Avoiding the Hero Trap in Environmental Public Outreach

Recycling Man Superhero
He’s super, but is he effective?

If you want to promote a behavior like recycling, appeal to your audience’s aspirations and call those who do the right thing “heroes.” Makes sense, right? We actually don’t think so. After some strategic musings, based on findings from a range of behavior experts, here’s why we think this common approach won’t work.

  1. According to the dictionary, a hero is “a person of superhuman qualities and often semi-divine origin …” In other words, a hero is someone who is special—by nature, outside the norm.
  2. Norming has been proven time and time again to be the most powerful strategy in changing behaviors. To norm a behavior, you want to give the impression that it is literally the normal thing to do. As sophisticated and independent as we like to think we are, the “everyone’s doing it” argument works best with us humans.
  3. So if heroes aren’t normal, and we all want to be normal, it follows that we don’t want to be heroes. Another way to put it is that heroes are anti-norming. (They wear tights in public, after all. Ack!)

But whom to put forth as a model of your target behavior, if not a hero? Why, Clark Kent, of course! Or, if you prefer, Joe Blow, the girl next door, Everyman. Clark will be your best influencer precisely because he is not special.

We recommend featuring a person who appears to be just like the average member of your priority group—in every way but one: the desired behavior. Clark lives in your neighborhood, dresses like you, has the same level of education and makes about the same amount of money as you do. The only difference is he recycles his food scraps, and you don’t. Better yet: Clark and all the rest of your neighbors recycle their food scraps. Sadly, you’re the last one on your block who doesn’t.

The message is two-fold: one, if you aren’t currently practicing a certain behavior (recycling food scraps, for example), you’re standing conspicuously outside your peer group; and two, if you do begin practicing the behavior, we promise you won’t stand out.

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