I’ve asked hundreds of people this question: which comes first, action or belief?
The large majority pause, and then say, “Belief”.
The reality is, most of the time it is actually action that comes first. This counter-intuitive finding has huge consequences for how we work with people to create change and generate positive action. This is because a disproportionate amount of time is spent trying to create belief (e.g. do this thing because it’s good for you/your community/the planet), when we would be more effective in focusing our effort around activating (e.g. here’s a small action, try it).
How does action create belief? Typically, individuals do small actions, which lead to results, and this starts to create a belief about the success of this particular effort. The more they do this action, the more results they see, and the belief begins to strengthen and becomes more conscious. What therefore happens most of the time is people—that includes you and I—retrofit their beliefs to fit the actions they are taking. Crucially, we don’t normally realise we are doing it until the belief has become established. Eventually, we are really basing our actions on our beliefs, but significantly, the action came first!
Why do so many—like myself until a few years ago—intuitively think that it is belief that comes first? A major reason is many of us work on the unconscious assumption that we are logical and rational beings who have 100% personal control over our actions. The reality is many actions are influenced either directly or indirectly by external forces, but our ego isn’t necessarily comfortable accepting this. Furthermore, we have been told by many sources that it is crucial to create belief. This intuitively feels right because many people base their actions on their beliefs. There are however, multiple challenges with focusing on trying to create belief.
One of the most important is that it is really difficult to change people’s beliefs. Not only can it be difficult, it can actually be counter-productive. If people feel they are pressured to change their beliefs, their existing beliefs often become more entrenched. Even if you entice people by, for example, working to make ‘sustainability sexy’, you can be on an upward slope. The aim in making sustainability sexy is typically for individuals to make a positive choice. However, most people, most of the time don’t want to have to select an option. They just want to do something—typically what they’ve always done—unless you give them a good reason to change.
For example, for many years’ in the UK, environmentalists tried to get people to believe that they should use less plastic shopping bags. Most people believed that plastic bags were a bad thing, but they kept on using them. Then a mandatory charge was introduced. We then went from a situation where people had to make a positive choice based on belief (“I think plastic is a bad thing, so I’ll remember to take re-usable bags to the shops”), to an action based directive (“Do you want to pay for that bag?”). In England, this led to an 85% drop in plastic bag use in six months from seven billion to half a billion. Those statistics speak for themselves!
Climate change is another example of how focusing on belief is problematic. Witness how in the US particularly, it has stopped being a science based conversation, but one based on belief; witness the phrase “climate believer”. My suggestion is because many Democrats tried so hard to convince their political opponents that climate change was important, many Republicans went in the opposite direction. Whilst most people, left and right wing, resist being ‘told’ what to believe, they are less concerned about being guided to action, such as regarding plastic bag use, or the success of congestion charging in London.
Even if you look at those people who do ‘believe’ there is little evidence of a significant shift in action. In 2008, two years after the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth film about climate change, a Gallup survey found that 63% of Americans thought ‘global warming is a serious threat to my myself and my family’. This therefore includes many Republicans, as well most Democrats. Did this lead to transformative action in society, as many environmentalists (myself included) thought it would inevitably do? I think we all know the answer.
The so called ‘climate deniers’ maybe knew that if they kept this as a conversation about belief, then people’s desire to take action would be low. Ten years after the release of the movie, not only is the Republican party enthusiastically supporting the fossil fuel industry, but even more tellingly, most people, left and right wing, in the US—and globally—haven’t significantly changed their personal actions, even though surveys still find a consistent majority of the population believe climate change is major problem.
Of course, I’m not asking you to believe any of this, but I do invite you to act.
My invitation is for you to take a small action in your personal life that you believe would be good for you, but haven’t been doing. An example might be taking exercise (or reading an inspirational blog, or learning a language, etc.). Rather than thinking you need to start with 90 minutes of sweating three times a week, commit to doing three minutes, or less, every weekday before you go to work or in your lunch hour. Do your ‘exercise’ of choice for a month, and then review how you are doing. And as a final action, I’d love if you shared with me how you are focusing on action via social media or by leaving a comment below.
In addition to helping clients communicate, connect and change, I love highlighting stories from the front line of inspiring sustainability.