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June 16-18 | 2021

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  /  CityChanger   /  Forget about common sense

Forget about common sense

“You’re thinking about making change in lots of places and lots of ways, but what you don’t know is that your greatest adversary is not that change is hard to make. Your greatest adversary is common sense.”

So says Jeni Cross, community sociologist and Professor at the Department of Sociology at Colorado State University. Jeni, who will be presenting at the upcoming Urban Future Global Conference in Lisbon, tied to yet another thought-provoking observation: Want to Make People Change Behaviour? Forget It!

Over the course of her 20+ year career, Jeni has been focussed on accelerating positive societal transformation, from promoting energy conservation to exploring how green buildings impact on health and performance in schools. Along the way, she hasn’t been afraid to question society’s conventional approach to problem solving, whether it’s that common sense won’t win the day; or, that we can’t change people’s behaviour simply by telling them what to do. But her disruptive ideas are clearly gaining traction, helping to explain why her Ted Talk “Three Myths of Behaviour Change” now has close to 1.2 million views.

In a recent interview, Jeni helped to explain the method to her madness: “We have this tendency, especially in the U.S., of seeing every problem as an individual problem. So, if we just persuade people to behave differently (in other words using common sense as a lever), then that’s how we’re going to change things.”

But the reality she says, based on her experience working with a broad cross section of society ranging from schools trying to reduce bullying to municipalities seeking to encourage more recycling, is that what motivates people the most is not by telling them they’re doing something wrong. But instead, by sharing with them the positive behaviour of others. It’s a more nuanced approach that stems from years spent helping to solve real world challenges and her deep-seated conviction that “attitudes follow behaviour, they don’t predict it.”

“Studies have shown that when hotels ask people to reuse their towels to help save the environment, only 38 percent of people will comply. But if you let them know that 75 percent of guests reuse their towels, 58 percent (on the receiving end of this message) will do the same.” 

Time to rethink your towel signs

Time to rethink your towel signs?!

So contrary to our gut feeling that we should just tell people they need to change… for real change to occur, it’s more about nudging people in the right direction. And by doing everything from promoting positive role models (as in the case with the hotel towels) to taking other positive steps that will help to accelerate change.

“When I was in Graz a few years ago there was an area that had higher rates of commuting by car,” recalls Jeni, who presented at one of the previous UFGC conferences there as well.

“But the solution wasn’t just to try and persuade more people to take the train. The problem was solved by extending the tram line… and then suddenly the commuter rates (by car) dropped down. So, they fixed the problem by making it easier to use public transit. Because if it’s not convenient, people will just keep doing what they always do and continue to take the car.”

© HG Linien | Lupi Spuma

Whether it’s convincing more people to take public transit, to throw their garbage in a waste bin or to turn off their lights, Jeni’s approach to solving complex challenges is that equally sophisticated solutions are needed. Solutions that involve everything from studying the underlying reasons of the problem to analyzing which steps are most likely to positively influence people to change their behaviour.

She refers to the process as “problem solving sociology” whereby influencers – including CityChangers, think more systematically. With this approach “you’re not just using your favourite toolkit… because if the only thing in that toolkit is a hammer and you need a screwdriver, you aren’t going to get the outcome you’re looking for.”

One of the most valuable “tools” in Jeni’s own change management toolkit, is the practice of making such complex challenges as energy or water conservation more tangible. And in doing so, help people to come to grips with the problem. For instance, as conveyed in her Ted Talk, if you want to get more homeowners to weather strip their doors and windows, don’t just tell them about all the cracks and air leaks they have around their home. Instead, convey to them that when you add up all those cracks “you have a hole in your house the size of a basketball.” Yet another example for those with dripping taps is don’t just tell them about how much water they’re losing over the course of the year, but show them an image of stacked barrels that represent the number of litres of water they’re losing so they can visualize how the water loss adds up.

From Jeni’s perspective, even the smallest changes do add up… especially at the local level. But even small changes won’t happen, unless we learn how to show… and not tell.


Your greatest adversary is … common sense.

Instead of feeling guilty about big things you can’t change … focus on the small things where you can make a difference.

The changes each one of us makes may seem like a drop in the bucket … but eventually, you will fill that bucket.

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