12/03/2014 04:59 EST | Updated 02/02/2015 05:59 EST

How To Change Your Behaviour For the Greater Good

Have you ever made yourself a promise to change a behavior but failed to follow through? Maybe you said you were going to exercise more or eat better, but despite your good intentions you failed to act. You're not alone.

Modifying behaviors for our personal gain is challenging enough, but what about changing for the greater good?

In the movie An Inconvenient Truth, as Al Gore wanders around in an airport he notices all the high end stores and all the consumption and he muses to himself about the fact that people just don't get the implications of how this mindless mass consumption is adversely affecting the environment. When it comes to buying socially responsible products, there is a growing global consciousness of intentions to decrease our carbon footprint and produce less waste, but there is a gap between what we say we want to do and what we actually do. So the question is, how can we bridge the gap between our intentions and our actions?

I've spent considerable time thinking about how we can close the gap and I've discovered four ways that businesses can help consumers make the right choice.

1) First we need to create a path of least resistance. For example, one of the biggest sources of waste in the world is plastic straws. Millions are used everyday around the world and right now the default action -- the path of least resistance -- is to automatically be given a straw with our drinks. If customers had to first ask for a straw instead of getting one by default, this new path of least resistance could radically decrease this unnecessary waste. Restaurant owners could put up a sign that straws would be given out only upon request because of their stance on supporting the environment. Not only would this reduce plastic waste, but also position the restaurant as a leader in social responsibility.

Another example would be hotels requesting guests to put a sign on the door only if they want their towels or sheets changed. How about making the office photocopier to default to double-sided printing?

These actions produce a triple win -- the company gets more business, the impact on the environment is reduced, and the consumer feels good about making a difference.

2) We are bombarded with desperate messages like "people are apathetic and not voting so you need to get out and vote" or "people are apathetic about the environment so you have to step up and do something about it." These messages not only fail to motivate people, they encourage them to stay the same. Why? Because they've now normalized that being apathetic is what everyone else is doing.

Some fascinating research was done in hotels. They found that guests who chose to do the right thing by not having their towels and sheets changed, was quite low. So they conducted an experiment and placed a note on the bathroom sink that said "80 per cent of the people who stay in this hotel choose not to change their sheets and towels every day." Placing that sign increased the number by 20 per cent. And when they changed it to "80 per cent of the people who stay in this room..." it went up another 10 per cent.

The bottom line is instead of telling people the movement isn't happening and they better take action, the more effective way is to inform them the movement is already happening and show people how they're being left out by not joining the crowd.

3. Most of our messages are telling people the bad things that will happen if we don't change. Example: the oceans are going to collapse or the environment will be unlivable or the cities will be flooded all over the world because of global warming. But when we do this, people are less likely to take action. If however, we talk about the positive things that will happen if we make the change, people are more like to change.

A perfect demonstration of this was research that was done on post heart attack patients. When told they would die if they didn't change their behaviour, about 85 per cent keep doing the same thing. But when they were told about the benefits about changing their lifestyle, about 80 per cent did change not based on the fear of bad things happening, but on the increased quality of life.

4. If we want people to change, we must treat them like adults. People don't "get changed", they "choose to change." Instead of doctors telling people they need to change their diet, show them the options: "if you keep on the path of what you're doing here is the likelihood of what will happen, and if however you make minor changes your lifestyle and diet here is what is likely to happen, and if you make major changes in your lifestyle and diet, here is what is likely to happen. Now which would you like to choose?"

In the case of wanting people to take right action for the greater good, instead of saying "do this or else" say "here are three scenarios for the world and how you can play a part in it. Which of these three would you like to choose? What is a step you're willing to take right now?"

So here's my challenge for you. I believe this is a conversation that matters, so I invite you to share this article with others and have a conversation and engage others on how we can all step up and change our behavior for the greater good.

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