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Monday, April 30, 2012

Identify barriers and constraints

To get people to act, you must be thoroughly aware of the kinds of restraints that your audience is operating under. When attempting to change behavior, contextual factors(“such as physical infrastructure, technical facilities, the availability of products, and product characteristics”) that inhibit the desired behavior must be found, taken into consideration, and hopefully circumvented or removed. For instance, if bus ridership is urged in a particular community, such a strategy does not make much sense if bus service is not available or it is heavily underfunded and very inconvenient to use. Another important detail to consider are the effects of the target population's social characteristics on their behavior. For instance, research shows that when decreasing energy use is the goal, low income households tend to make significant lifestyle changes to reduce consumption, whereas higher-income households tend to maintain their normal levels of consumption and simply upgrade to higher efficiency technologies in their home. Lower income acts as a restraint and must be kept in mind when constructing policies and messages aimed at promoting environmentally conscious behavior. When targeting higher-income areas, emphasis can be placed on new and efficient technologies. Conversely, in lower income areas, the focus can be behavioral changes that do not involve substantial monetary costs. Ultimately, the goal is to make messages as relevant to the target audience as possible, increasing the chances of genuine attitudinal and behavioral change.

Structural and institutional constraints must also be taken into consideration. For instance, if utility customers are urged to lower their energy consumption towards the average or are asked to lower their energy use during peak times, the utility company should first make sure that customers have easy access to information that shows their energy use in comparison to average levels and lists when “peak hours” actually are. A similar example deals with energy saving measures such as solar heating and insulation. Such methods are only relevant for homeowners, not renters. Such information about the audience must constantly be kept in mind when seeking behavioral change because people are much less likely to act if they feel that what they are being told is irrelevant or too much of a hassle to pursue.

Social and cultural factors can also be taken into account to increase the potency of a message. Interventions should address key questions before they are implemented. Questions such as: How salient is the behavior? Does it play a role in social interactions? Does it play a role in social norms? Research should seek to identify “linkages between energy use and proxies of broader cultural and social identities.” By understanding the kinds of social and cultural constraints people operate under, behavioral interventions can be much more potent.

A great example of removing barriers in action is what is being done by the government of Columbia County, Georgia.  Columbia County has recently implemented a program that substantially lowers the barriers for citizens getting involved with their government.  Here is the gist of the program:

"The Columbia County is pleased to announce the launching of a new smart phone application that will allow citizens to snap and submit photos, video, and audio files of potholes, illegal dumping, deceased animals, and any other issues that Columbia County needs to address."
A local official was quoted about the program and he touched upon one of the main themes of identifying barriers, promoting convenience:
"In government, you can't wait for people to come to you-- you need to give residents the tools to empower themselves in the most convenient [emphasis added by me] way.  This real time mobile application will allow citizens to identify public safety and quality of life issues and report them to the county for quick resolutions."
Under normal circumstances, citizens act under a variety of constraints when it comes to connecting with their local government agencies and officials.  Often times, government is unresponsive and citizens are confused on what is the quickest and most effective way of being heard.  In fact, people might not even be aware of which communication methods are actually available.  Columbia County directly tackles these barriers.  They are drastically lessening confusion, increasing responsiveness, and making communication instant and convenient.

When attempting to promote audience engagement and behavioral change, it's absolutely important to identify which barriers your audience is operating under.  Removing these barriers can significantly increase chances of success and have the bonus effect of making your audience feel like it is being heard because their specific problems are being identified and addressed.

Sources cited:

  • Steg, Linda, and Charles Vlek. "Encouraging Pro-environmental Behaviour: An Integrative Review and Research Agenda."
  • Lutzenhiser, Loren. "SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL ASPECTS OF ENERGY USE." Annu. Rev. Energy Environ. 18 (1993): 247-89. Annual Reviews Inc, 1993.  1 June 2010. <>.
  • Ockwell, David, and Saffron O'neill. "Mitigation: Forcing People to Be Green or Fostering Grass-Roots Reorienting Climate Change Communication for Effective Engagement?"
  • Wilson, Charlie, and Hadi Dowlatabadi. "Models of Decision Making and Residential Energy Use."
  • "GovLoop Communications Guide." GovLoop. Apr. 2012 <>.

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