Like me, only a bit better

Once upon a time (around 2010) I was interviewed for an in-house government magazine; and this is what they wrote. The funny bit is towards the end, when I seem to have agreed that something called 'Facebook' and something else called 'Twitter' might one day reveal new things about 'influential individuals'...

The topline is that the person who is most likely to influence you is someone you know, who you think is like you - only a bit better...

"Altering peoples’ behaviours so that they adopt greener ways of living is vital if we are to tackle climate change, but it is arguably one of the most difficult things to achieve. Or is it? A unique study suggests that an entire community’s behaviour could be changed through just one individual. We talk to David Fell who led the study to find out more.

With a background in economics and a focus on the social sciences of making behaviour changes happen, David Fell, Director of Brook Lyndhurst, is not your usual scientist. But his unique approach on finding out how we can reduce our emissions and environmental impact is helping Defra to think more creatively when it comes to tackling these problems.

“I’ve always been intrigued by how some products, like TVs, mobiles and the internet, become successful and some don’t”, says David. “If you look at a graph of the take up of a successful product, they all follow roughly the same pattern: an S curve. A few years ago Defra wanted ‘think pieces’ on cutting edge issues in pro-environmental behaviour change, so I proposed one that looked at this S curve and why it happened.”

“Emerging from it”, he continues, “was the idea that social networks and the behaviour of particular people in those networks seemed to be very important in making the difference between which innovations are successful and which fall by the wayside. They’re not the only thing that matters, as the whole thing is painfully complicated and under-researched, but the role of particular people did emerge as being important.”

Building on this, David decided to carry out a full study on these ‘influential individuals’– people with the power to change a community – and see if they could potentially encourage others to adopt more environmentally-conscious behaviours.

He and his team interviewed people from 20 different social networks, from parents meeting at school gates to churchgoers and sports club members, so that they could identify the influential individuals in each community before interviewing those people to find out what makes them so influential to others.

David and his co-workers found that there are particular qualities that only these people have, which make others hold them in high regard and pay attention to what they say and do. “We saw that these people aren’t necessarily intentionally influential and are just being themselves,” says David. “These people tend to be outgoing, confident and talkative, and they like the fact that they know things. They are also strongly motivated to help others: they initiate community events and projects or tell people about things that are happening, but they only do this if they think that it is helpful to others in their network.”

But unlike the traditional opinion leaders such as journalists, celebrities or politicians, these individuals were just normal people with similar backgrounds to everyone else in their group. “In one sense, these individuals are incredibly influential, but then in another they are just ordinary people”, says David. “But it takes ordinary people to influence people, because many don’t tend to trust the media or marketing.”

Because there is little previous research on influential individuals within British communities, the study had to cover a lot of groundwork in a general sense before focusing on sustainable behaviour and it wasn’t until the influential individuals were interviewed that they got to investigate this aspect of the study.

“We asked these 20 people whether they did anything pro-environmental in their daily lives and we found that, while all of them were interested in environmental issues, only a handful had actually done anything. But their approaches covered quite a range and we even had someone who had made a documentary on climate change.”

There was one woman, however, who showed David just how influential these people can be when it comes to sustainable behaviour. “We spoke to a lovely lady on an estate who didn’t think she had much influence on others”, David tells us. “But neighbours on her estate really liked her because she was always inviting them round for a cup of tea and a chat and she seemed to be on top of her life. She bought a water butt one day – just because she thought it was a good idea and wanted one, not because she was trying to be an environmentalist – and a few months later everyone had one!”

David is now expanding this research by looking at other people in the social networks to find out who was being influenced and why, what type of people they were and how they adopted the influential individual’s behaviour. He has also launched a separate research project looking more closely at influential individuals encouraging pro-environmental behaviour.

“We are currently running an action-based study where we’ve identified some influential young people in schools, who are mainly sixth formers, and then trying to get them to adopt environmental behaviours so that we can find out how this behaviour spreads amongst parents, staff and other students,” he says.

There are also other social networks that might be worth considering in what is a relatively untrodden area of research. “Technology like Facebook and Twitter are interesting tools in influencing behaviour and would help this kind of research, as people don’t behave in the same way online as they do in real life. Companies are already using kids for viral marketing such as free music downloads and so on, so this is certainly something that would be interesting to look at.”


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