Here’s a funny thing: can comedy really change our environmental behaviours?

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Kim Borg, Monash University and Denise Goodwin, Monash University

Someone (possibly George Bernard Shaw) once said: “If you want to tell people the truth, you’d better make them laugh or they’ll kill you”. While comedy can certainly soften a message, can it really change our behaviour?

ABC radio will tonight host a live comedy debate ahead of the next series of its popular War on Waste television series. The topic: whether the show actually works in reducing waste.

Behavioural science, which examines why people do or don’t do things, can unravel the puzzle. Essentially, humour is very good at getting people’s attention and helping them remember information. But it can backfire if we don’t take the behaviour change message seriously.

Read more:
Comedy in the classroom? How improv can promote literacy

Can you feel it?

We know that simply telling people facts doesn’t usually motivate change. When it comes to wide-ranging behaviour change campaigns (like anti-speeding, moderate drinking and anti-smoking), a common strategy is to tap into our emotions.

Behaviour change campaigns often “frame” messages in terms of personal loss or gain. This rationale is based on exchange theory, which focuses on the cost–benefit exchange of adopting a behaviour.

This framing can then evoke an emotional response. For example, “loss” framing, which focuses on negative outcomes of a behaviour, can make us feel guilty, shocked, angry, or sad. In theory, when we see such messages we will reflect on our own behaviours and then adjust them to avoid those negative feelings in the future.

Gain-framed messages, which focus on positive outcomes, are more persuasive than loss-framed messages when attempting to change people’s behaviour. But positive emotions, like humour, are less common in social marketing.

Funny ads are easier to recall and can increase awareness, knowledge, and actions. They can also engage a larger audience. For example, “Dumb ways to die”, a campaign by Metro Trains in Melbourne to promote rail safety, went viral in 2012 and has racked up more than 168 million views on YouTube. This campaign showed that, sometimes, a life-and-death issue can be discussed with humour.

Just humour me

According to evolutionary theory, positive emotions encourage the uptake of behaviours (like feeling pride for carrying a reusable water bottle), whereas negative emotions promote withdrawal behaviours (like feeling guilty for forgetting to refuse a plastic straw).

Positive appeals are also more likely to “get people talking” and are better at encouraging voluntary compliance with a behavioural request. Unlike negative appeals, positivity doesn’t trigger a defensive response when trying to change behaviour.

When a positive appeal – like humour – is added to negative messaging, we can capture people’s attention while avoiding unhelpful defensive responses. But, be warned: engagement doesn’t always lead to desired behaviour change.

Too funny to succeed

But comedy can also backfire. America’s Centers for Disease Control tried to pair humour with fear in its “Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic” disaster preparedness campaign. This public service message unfortunately reduced individuals’ likelihood of developing an emergency plan. In this instance, humour trivialised the issue of disaster preparedness and compromised the ability of the message to encourage the desired behaviour.

Making people smile doesn’t always make them change. If a message is meant to be threatening – for example “if you speed, you will die” – humour may not be the best tool. However, a social threat with a humour-based message can be effective. For example, the “Pinkie” safe driving campaign reduced simulated driving speeds by an average of 4km per hour.

The ‘Pinkie’ ad reduced speeding.

Comedy, waste and consumption

Humour can be the hook that gets our attention. Comedy is usually a form of veiled (or not so veiled) criticism. It is used to hold up a mirror to society – to ridicule our vices and shortcomings and shame us into improvement – while our guard is down.

The first series of the ABC’s War on Waste had a huge effect on consumers’ behaviours – for instance, it helped to drive a 400% increase in KeepCup sales.

It tapped into the community’s anxiety that we are producing too much waste, and our growing realisation we have to do something about it. But it was presented in a cheeky, personable and positive way: “Look at this tram full of coffee cups. Can you believe how much waste we produce? We have to change this behaviour. And here’s how.”

When Coles and Woolworths recently stopped providing free plastic shopping bags, some people voiced their resistance to the change. This resistance was met with mockery by comedians including Kitty Flannigan on The Weekly and Wil Anderson on Gruen, and even by the retail workers’ union.

Read more:
Cracking jokes: four rules for humour

This “comedy backlash” highlights another important point about humour and persuasion: we don’t want to be the group being mocked. We want to be part of the in-group who are mocking the out-group.

Sometimes, when the truth hurts, laughter is how we deal with it. It’s not the whole story, and there’s a lot more to learn about humour and waste behaviours. But it can be a useful tool in helping us acknowledge what we’re doing wrong so we can do the right thing.

The ConversationThe ABC live radio debate on the War on Waste will be live-streamed between 7pm – 9pm on July 19.

Kim Borg, Doctoral Candidate & Research Officer at BehaviourWorks Australia, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Monash University and Denise Goodwin, Research Fellow, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why we ‘hate’ certain birds, and why their behaviour might be our fault

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, University of New England

We have a complex relationship with wildlife. There are the many species we are encouraged to hate – most typically invasive ones such as cane toads, rabbits and foxes.

There are also some native species, particularly birds, that have a less-than-stellar public reputation too. Often they are the ones that drive out other native species by behaving aggressively and dominating an area almost like a gang, attacking other birds until they get sick of it and move away.

If any other species enters their habitat and they see it as a threat, these birds defend their territory by chasing, pecking, swooping and annoying the individual until they give up the fight and flee. Some large species also steal our food and damage livelihoods, are aggressive towards people who pass through their territory, or just annoy us by making huge amounts of noise.

Naughty and nice

Prevailing views of which bird species are “nice” or “nasty” can actually influence landscapes, because residents with gardens can basically be thought of as being like very small-scale wildlife managers. In the United States, a recent study of more than 900 Chicago residents found that backyards were more likely to contain bird-attracting factors such as fruit trees or complex vegetation, compared with front yards that were more typically influenced by the need to impress the neighbours.

But if people evidently enjoy having birds in their backyards, it seems they are happier with some species than others. A UK study that documented the “likeability” of various bird species found that songbirds were preferred over non-singing ones, and that people tended to enjoy seeing a variety of species in their gardens, rather than one dominant one.

A miner problem

Let’s look at two prime examples native to Australia: the Noisy Miner and the Bell Miner. Both of these birds are particularly pugnacious honeyeaters that noisily defend their “patch” of trees and chase away other birds.

Because of their respective vegetation preferences, the Noisy Miner has increased in number in urban areas such as parks, golf courses and backyards, whereas the Bell Miner has flourished in disturbed forest areas where the understorey is thick and lush.

Bell Miners hardly get ringing endorsements from gardeners.
John Manger/CSIRO/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Both species aggressively defend their territories from smaller insectivorous birds, which reduces species diversity. And both are associated with the plant sickness known as dieback (particularly Bell Miners, which have their own version named after them, called Bell Miner Associated Dieback).

You might think it’s little wonder that these birds are hated by many members of the general public, who would rather have them removed than living in their backyards and nearby national parks.

But is it really the birds’ fault or are we causing all the problems?

The short answer to the first question is no. Both species are Australian natives that live naturally in forested ecosystems, where they do not “take over” habitats. In undisturbed wild areas they exist in balance with vegetation and other bird species.

But the human disturbance of forests through urbanisation, fragmentation, vegetation degradation and the spread of weeds has allowed both species to increase significantly in number, helping to “tip the scales” in their favour.

The Bell Miner and the Noisy Miner are becoming “winners” in this case, while specialist species like the Regent Honeyeater, which relies on nectar-producing eucalypts, are becoming “losers”.

Within the fragmented habitats, trees have also become stressed, which reduces flowering of eucalypts. In the case of the Noisy Miner, its diet typically comprises 25% nectar and 75% insects, so the loss of nectar can be compensated by other food resources. It is also thrives in areas of open understorey, where it can easily dominate over other avian species.

Smaller birds in these areas may be more open to predation or weather and therefore flee the area. What’s more, Noisy Miners also benefit from smaller remnants and a reduction in canopy tree density, which creates an open habitat that is perfect for mobbing other birds.

Although less research has been conducted on the habitat preferences of the Bell Miner, our study suggests that they could prefer areas with a thick understorey, canopy trees and no midstorey, regardless of which plant species are present. They also seem to have a generalist diet similar to the Noisy Miner, featuring a variety of insects including caterpillars. The combination of this feeding behaviour and habitat preference may have allowed the Bell Miner to flourish in areas invaded by weeds such as Lantana.

All of these changes have actually been caused by people. We have removed and changed the habitat to a huge extent, and some bird species have benefited greatly while others have suffered.

Sowing the seeds of recovery

So, if we are the culprits, what can we do? By planting more native plants in our gardens, we can encourage other bird species and make it less likely they will be chased away by dominating species. If everyone did it, this would create entire landscapes where bird communities are much more healthy and diverse.

You can also get involved in bird monitoring. BirdLife Australia runs citizen science projects to which you can contribute and which will also show you how healthy your backyard is for birds.

BirdLife Australia’s Birds in Backyards project

Birds in Backyards is a research, education and conservation program that was created in response to the loss of small native birds from our parks and gardens, and to the loss of native bird habitat due to the rapid expansion of the urban landscape.

If you’re in Sydney, you can get involved with the Noisy Miner survey, which aims to determine where these birds are living. Who knows, you might even grow to like them.

The Conversation

Kathryn Teare Ada Lambert, Research Associate, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Namibia: Etosha National Park – Elephant Behaviour

The link below is to an article on elephant behaviour in the Etosha National Park, Namibia.

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