Thursday, July 16, 2009

Behavior modification

I received an email the other day about a program being sponsored by the Ohio Chapter of the American Public Works Association and the Butler County Engineer's Office.

Here's the title and opening description:

Fostering Sustainable Behavior Workshop

“...Conserve Water ▪ Save Energy▪ Don’t Pollute ▪ Recycle ▪ Compost ▪ Wash Hands to Prevent Disease ▪ Slow Down in the Work Zone ▪ Click It or Ticket...”

Is your organization charged with implementing programs that incorporate similar themes? If so, then you probably already know that information alone is not the answer to a successful program. The goal of most Public Education and Outreach programs is not simply to inform the public, but to empower the public to take specific action which ultimately leads to sustainable behavior change. Learn how to move beyond brochures and information intensive programs.

I know that advertising campaigns are all about getting individuals to 'agree' with what you want them to do: buy a product, vote a certain way, support or oppose something... But I couldn't help but think of George Orwell's "1984" when I read this email.

Look at the wording and think about who funds 'public education and outreach' programs. The message is that government, the primary funder of such efforts, will 'empower' us to change our behavior to what they want it to be.

First of all, I don't need to be 'empowered' by government. I have the power to change or modify my behavior as I see fit. My ability to do such is not granted by the government, nor is it dependent upon government ad campaigns to tell me what they believe I should or should not be doing.

For example, I wear a seat belt and always have. It's not because I've been 'educated' by government that it's a good thing to do, but because I've evaluated the pros and cons of seat belt use and decided to use one. Similarly, I don't smoke and never have. This is not because government has told me it's bad for me, but because of my own evaluation of the product in light of my mild asthma...and also because I don't like the smell.

I have independent thought and reasoning skills and have made these decisions on my own. Others have decided differently based upon their own circumstances, wants and needs and don't wear seat belts and do smoke. That's fine with me.

However, it's not fine with government which uses the power of force (of law) to get us to do things according to the wishes of bureaucrats and politicians. And now, we have 'specialists' to tell various groups who do the bidding of government on these issues how to be more 'effective' at modifying our behaviors.

About the Speaker: For over twenty years Dr. McKenzie-Mohr, an environmental psychologist, has been incorporating scientific knowledge of behavior change into the design and delivery of community programs. He is the author of the best-selling book, “Fostering Sustainable Behavior,” and he has provided training internationally for over 40,000 environmental program planners in the use of community based social marketing. Further, this approach is now being utilized in thousands of environmental programs worldwide.

According to his bio,

Dr. McKenzie-Mohr has served as a member of the Canadian Public Education and Outreach issue table on climate change, as the coordinator of the international organization, “Holis: The Society for a Sustainable Future,” and as a member of the Canadian Education Task Force of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. He has been awarded the Canadian Psychological Association’s “Psychologists for Social Responsibility Research and Social Action Award,” and the “Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues Public Advocacy Fellowship.” He is a Professor of Psychology at St. Thomas University in Canada where he co-coordinates the Environment and Society program.

In one of his papers, he points out that, despite good 'educational' efforts and the fact that individuals 'know' what is good for them, they don't always do it. (Imagine that!) His approach is to define what 'prevents' people from acting as others think they should, remove the barriers to such action, use a pilot to test the approach and then evaluate the change of behavior.

In effect, he is teaching groups how to psychoanalyze their targeted audiences in order to get them to behave as the groups want. He calls it 'community-based social marketing.'

I don't know about you, but I find this rather disconcerting. I know that this is the same approach taken in various advertisements of products and services, but it appears to be somewhat ominous when it's done by government, or groups funded by government.

I don't believe it's government's role to tell us what to do and how to do it. Government is not the arbitrator of what is and is not good for us, though they've taken on that nanny-type role in so many ways. Government is supposed to ensure my freedom and liberties and also to protect my rights, including my 'freedom' to behave in a way that is contrary to what they want me to do and my 'right' to do something they consider to be stupid.

Ah, but Maggie, you say, government is supposed to ensure the common good and if you're hurt in an accident because you're not wearing a seat belt and you don't have insurance, government (meaning all of us) has to pay for your 'right' to be stupid.

Well, there's an easy solution to that situation - government doesn't pay. If I happen to suffer negative consequences as a result of my decision, others should not have to bear the burden of those consequences nor their costs. Under the accident scenario, I may end up paying off a hospital debt for the rest of my life, but that's my choice and, therefore, my obligation.

If government doesn't step in to alleviate me of my responsibility (in this case, to pay my medical bills), they have no justification for dictating to me (that I should wear a seat belt).

The problem is that too many people don't want to be responsible for their actions. They have readily embraced dependence upon government for all kinds of things (housing, food, medical coverage, retirement, etc...) and they appear to be willing to accept government dictates on their behavior in order to maintain that dependence.

Of course, those who do this are no longer 'free,' but slaves to the decision-makers who make up the government.

And now we have these kinds of seminars and workshops to make changing our behaviors easier and more effective. And the scariest part of this approach is that so many will not even realize it's being used.

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