Ross Johnston

Ross Johnston is the Chair of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust, based at Waitati, and the Director of Filmmaking at the Centre for Science Communication, University of Otago. He has been involved in the television industry as a producer and director for over thirty years and is a resident of Purakaunui.

Using ourselves to save ourselves. Or…
of buskers, towels and electricity bills

Posted on 17 September 2013

by Ross Johnston

One of the aspects of Janet Stephenson’s July ‘Cuppa Tea’ blog stuck in my head. It was the fact that the existence of the Blueskin Resilient Communities Trust (BRCT) was largely brought about by the flooding that occurred in Waitati in 2006. As a result of that flood the community got together, discussed possibilities, initiated action and the BRCT was born. A specific threatening event brought about action and change 

That reminded me of Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine. In it she outlines the way neo-liberals have taken advantage of major dislocating events to quickly promote their agenda and, if possible, get it accepted and established in the vacuum left by tumultuous events. Klein highlights the almost complete replacement of a public school system with charter schools in New Orleans after cyclone Katrina, the Friedmanesque changes to the Chilean economy in 1973 after the Pinochet coup and the way 9/11 allowed the US to be shackled by Homeland Security and the Patriot Act.

In our own patch the financial crisis that greeted the new Labour government in 1984 gave Roger Douglas the opportunity to embark on a set of reforms many believe started to create the socially divided country we now inhabit.

It’s perhaps easy to think that such an approach could be applied to ensure that policies designed to reinforce and support resilience were put in place on the back of the climatic problems that many believe may become the norm.  But it’s not an approach I favour. The coercive, manipulative approach of the neo-liberals tends to corrode, undermine or obliterate democratic processes. It imposes solutions on the many with the financial benefits usually accruing to the few.

However, change is required. We need to develop a new paradigm that will allow us to continue living on the only space ship we currently have. We’re told that we have dinosaur brains – less able to deal with anything we are not able to currently experience. That has certainly been borne out by the shenanigans over the Kyoto Protocol and our predictably ineffectual carbon credit programme. It seems that we are temperamentally unsuited to responding to distant dangers and are condemned to live out the oft quoted metaphor of the gently heated frog – killed by the environment we are in before responding to the threat that environment poses.

But can we use ourselves, our very nature and propensities, to save ourselves?   It appears that we can.

Which gets me to buskers.

One of the joys of working in an academic institution is that occasionally students disinter from the literature a stimulating and arresting article – and in this case I have to acknowledge the work of an ex-student, Guy Ryan, who brought this one to my attention.

As with much interesting research it started off with one objective but discovered something else in the process. A US television programme wanted to investigate why people helped other people in non-urgent or non-threatening situations. The researchers set up an experiment in a subway where a busker was playing. Once they had established how many people normally gave to the busker, they changed the situation very slightly. They got one of their colleagues to drop a few coins into the hat of the busker just as a passer-by was approaching. It turned out that passers-by who saw someone else making a contribution ahead of them were eight times more likely to make a contribution themselves. When intercepted and asked why they had given to the busker they explained that they liked the song, felt sorry for the guy, or had extra change available – but no one identified the fact that the person ahead of them had given to the busker as the reason for their contribution.

That highlighted two issues. First, that we are rarely able to identify why we do what we do, and second, that one of the things that does influence our behaviour is the behaviour of others. Our desire to fit in makes most of us want to do what most other people tend to do in this situation – normative behaviour.

So the researchers applied that logic to a number of situations – one of them relating to energy conservation in a mid-sized Californian community. Households were asked to conserve energy.  The request was made in different ways to different households. Four different reasons for conserving energy were used: to help the environment, to benefit society, to save money and because it was a common thing to do in this neighbourhood.  All participants thought that the last appeal (normative behaviour) would be the least successful of all the appeals made, but an analysis of the electricity consumed by each household over the four weeks of the experiment indicated that it was that approach that had been most successful in reducing power consumption.

An experiment involving the reuse of towels in a hotel produced similar results. Simple cards were left in bathrooms suggesting reasons why guests might choose to reuse their towels. They were invited to ‘help save the environment’ or to ‘partner with us to help save the environment’, but the most successful card read ‘join your fellow guests in helping to save the environment’. That ‘social norm’ message increased reuse by 34%. That figure was further increased when a few other significant words were added so it read ‘join guests who have stayed in this room in helping to save the environment’.

But there are a number of caveats.

First, most of us don’t believe that our behaviour is influenced in this way. That often means that we don’t seriously consider it as an option when attempting to change behaviour because we don’t believe it works.

Second, this appeal to normative behaviour tends to work most successfully when we perceive that we are joining up with ‘similar others’, people like us.

Third, it seems that normative behaviour influences us most when we are uncertain what to do and look to the group we sense we belong to to be guided regarding the most appropriate response or behaviour. Possibly a bit like being faced with unfamiliar cutlery and waiting to see what others at the table do before embarking on a foreign dish.

While the research clearly indicates that in a focused situation (street busker, hotel room, our local community) appeals to social norms work, one can’t help but ponder whether it could also work for suburbs, towns, small cities – small countries even. Could we establish norms where cycling was the dominant form of transport, or that there was an expectation that in this suburb some of your power would be solar derived, or that as members of a country we took the planting or care of a young carbon-gulping tree as a normal part of our weekend ritual?

It seems that we need to recognise the power that social norms have over us when we want to change behaviour – for change we must.


Griskevicius, V., Cialdini, R., Goldstein, N. An Underestimated and Underemployed Lever for Managing Climate Change.  International Journal of Sustainability Communication 3 (2008): 5-13

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