How important is it for people to feel that what they do makes a difference?

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How important is it for people to feel that what they do makes a difference?

If you’re asking people to take some type of action to help the environment—whether it is consumer action, political action, or habitat restoration, among many others—a number of researchers have suggested that the concepts of efficacy, outcome expectancy, and locus of control are critical. Efficacy refers to people’s beliefs about how capable they are of taking an action. Outcome expectancy is a parallel component that refers to people’s beliefs of how effective the results of their action will be. Researchers, such as social psychologist Albert Bandura and others, have described four types of efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of taking action; outcome expectancy is the belief that the action will make a difference; collective efficacy refers to people’s shared beliefs in their ability to produce desired results when working together; and self-efficacy of cooperation refers to the belief that one’s cooperative behavior has a significant effect on the outcome of a large group. Efficacy and outcome expectancy are usually specific to a context or behavior.

A related concept is “locus of control,” which refers to whether a person thinks outcomes are controlled by one’s own behavior or by external forces. People with an internal locus of control think their behaviors can affect the world around them. On the other hand, people with an external locus of control are more likely to believe that factors outside their control are responsible for the outcomes they see. Locus of control is usually defined as global—individuals have an internal or external locus of control that remains constant for every circumstance. These concepts and their measures are often mistaken for each other in the literature. Feelings of efficacy and outcome expectancy are important to keep in mind when asking people to take action. For example, if you ask someone to contact a representative in Congress to support a piece of legislation, that person must both have the skills needed to contact
the representative (for example, know who the representative is, how to write a persuasive letter or email, where to send the letter, and so on) and believe that such contact will make a difference in the way the representative will vote.

People can’t do things they don’t know how to do and are unlikely to do things that they don’t think will be effective.

The Reasonable Person Model, developed by Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, addresses this point by focusing on the ways information provided through programs or environments can promote engagement in problem solving. People need to understand and have a reliable mental model of the issue so that they can communicate with experts and decision makers. People need to be effective—to know what to do and how to do it and have the clarity of mind to think through the complexity of the issue. And people need to be able to make a difference. Knowing how others have made a difference helps reduce feelings of helplessness, but so too does having a usable avenue for participation (see section on participation). These three components interact with each other so that procedural knowledge and examples can improve mental models, effectiveness, and reduce helplessness. These categories can be useful as people develop programs to make sure they are accounting for each component.

One of the main goals of environmental education is to help people feel empowered—helping them to feel that they can make a difference and that their actions really count (both in terms of effectiveness, as well as making a difference). Education can help support action in the short-term as well as lay the groundwork for long-term action. In some cases, education programs focus on helping people learn how to take action (for example, recycling, reducing the use of pesticides, or improving energy efficiency). In other cases, education programs are not designed to promote a specific behavior but are designed to help people build skills to act on issues they face throughout their lifetimes. Education also helps cultivate the belief that those actions will make a difference by using examples, success stories, and case studies of people who are similar to the program participants. Groups that seek to move people to take a specific behavior should also keep empowerment in mind and provide more incentive than just the common cheer: “You can make a difference!” Some tips that we know help with empowerment include:

• Providing specific information about how the targeted action is likely to affect the outcome. For example, describing how citizen letters to representatives have changed the outcome of legislation and affected positive change in the past may help people believe that taking political action can make a difference with regard to the issue at hand. This type of feedback is an important tool to increasing perceived control and outcome expectancy.

• Showing audiences how to perform the desired action, perhaps through workshops or videos that demonstrate what people should do, and how they can do it. Research has consistently shown that modeling desired behaviors is an effective strategy for leading to action.

• Providing support through programs that can help reduce barriers and encourage group actions. The support of others is often critical to feeling that one can actually do something.

Finally, two additional elements are important when focusing on teaching skills: proximity and agency.

Proximity refers to how closely tied the organizations, behaviors, and outcomes are. There should be a close and obvious connection between the contact with the audience and the desired behavior. For example, a zoo that wants to increase recycling rates would probably get better results by demonstrating how trash affects wildlife than promoting a generic recycling message, or by linking the message directly to their cafeteria and waste system. Showing images of wild birds injured by trash, for example, might be more effective in capturing attention than general reminders about the importance of recycling because of the proximity of the message in the context of a zoo visit. Similarly, addressing the ways visitors’ trash will be recycled into picnic tables like those at the zoo could close the loop, enhance proximity, and help make the recycling message more relevant. Agency refers to the ability of the individual to implement the skills and behaviors being taught. For example, adults would be a more appropriate audience than children for a workshop on native landscaping, as most children do not have agency in their families’ landscaping choices.

The Bottom Line:
Feeling empowered is a critical element related to whether people undertake some kind of action. Information, examples, skills, and support are essential, as is a reasonable avenue for action. People must feel that they can take action, and that their actions will make a difference. And in helping an audience develop the skills they need to take action, groups should ensure that they target the appropriate audience with messages and skills that are close to the organization’s mission and reflect the target audience’s core competencies.

Many thanks to the North American Association for Environmental Education for sharing this information!

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