In This Edition Of Wake-Up Call

Feature Article: Do Positive Messages Lead to More Positive Outcomes?

The most recent ad campaign to encourage Australians to quit smoking focuses on the health benefits which start to accrue as soon as you quit. The “Stop smoking, start repairing” campaign is a noticeable departure from the usual ads which try to terrorise smokers with graphic images of the damage they are doing to themselves. Which begs the question – are messages about the positive outcomes of action more effective than messages about the negative outcomes of inaction?

When this topic comes up in conversation, there is almost universal support for the effectiveness of positive messages. But it is possible that this is simply because we want it to be true – it would be nice to think that our fellow humans beings are driven more by inspiration than fear. Let’s look at what the research says.

One interesting article called “Change or Die” examines the reluctance of people to change their lifestyle, even when faced with the threat of death. In fact, less than 10% of bypass patients make a change of lifestyle two years after surgery, even though they could greatly reduce their pain and likely prognosis by doing so. One program which had succeeded in turning this around used a number of tactics, including emphasising the positive effects of changing and the “joy of living”, rather than the fear of dying, as a motivator.

Another study
found that people were more concerned and motivated to change their environmentally-related behaviour when they were told of the benefits of acting, rather than just the seriousness of pollution and energy problems. This effect was only pronounced for those older than 55 and younger than 35. Those in the middle were not swayed by either message.

On the other hand, there is a well-known phenomenon called “loss-aversion bias”, whereby we will make more effort to avoid a loss than we will to gain something of a similar size. If we fear that we will lose something through our inaction, we are more motivated to make an effort to preserve the status quo. However, if we are told we can gain a similar value through doing something extra, we are less likely to act. This has led many to conclude that a more successful approach is to describe the negative consequences of climate change, rather than the potential gains of living a more eco-friendly life.

One study which explored this area in more depth was conducted by Carl Obermiller. Obermiller suggests that the effectiveness of positive and negative messages depends on how much we know and care about the relevant issue (the “salience” of the issue). His work concludes that, for issues of low salience, an approach which highlights the seriousness of the situation is needed to get our attention and begin to raise our concern. For issues about which we already know and care a lot, Obermiller’s work suggests that further negative messages may turn us off, and we are instead more receptive to an approach which shows us the possibilities and benefits of action. This is based on the idea that two of the precursors to action are concern and control. If we care, but can’t do anything about it, we don't act, and are potentially frustrated by further efforts to make us care more. Conversely, if we are given information and resources to act, but the issue is not on our radar, we are unlikely to use those resources.

Therefore, the choice of message depends somewhat on the aim of the communication. Are we primarily trying to draw attention to the issue, or get already-concerned people into action? If we apply Obermiller’s observations to the bypass patients mentioned earlier, it is clear that the people in question were already painfully aware of the seriousness of the issues. So the positive approach to getting them into action was successful because it worked on motivating and supporting them to act. The smoking campaign also may have been based on a realisation that most smokers are well aware of the harm they are doing to themselves, so a new approach focusing on the benefits of change could have its merits.

These findings also highlight the importance of doing sound research before committing effort and resources to behaviour change initiatives. If the level of knowledge of an issue is low in the target audience, then raising awareness is a good first step. However, where concern is high but action is low, other interventions are likely to be more successful, such as removing barriers to action and providing resources and support.


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Awake provides psychology-based services to support the development of sustainable behaviour in individuals, groups and organisations.  Visit for more info

Interesting Article of The Month - Retail Therapy Works

Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood
By A. Selin Atalay and Margaret G. Meloy
Psychology and Marketing
Volume 28, Issue 6, pages 638–659, June 2011

What is it about? 
This study examined whether “retail therapy”, the act of shopping to elevate our mood, actually works for us.

What did they find?
The authors found that people do deliberately indulge in retail therapy to lift their mood, and that the practice does indeed lead to a feeling of wellbeing. Furthermore, we tend not to feel guilty about it later – people were still feeling good about their purchase when asked about it one week later.

What can we take from this? Many of us who advocate sustainable consumption are fond of mocking the concept of retail therapy, claiming that it is short-sighted behaviour encouraged by marketing types at the expense of the environment and long-term wellbeing. In particular, there is strong evidence to suggest that “having more stuff” does not contribute to happiness, and therefore retail therapy serves no purpose beyond a short-term high. This research suggests that our scorn may have been premature, especially with regard to the psychological benefits. However, the impacts of retail therapy on the environment are not addressed in full – maybe there are other ways we can gain the same psychological benefits without adding to the endless consumption of resources?

60 Seconds With....Maria Hannaford, Econest

What first got you focused on sustainability?
It's who really. My parents. Both my parents are from Greece, and both grew up in tiny villages where their connection to the land was very strong. They brought this connection with them when they came to Australia, and I remember growing up in a house that had vegetables and fruit trees growing on every available patch of dirt, front and back! It was suburbia but that didn't stop them from having chickens (and at one point a lamb). They fostered in me a great respect for nature. That grew stronger as I grew older. Then of course add a bit of education and light reading, and presto, you've got yourself a sustainability enthusiast.

What is the sustainable choice you have recently made of which you are most proud?
Eating slow food. Only slow food. Nothing highly processed, nothing with additives, nothing mass produced. It's tough in today's world, but achievable. Actually, I'm loving the process of making my food from scratch, using only local ingredients, knowing where the ingredients come from. It's my way of saying no to GM, no to mass farming of animals. It's a wonderful thing, as it's not only better for our planet, it's making me feel happier, more connected to nature. I blogged about it on Econest. Hopefully it'll encourage others to take similar action.

What behaviours would you like to change to move towards greater sustainability?
I think there's room for improvement in all aspects of my eco endeavours! On a larger scale, my husband and I bought an existing home not long ago, and did as much as we could initially to make it eco-friendly; changed the lightbulbs, swapped the showerheads and taps, installed compost bins and a mini water tank for the garden. Now we're about to embark on some renovations where we can redesign and retrofit and eventually go off the grid.
Exercise of the Month - What Gets You Moving?

The feature article above discusses the question of whether people are more motivated into action and change by positive messages or negative ones. This month’s exercise invites you to explore for yourself which approach is more likely to move you.
  1. Identify an area related to sustainable behaviour about which you would like to be more active (e.g. cycling, growing your own food)
  2. First, make a list of the costs and impacts of you and others not acting in a sustainable way on that issue. Things to consider
    • The costs in terms of time, effort and money to you and others
    • The impacts on the environment and community
    • The impact on the way it makes you feel
  3. Second, make a list of the positive outcomes if you and others were to take action on that issue. Things to consider
    • The potential benefits and savings in terms of money, time and effort, to you and others
    • The positive benefits to the environment and community
    • The benefits to the way it would make you feel
Did one of the lists resonate more with you than the other? Which one is more likely to motivate you into action?

Upcoming Event: Awake at the National Sustainable Procurement Forum

Tim Cotter will be presenting a workshop at the CIPSA ECO-Buy National Sustainable Procurement Forum.  The half-day workshop, Engaging And Influencing For Sustainable Procurement, will explore the key drivers of sustainable behaviours as they relate to purchasing, and provide tools and techniques to engage people in sustainable procurement practices.

When: September 7th and 8th, 2011
Where: Etihad Stadium, Docklands, Melbourne

Visit the conference website for more details.

About Awake
Awake provides psychology-based tools and services which support organisations and communities to develop a culture of sustainability. Visit for more info
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