The Heath brothers have done it again. They’ve written an entertaining book filled with important and practical insights. This book is about how to create shifts in behavior, especially when you or others have resisted them in the past. They use a metaphor for the parts of our brain: the rider and the elephant. When the rider and the elephant are aligned, things go great but what happens when the rider is confused or the elephant is spooked?

The book is filled with memorable stories about psychological research that help to make their points and then they provide practical guidance about how to direct the rider or motivate the elephant. These concepts are particularly cogent for sustainability professionals because so many of the changes we need people to make either confuse the rider or spook the elephant!

Their main points include the following and I’ve added some sustainability-related issues to consider.

DIRECT THE RIDER, FOLLOW THE BRIGHT SPOTS: Find out what’s working rather than focusing on what’s not. They tell a story about a person sent to improve the nutrition of children in Vietnam. Instead of focusing on broad issues like poverty and economic development, he sought out poor families whose children were not underweight. So in sustainability,  we want more people to commute via bicycle, maybe we need to discover what bike commuters have done in their lives or to their bikes/attire to make this work.

SCRIPT THE CRITICAL MOVES: The rider gets confused with broad directives (“eat better to reduce your cholesterol” or “reduce your carbon footprint.”), instead, look for the specific action that will make the biggest change. In the case of cholesterol, researchers discovered that most people could meet USDA guidelines if they simply switched to 1% or skim milk. So they built a campaign not around healthy eating but instead around choosing low-fat milk. In Miner County, South Dakota, students came up with a plan to revitalize their community by giving a presentation explaining that if citizens purchased 10% more locally, they could put $7 million into the community; the campaign yielded over $15 million. So what’s the single action we need people to make that would be relatively easy to effect significant carbon reductions? CFLs don’t get us there.

POINT TO THE DESTINATION: Having a clear description of the end-point that resonates with the rider and the elephant. For example, BP used ‘no dry holes’ as the rallying cry to reduce the number of holes drilled that didn’t yield oil. Sustainability is too broad for most people to get behind. That’s why they tend to focus on recycling. This is especially tough when focusing on social sustainability. How can we clarify the end-point?

MOTIVATE THE ELEPHANT, FIND THE FEELING: Do something dramatic to make people feel something (eg, inspiration, disgust or outrage) so they will want to change. Regarding sustainability, people have become inured to the doom-and-gloom and the plethora of issues: climate change, the ozone hole, poverty, Bisphenol-A, etc. Shrink the change: Break down the change into bite-sized pieces. For example, the 5-minute room rescue is one way to get your kids to clean their room. Set the timer and do what you can in that time.

GROW YOUR PEOPLE: People make decisions based on two models: consequences and identity. If I steal this ring, I’ll go to jail; or people like me don’t steal. At least in the US, sustainability (especially climate change) has become politicized such that people who don’t identify with Democrats are less likely to believe climate change is an issue. How do we make sustainable choices aligned with most American’s identity?

SHAPE THE PATH, TWEAK THE ENVIRONMENT: If you shift the environment, behavior changes. So how do we make the sustainable action the default? One example: My niece went to a conference where the default meal was a vegetarian entrée.

BUILD HABITS: Until something becomes a habit, it helps to set action triggers. These are decisions to do something when a certain situation comes up. An example in the book were students who decided to work on their term paper early Christmas morning before everyone got up. These students were much more likely to complete the paper than those who had no such specific trigger. This action trigger helps the Rider because it pre-loads a decision. So I, who have been intending to meditate but studiously have avoided getting into that habit, have created an action trigger of meditating for a few minutes before I lay down in bed at night. Note that this is also an example of shrinking the change, as I’ve not set the goal of meditating for 2 hours.

RALLY THE HEARD: Behaviors are contagious; we are social animals, after all. Drinking is contagious but so are designated drivers, a practice that was started by someone integrating brief mentions of it in TV show scripts. Knowing this, bartenders seed the tip jar. The authors use an example of a radio campaign to discredit the common practice of ‘sugar daddies’ having relationships with underage girls and to encourage people to take action to stop it. That’s why hotels with signs that say “A majority of our guests use towels more than once” were more successful than ones that just asked guests to reuse towels to help the environment. In many cities, recycling is now a contagion. How do we make other sustainable behaviors equally so?


Heath, C., Heath, D. (2013). Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. S.l.: Random House US. ISBN-13: 978-0385528757

Other publications by the authors:
The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip and Dan Heath
Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work by Chip and Dan Heath