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Based on decades of research, Making Shift Happen examines the forces behind behavior change, providing a suite of powerful tools to transform the world. This book is a must-have guide for practitioners in nonprofits, governments, and businesses looking to design successful campaigns and initiatives that shift behaviors and mindsets toward positive environmental outcomes and a better future for all. Today’s excerpt outlines the basis of this system of change, laying the foundations for the rest of the process.

Excerpt from Process Chapter 1: Foundations

To orient your journey through the Making Shift Happen process, we begin with a chapter designed to lay the foundational groundwork on which we build throughout this book. This chapter will introduce you to some of the basic principles that underlie how people think and operate, as well as to the fundamental concepts that underlie our entire Making Shift Happen process. Understanding these foundational principles will help to enhance your understanding of our Building Blocks, enabling you to use them strategically as you design a strong, cohesive behavior change initiative.

We begin with an overview of some important cognitive processes to understand how they influence our behaviors. Next, we explore the origins of the Making Shift Happen process, which draws from various academic and scientific fields of study as well as problem-solving approaches from a range of professional sectors. Finally, we provide some important ethical guidelines to follow and caveats to keep in mind as you design your behavior change initiative so as to avoid unintended consequences, protect and empower your audience, and maximize your positive impact on the environment.


Foundations of Behavior
Two cognitive systems
Cognitive biases
We think and live our lives in narratives

The Making Shift Happen Process

Psychological and behavioral sciences
Behavioral economics and choice architecture
Social marketing
Systems thinking
Design thinking

Guiding Principles of the Making Shift Happen Process
Take an intersectional approach to environmentalism
Consider culture and context
Follow ethical guidelines
Think carefully about when and whom you ask: navigating scarcity and worry
Think carefully about what you ask: the implications of spillover
Think carefully about how you ask: evoking emotions with care
Test, test, test

Foundations of Behavior

There are many factors that shape human behavior, including beliefs, values, social norms, our perception of ourselves, as well as our built and natural environments. Some of the most significant behavioral influences are the hardest to see, such as cognitive biases. So before we go any further, let’s begin with an exploration of why people do the things they do.

Two cognitive systems
Psychologists often describe two different cognitive systems that underlie the way we think and how we navigate the world: automatic and reflective. The automatic system is fast, effortless, associative, involuntary, and subconscious. It is often called “fast thinking” or “System 1 thinking” to reflect its earlier evolutionary origin and instinctual nature.

Our automatic system allows us to evaluate situations instantly and without conscious thought, like when we need to swerve to avoid something in the road, when we get a gut feeling about someone’s mood during a conversation, or when we’re scanning a page and certain things jump out at us as “important.” The automatic system evolved for survival so that we could respond instantly to potential threats: when we hear a rustle in the grass, it’s better to assume there is a lion than to deliberate and find out the hard way. Automatic thinking also comes into play when we are overwhelmed with information, afraid, overstimulated, or are having a hard time paying attention—which for most of us is pretty often.

The reflective system is slow, self-aware, voluntary, and conscious. It is often called “slow thinking” or “System 2 thinking.” The reflective system is critical for complex problem-solving as well as the continuous self-assessment and monitoring of our own behavior. It’s the discipline that keeps us focused on our work when we’re tempted to procrastinate and the self-restraint that maintains our composure when we’re upset. Reflective thinking is important for tasks that require more concentration such as researching which retirement plan to choose or reading the news, and it’s impeded when attention is disrupted or depleted.

Automatic and reflective thinking are not mutually exclusive; they interact with each other to guide our behaviors. Automatic thinking runs, well, automatically, and it continuously feeds reflective thinking its impressions and feelings. Reflective thinking generally accepts those suggestions from automatic thinking, but kicks into gear when it detects we are about to make an error or to solve problems that cannot be processed by automatic thinking. This dynamic is quite efficient, but the general reliance on automatic thinking can also lead to systematic errors in judgment and decision-making, such as cognitive biases.

Author Nya Van Leuvan

Nya Van Leuvan, MA, founder and director of Root Solutions, is a leader in designing and executing programs that accelerate social change by shifting human behavior. She holds a Masters from the School of Human Evolution and Social Change at Arizona State University and a BA from the University of California, Berkeley. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, CA.

Author Lauren Highleyman

Lauren Highleyman, MS, is a communications and behavior change strategist with experience designing and implementing engaging initiatives across environmental issue areas. She holds a Masters in Natural Resources and Environment with a specialization in Environmental Behavior, Education, and Communication. She lives in Marin County, CA.

Author Rod Fujita

Rod Fujita, PhD, is a leader in the theory and practice of conserving natural ecosystems and improving the welfare of the people who depend on them. He co-founded Root Solutions and also co-founded Environmental Defense Fund's Oceans Program, where he has been working on ocean conservation issues around the world for more than 30 years. He lives in Oakland,CA.

Author Ashleigh Kellerman

Ashleigh Kellerman is a Senior Associate at Root Solutions where she focuses on framing and messaging for improved environmental communication and behavior change. She is an alumna of UC Berkeley with a background in Psychology and Economics. She lives in Berkeley, CA.

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