by Colin Bullen, FSA and Caryn Tomasiewicz, Benefits & Communications Consultant, Virtuositeam

A few years ago, Sara made a purchase from ThredUp, an online re-seller of gently used clothing. She had read that buying secondhand might reduce carbon emissions and had a few friends who regularly shopped this way. Although Sara enjoyed thrifting for objects like mid-century Pyrex bowls, the thought of wearing clothing that had a past life with an unknown human made her feel uncomfortable. But she gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised by the experience. Now, she avoids buying brand new clothing as much as possible and feels strongly that “fast fashion” is an ill best avoided.

What came first?

Was Sara prompted to acquire used clothing because she believed that doing so would reduce her carbon footprint? Or did she purchase the used clothing first and develop her belief about the merits of the secondhand market afterwards?

The conventional wisdom supports the former – that beliefs drive us to act. But a review of the research by Kris De Meyer et. al. presents an alternative view: that actions drive beliefs.

A glance at world history buttresses the view that beliefs come first.  God was often cited as the inspiration for European sea expeditions, and pilgrims traveled to North America in the quest for religious freedom.  Beliefs must have been strong to inspire people to board a creaky wooden ship to traverse the ocean for potential reward.

Present day movements are less perilous in the immediate sense. Proponents of any cause have access to decades of research to support their views. We are more informed than ever before.  And leaders can reach a global audience in a matter of minutes. Despite those opportunities to form a belief, change is not happening quickly enough.

Barriers to action

Reliance on facts and numbers. Becoming knowledgeable about societal or health issues does not alone create change. Public education is necessary, but people do not emotionally relate to numbers unless they are put in context.  The tobacco cessation public service announcements in the United States became more effective as they moved away from pure numbers to focus on societal norms, and the visible, physical effects of chronic tobacco use.  Employer-sponsored “lunch and learns” are another example of information-based programs that try to create change by appealing to human logic and fact-processing. Although well-intended, a “lunch and DO” session has greater potential to bring about change.

Unconvincing role models. While there are plenty of charismatic leaders, “evangelists” of any movement have already traveled far down the path, making them unrelatable to the average person. It’s difficult to match the zeal of the self-appointed “health guru” in your workplace who tut-tuts as you open a package of cookies, or the dedication of your bee-keeping neighbor, who produces his own honey in his well-pollinated garden. Attaining their level of commitment and involvement seems difficult and time-consuming. So instead, you slap a hashtag onto a social media post and hope that it makes a difference.

Gloom and doom. Communication depicting a post-apocalyptic world or scary health outcomes that await you in the distant future can make you feel defeated, and that it would be pointless for you to create change.  Furthermore, the cognitive dissonance created when you act in a way that is incongruent with your values causes you to rationalize your behavior. Soon, you persuade yourself that passively receiving information about an issue is your best course of action. The result: you and your environment remain unchanged.

Act first, cogitate later

The beliefs à action and the action à beliefs models agree that something causes you to act in the first place. But when actions drive beliefs, that “something” stems from your curiosity or because of social influences, not from fully developed convictions. You can only create beliefs when you directly interact with the world and process its feedback.

To apply the actions à beliefs model, it helps to demystify the concept of “action,” a weighty word often used in economic, social, and political discourse.  Focus instead on doing any action to explore that curiosity with your body and mind.

One of the advantages of acting quickly is that you get to experience small benefits immediately. For example, you become interested in yoga as a way of reducing your blood pressure.  After the first class, you are immediately rewarded with feelings of relaxation throughout the day.  Another advantage is that getting out of planning and thinking mode and into action builds your sense of agency. When you can answer “yes” to the question, “can I do it?” you are more likely to repeat that behavior and persuade yourself of your own view.

Returning to the secondhand shopping experiment at the beginning of this article, Sara’s curiosity was piqued when she complemented a friend on her blouse, who then told her how she acquired it (social influence). Sara became interested in the secondhand market, made a purchase (action), had a positive experience (immediate reward), and subsequently developed a belief that she could do less harm to the environment by changing her shopping behavior (agency).

Acting first – examples

The idea that you need not and should not delay action is exciting and powerful. But how does this really work, in practice?

Remember that in the actions drive beliefs approach, curiosity – and not a belief system – is what prompts us to act.  Therefore, creating the conditions for success must include ensuring that individuals feel free to explore new ideas, follow their instincts, and share discoveries with others. Our Four Powers Model contains influence methods to increase inspiration and motivation and lower barriers and temptations in life’s four contexts: the self, social, spaces, and systems.  When all four contexts are addressed, inquisitiveness sparks action, and repetition of those actions allows habits and beliefs to develop.

Workplace wellbeing programs and green or sustainable practices are good examples of initiatives that benefit individuals and the organization but are perceived as difficult to get started or keep going.

Example: workplace wellbeing

An employer wants to increase her employee’s physical activity during work hours. To give everyone the best chance of success, she should think about what she can do within each of the four contexts to get the best outcome:

  • Self – allow employees to set up their own incremental goals to support autonomy and agency.
  • Social – recruit relatable early adopters to encourage others to engage by setting examples.
  • Systems – allow and incentivize team leaders to increase lunch breaks by fifteen minutes, so long as that time is spent in motion.
  • Spaces – make standing desks and balance balls available for office-based and home-based employees.

If successful, employees will benefit from improved mental health and physical health and may also develop a belief that their employer supports their pursuit of a healthy lifestyle.

Example: workplace sustainability practices

Based on employee feedback, an employer commits to creating a “greener” workplace. To get everyone into action quickly, he can do the following:

  • Self – invite employees to go on a green “treasure hunt” in which they walk around the office or their home, and identify areas that could be more energy-efficient (turn off electronics, lower computer screen lighting, make note of leaky faucets, etc.)
  • Social – recognize and reward team members who set examples, such as bringing in re-usable containers or organizing their team to do a 15-minute garbage pick-up outdoors.
  • Systems – implement a “two-sided printing” policy by centrally changing everyone’s print setting defaults, or by training everyone how to do this.
  • Spaces – gradually remove single-use cups.

If successful, employees will naturally create a greener, safer workplace and employees will come to believe that their employer authentically cares about the company’s impact on the environment.

Finally, here are some tips for getting into action quickly:

  • Create positive messages, and send them at the right time
  • Ask a few trusted colleagues or friends to advise you and encourage you to put things into motion (your ‘accountability’ partners)
  • Don’t get stuck in a planning loop; ideate and then act – appreciate failure as an opportunity to learn
  • If you are worried about feasibility of acting, start with a trial
  • Reframe difficult steps as challenges
  • Establish medium and long-term goals but focus your energy on things you and your colleagues can do in one day or one week.