How do you make people care?

Man not caring.  Who Cares?

How do you make people care?


Can’t convince people to get behind your pet project? Behavioral science suggests you might be going about it the wrong way.


by Mike Walker • December 21, 2015

I received a call from a friend a few weeks ago, a green marketing expert, who relayed a brief story about a new client. A sustainability director at a large national law firm, the new client was thoroughly frustrated by her colleagues’ anemic participation in her office recycling program.

I’ve asked people to participate dozens of times and in dozens of ways. I’ve articulated the benefits, offered rewards, and recognized my (few) model participants. Nothing seems to work! I’ve concluded that they simply don’t care – and really, what can you do when people don’t care?

“So…how do you make people care?” my friend asked.

I hear this question almost daily, whether it’s about recycling, energy efficiency, global warming, water quality, flu shots, saving for retirement, a product, a brand, or the new Star Wars movie.  So it’s a darn good thing I have an answer.

The answer is, in a nutshell…

You can’t. At least, not very often, and not in the near-term. That’s the bad news.

Now for the good news: it doesn’t matter. In other words, whether or not people care is largely immaterial  if you’re in the business of behavior change. As it turns out, getting people to change their behavior is actually a good first step toward making them care.

This assertion will strike many of you as counter-intuitive, if not false. We’d all like to think that our beliefs drive our behavior.  In other words, if we care about something, we act on it, right?

Not necessarily.  In fact, the scientific literature makes a compelling case to the contrary: our beliefs tend to be shaped by reflecting on our own past behavior. In other words, our beliefs are a function of our prior actions, and not the other way around.

So what’s going on here? Faced with a discrepancy between our beliefs and our behavior, humans experience mental stress that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It’s an uncomfortable psychological state that leads people to change their beliefs – rather than continue feeling, subconsciously, like a phony. We are completely unaware of this phenomenon when it’s happening to us.

If you want to make people care, first help them change their behavior in a way that’s consistent with caring. In one influential study, researchers concluded that the single most effective way to change negative suburban perceptions about riding public transportation did not involve educating them about the benefits of ridership. It was, instead, to provide a free bus or subway pass, thus making it easier for people to try out the behavior. It turns out that doing leads to believing.

When we think of behavior change as an exercise in making humans care, we approach people as if we are trying to win a contentious argument. We inundate them with information and logic, trying to educate, inform, coax, or compel. Faced with disappointing results, we might be tempted to double down, convinced the solution must involve more information, more messages, etc. With our focus misplaced, it’s easy to overlook pragmatic opportunities to facilitate the actual behavior we want. I’m reminded of a favorite quote: “Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.”

So if you can’t make people care, what should you do to encourage behavior change?

First, be very specific about what behavior you want. And then focus like a laser on facilitating the desired behavior. How do you do that? Seek to understand why people cling to their old behaviors. Identify and then remove barriers to the new behaviors. Manipulate the context, situation, or environment in which decisions are made. Provide adequate motivation and sufficiently clear direction.

As you might imagine, there are an infinite number of ways to do these things; for a few more specific guidelines, see our website, or contact us.

How do you make people care?  Who cares!  Focus on behaviors, not attitudes.