Can small changes lead to big ones?

Can small changes lead to big ones?

How can people be convinced to significantly green their lives? To make the big changes needed to conserve natural resources and decrease energy use?

Robert B. Cialdini may have something to suggest. Cialdini' is the author of Influence and I’ve been reading his follow-up book Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive. Each of the 50 ways is given its own chapter in the easy to read book and number 14 is titled: “How can one small step help your influence take a giant leap?”

This chapter tells the story of two social science researchers posing as the Road Traffic Safety Committee and their quest to get homeowners to place “a large, unsightly sign measuring six feet by three feet and stating DRIVE CAREFULLY on [their] front lawn.” Unsurprisingly, only 17 percent in the “posh neighborhood” agreed to place the sign in their yard. But what was astonishing was that the researchers were able to increase that rate to 76 percent among a similar group “simply by making one seemingly insignificant addition to their request.” From page 65 of the book:

A different research assistant approached this separate group of residents two weeks prior to this burdensome request and asked them if they’d be willing to display a very small, relatively inconspicuous sign in their window that read BE A SAFE DRIVER. Because it was such a small request, almost all of these residents agreed. Two weeks later, when someone else came to their home and asked them if they’d be willing to place the large billboard on their otherwise perfectly manicured lawn, they were much more inclined to agree.

The researchers found that agreeing to the small request caused the homeowners “to see themselves as committed to worthy causes, such as safe driving.” With their identity slightly altered, they were almost five times as likely to agree to the much larger sign.

What’s the lesson for green communicators? There are those in the environmental community who dismiss things like compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and recycling as nice, but relatively insignificant in light of the greater changes society needs to make. But against the backdrop of this research, those small steps could be seen as the first steps that lead individuals to a greener identify and prepare them to make larger changes that benefit the environment. Just like the small sign led to the big one, the CFL could lead to FFV or the home solar water heater.

I’ve seen this in my personal life. My interest in the environmental movement started with communications consulting for wind and biofuels companies. That led me to be more intentional about recycling and to start composting. One day, I swapped all my incandescent bulbs for CFLs. These small changes helped to educate me and led me to do more. When a water-heater needed replacing, I went with the tankless that cost more but used far less energy. Then, I replaced water-guzzling appliances with low-flow shower-heads, high-efficiency toilets and an ENERGY STAR dishwasher and washing machine.

What will I do next? I can’t say for sure, but I’m looking. Got any ideas?


Nathan Schock's personal blog, Greenway Communique,  is the primary hub for communicating sustainability and bringing people together who do the same.