Resilient Cities Conference: Nola-Kate Seymoar on the Psychology of Change
Nola-Kate Seymoar, social psychologist and President and CEO of Sustainable Cities, spoke today about the psychology of change. She began her talk by addressing three elements that contribute to human behavioral change: structure, process and attitude.
She argues that focusing on the structure part of this model (which includes factors such as built form, financial instruments, policies, and regulations) will yield the most ‘success’ in term of encouraging behavioral change. That said, process and attitude are critical in their own right as well as in terms of the role they play in informing the structural part of this equation.
Of particular interest to me was Nola-Kate’s discussion about the attitude dimension. She explains that humans are emotional creatures who respond to fear, anger, love and attraction over reason and rational thought. As such, she explains that to engender change in the human populous we need to grab ahold of people’s emotions and capitalize on people’s fear (as long as it’s not so extreme that they freeze) and/or attract them to the changes required for resilience.
She refers to the process of “freezing, unfreezing and re-freezing”: where people unfreeze, they become open to change when confronted with something new or challenging. From this period of ‘openness’ emerges an opportunity to instill new ways of thinking that lead to the behavioral changes necessary to alter the structures and individual behaviors impeding sustainability and resilience. Once a shift in consciousness and related behavior has occurred, then people ideally re-freeze, at least until the next challenge emerges.
Part of the reason this section of the talk intrigued me so much is because I believe that the attitude, or feeling, part of this model is in fact the most crucial and yet most difficult to realize. While we can certainly change behavior through physical design interventions and policy, in order for this change to be viable in the long term, these changes need to be backed by human consciousness embedded in emotional conviction. Nola-Kate’s talk reaffirmed this personal conviction, however I am still left with the question: “How?”
Fear and love do create opportunities for change in attitude. Yet what has come of the plentiful recent opportunities to feel fear, at least, around the economic meltdown and significant media attention on climate change? Do we need to feel yet more fear? Is this something that can be socially engineered through media, for instance, or must we wait for real disaster to hit? If the latter is the answer, clearly change will come too late! Perhaps this is why Nola-Kate began her talk by saying changes to structure will yield the most success.