How to Change Behavior: Al Gore Balances Fear and Hope

By Emerson CEO, Trish Emerson

“I’ve been delving into neuroscience and behavioral psychology. I’ve had day’s long sessions with both of those groups. The first thing I’ve learned is you have to keep those groups apart.” Vice President Al Gore presented at the Commonwealth Club of California in late July, and showed up relaxed, authentic and funny. And while he is on a mission to save our world, he is also clearly a colleague in behavior change.

His new book and movie An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power focuses on three questions change practitioners examine daily:

  • Must we change?
  • Can we change?
  • Will we change?

Throughout his conversation with Bonni Cohen, Jon Shenk and Greg Dalton, Mr. Gore illustrated principles fundamental to behavior change:

  • Remember: Facts do not change behavior. We cull our experiences to support the viewpoint we’ve already established. Scientists call this selective perception, and we all do it. John Cook’s formula (p. 208 An Inconvenient Sequel) provides an alternative to debating facts: target the undecided majority, boil down key points to their “simple and sticky” essence, and “inoculate against misinformation.”

  • Show how the current system is broken. Mr. Gore tells the stories of John Leonard Chan, Catherine Flowers and Ivy Chipasha, giving names and faces to climate change impact. He equates the climate crisis to the moral imperative of the civil and gay rights movements. In our work, we often present only the vision for where we are going. But we must demonstrate that the current situation is unacceptable or people will not act.

  • Provide a way out for entrenched nay-sayers. Mr. Gore described the experience of Jerry Taylor, who spent 20 years as a senior fellow with the Cato Institute denying climate change. Now as a founder at the Niskanen Center, he regularly speaks with conservative Republicans who would like to support the climate agenda, but worry about negative consequences.

    Professor Dana Carney talks about this from another angle. Once a person takes a public stand, even if it’s based on an impression, it’s unlikely they will change their view.

    We can address this in two ways: 1) Focus our efforts on people who are naturally open to changing their mind. These early adopters make it safe for others who are entrenched. 2) Look for ways to break a big change into very small steps. Research shows that progress reinforces momentum.
  • .
  • Make your case visual and emotional. Our brains crave it; pictures and emotions appeal to our most primitive brain and they are easier to encode and interpret. Look at Mr. Gore’s book. He uses infographics and hero stories that are visually rich, varied and compelling. The book’s images focus our attention. It highlights data simply. It illustrates drama and trauma. It shows faces of climate heroes, and allows us to see how we can become one.

  • Balance fear and hope. Ms. Cohen described Mr. Gore’s reference to a “hope bucket,” that provides people with enough hope that they will be willing to act, rather than be paralyzed by despair with the problem. “…please remember how important it is to guard against feelings of despair. Despair, after all, is simply another form of denial, and can serve to paralyze the will we need to fight…” (p. 13) Throughout his conversation, Mr. Gore repeats a common cadence within the same breath: problem/progress; scare/inspire. He juxtaposes President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement with California Governor Jerry Brown’s commitment to it. He describes how we’ve had 11 devastating “once-in-1,000 year events” in the last seven years, then describes how developing countries are taking the lead in adopting non-carbon technologies because they require little infrastructure, and are cheaper than the alternative. He holds that the sustainability revolution is as big as the industrial revolution coupled with the speed of the technology revolution.

  • Define concrete actions. The entire second half of Mr. Gore’s book is devoted to concrete actions people can take to make a difference. The guidance is simple, concrete, specific. He provides examples, and alternatives. It’s compelling. In business, many people are open to changing, but we fail to tell them specifically what we want them to do. We fail to provide alternatives so individuals can choose what resonates with them. It takes effort to break a generalization (Use the new system! Function as one team! Don’t work in silos!) into a tangible action. But this effort on design is important, and the impact is profound.

In climate change, Mr. Gore addresses our existential crisis employing principles about human behavior. While we deal in comparatively mundane matters, we can learn from a master.

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