Train Your Brain
Have we trained our brains to make big changes before?
We train our brains all the time: how we learn to write in cursive or type on a keyboard, how to skateboard or chip a stone tool. We also change our brains with social change: what is acceptable behavior, what kinds of people we include and value.
Now, the usual rewards — money, convenience, praise, social acceptance — often don’t align with what’s best for the environment. As a company C.E.O., you may not get praise or a bonus from the board if you invest your company’s margin to lower your carbon footprint, though even that equation may be changing.
I used to think our brains are hard-wired. But you write that it’s less about fixed wiring and more about being predisposed to respond to a system of rewards — and that what we consider rewarding can change. You write about one experiment in Europe that offered new social rewards to drive behavioral change. Can you describe it, please?
In the experiment, called Eco-Teams, neighborhood leaders got households in their area to create a team. The team got to choose which behaviors to change, such as reducing solid waste, using less energy, or saving water. They were taught how to change those behaviors and how to track their outcomes, like weighing their trash or metering their energy use. The team met regularly. They shared tips. They provided mutual support. They competed against other teams from other areas. They made it fun.
The analysis of this program showed that long after it ended, the participants continued their pro-environment behaviors. They incorporated something new into their self-image. In other words, their brains changed.
What could we do now to train our brains?
First, recognize that pro-environment choices may not feel as rewarding as other choices you’re used to making. The rewards are more abstract and less immediate than getting the goal in soccer or the bonus at work. Use your knowledge of the magnitude of the problem and make those choices anyway.
Second, the choices may be easier if you substitute social rewards for what you’re giving up. If you decide to reduce your gift-giving frenzy, find like-minded people. Think of creative, joyful ways to reinforce this choice together.