Motivating people based on their existing wants (e.g. focusing on quarter-inch holes vs. quarter-inch drills) is effective not just on the individual level — it works at the societal level too.
In the first half of the 20th century, women smoking went from being seen as an improper activity to accepted and commonplace. What happened? Cigarette companies tied smoking to the feminist movement by presenting it as an act of independence (as well as a slimming alternative to candy).
This was, unfortunately, devastatingly effective: By the 1960s, one in three women smoked.
As the health risks became clearer, smoking declined just as quickly: It was no longer the cool thing to do in most social circles.
Appealing to people’s emotional side in this way is the most effective way to change our culture. In contrast, presenting only the rational benefits is an uphill battle.
For proof, look no further than the environmental movement’s failure to get individuals to adopt the sweeping lifestyle changes necessary to sustainably use fossil fuels for energy. We rationally understand that our actions have consequences, but it’s hard to use that to motivate people because each of us has such a small impact.
But what happens when environmentally friendlier options become status symbols? Consider how Tesla has made electric cars a fashionable alternative to traditional automobiles. By starting off in the luxury market, Tesla has established itself as a desirable brand. And as more and more people purchase its vehicles, it’s able to release increasingly affordable models thanks to the economy of scale.
In the not-too-distant future, battery-operated cars will be the standard. Not because most people have chosen them due to environmental concerns, but because they'll be the most socially desirable option.
Here’s to a more sustainable future.