Friday, August 31, 2012

The surprising science of motivation

The myth that appealling to people´s self-interest is the key to motivating sustainable behaviour is dispelled in this fascinating TED talk by Dan Pink. This gives a great explanation of research showing that extrinsic motivations (e.g. money) only improve performance for a certain type of mechanical tasks with clearly defined end goals. For tasks involving any level of cognitive skill or creativity, extrinsic goals will either not work or hinder performance; that means for most tasks we are faced with today, instrinsic motivations - such as autonomy, mastery and purpose - are far more motivating. Here Dan Pink talks about this research in relation to the mismatch between the 40 years of evidence from social science research and how businesses motivate performance, although the prinicples also apply to motivating changing behaviour to more sustainable lifestyles. "This is one of the most robust findings in social science, and also one of the most ignored." The good news is that linking sustainable actions and lifestyles to people´s existing values of autonomy, mastery and serving a purpose larger than ourselves is an immediately accessible way of helping to promote more successful behaviour change.

Dieticians in supermarkets help consumers make changes

Sometimes the right type of information at the right time and place can really assist consumers in changing their habits and lifestyles. This New York Times article reports on the work of dieticians in supermarkets across the USA, who assist shoppers who want to improve their health or learn how to shop and cook for specific conditions such as gluten intolerance. Dietitians give in-store consultations and store tours with customers, hold cooking classes, prepare take-home meals e.g. for dieters, take biometric screenings of customers and staff, give presentations in schools, businesses and civic events, work with merchandisers, help set up community gardens, assess products for nutritional value and provide in-store information to explain nutrional information on packaging. The service helps consumers to acheive their health goals and the supermarket chain consider the scheme invaluable to their business model. It is well known that providing generic information to the population about what they "should" do to live more healthily and sustainably is largely unsuccessful; this scheme is an example of how specific, timely, tailored, practical guidance from a trusted expert can enable real positive change (and the goals of eating healthily and maintaining healthy body weight are very relevant for sustainability too - see "Obesity as a sustainable consumption issue" for more info). This is also a great model for how businesses can help lead the shift towards healthy and sustainable lifestyles, as part of a successful business model.