match what they say but I think what is interesting is how they process that information. [this is also analysed in the Racism book to come, so there is evidence that ] they are trying to persuade themselves. It is not just excuses and justifications about why we don’t do things, “ I’ve got to fly, sorry” for instance, it is more about the way we process this information in our everyday lives.

There will be a million places to look at concerning the way they process information. One thing we did recently, is look at environmental messages. I did a little piece with film clips from Al Gore’s “ An Inconvenient Truth”. And we looked at people whose implicit attitudes are at odds with their explicit attitudes, and what is interesting is that they don’t look at the messages in the same way. If you look at where they are looking for the first 200 milliseconds, they are not looking at the clip – they are managing to ignore the message. This again has never been looked at before- it would be interesting to understand it. The psychology of the green faker, the conflicts within the individual seem to be at the core of the whole issue. That gives us a starting point. It is not a case of “people don’t care about the environment” it is more than that, people say they care- but at some automatic level they don’t.

What you have changed in your personal behaviour ?

 It was almost as if I was putting myself forward as a problem case, and if you can change me you can change a lot (of others). I am much more sensitive to carbon footprint than I was. But on the other hand if I can crack the problem of me I can crack the problem of anyone – I am always discounting because “I am too busy to do this” or unfortunately “I must fly to X”– you also have academics who see themselves as separate but I don’t think so I like to reflect on the process that shape me and I don’t want to lose sight of that.

Are you going to work on follow-ups? Will you do any more environmental studies?

 Yes, relating to behaviour there are the online IATs coming up .

Also I am thinking about a book on communication about environmental issues– how can we maximise that? I’m interested in the risk perception, how to communicate risk more effectively, and how we frame communication.

Also more research in the divided self within human being and I want to look at biodiversity too. What I want to do is face up to the big issues really.

Laurence Menhinick

* http address to follow when the tests have been released

(Interview with Professor Geoff Beattie, of the School of Psychological Sciences at Manchester University- 9th March 2012)

Full transcript here.

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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1 Response to Professor Geoff Beattie interviewed about behaviour change

  1. Pingback: Manchester Climate weekly nuggets: 16th April 2012 | manchester climate monthly

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