Why People Don’t Do Things: Part 1

Why People Don’t Do Things: Part 1

One of my favorite topics to present on during training workshops is: 4 big-picture reasons why people don’t do things.

It’s our tendency to jump to solutions. After all, time is of the essence and we need people to take conservation actions.

But I feel it’s really important to first understand why people aren’t doing these things now – and why they may not do them at all – so we can figure out the best ways of motivating them.

So, I’m going to spend a bit of time harping on the 4 big-picture reasons why people don’t do things. Starting with this article…

Why people don’t do things: Part 1

Because it’s easier and safer to not do anything

There are two behavioral science concepts behind this reason why people don’t do things:

Status Quo Bias: Status quo bias is evident when people prefer things to stay the same by doing nothing (see also inertia) or by sticking with a decision made previously (Samuelson, & Zeckhauser, 1988).

Loss Aversion: It is thought that the pain of losing is psychologically about twice as powerful as the pleasure of gaining. As people are more willing to take risks to avoid a loss, loss aversion can explain differences in risk-seeking versus aversion.

What I want to focus on today is status quo bias. This can be most simply explained as: it’s easier to NOT do something than it is TO do something.

Of course, right!?!

It’s easier for me to stay at home (where I work) than go to the gym. Look at all the steps it takes to go to the gym: gotta change my clothes, figure out what exercise I’m going to do, drive/commute to the gym, check-in and find a space to exercise, and so on.

How many steps does it take for me to NOT go to the gym? ZERO!

It’s easier for me to accept the plastic straw that was given to me at the coffee shop than bring my own or remember to say “no straw” when I order.

It’s easier for me to use the grocery store’s plastic or paper bags than to remember to bring my own bags and lug them into the store with me.

It’s easier for me to do things exactly the way I’ve always done them than to do them differently – or worse, to do something entirely new.

But we need people to do things

It’s important to recognize and “own” that success in our work and missions requires people to do things that makes their lives a bit more difficult.

Yes – those things are beneficial to the planet, to the individuals themselves, and could actually make their lives easier and more enjoyable.

But the act of doing anything different or new – no matter how big or small – is inherently difficult.


It may not be as hard for us to do these things

Many of us have gone through these transitions ourselves; yet as conservationists, we are likely more persistent, determined and resilient to make the change.

We’ve all adopted behaviors that are better for the planet but a bit less convenient for ourselves:

  • carrying around reusable water bottles AND coffee mugs in our bags;
  • storing plastic bags somewhere in our house to deposit at the grocery store during our next trip;
  • packing our cars and bags full of reusable grocery bags;
  • keeping food scraps in our kitchen to compost even though it can attract fruit flies;
  • and this list goes on.

None of these things have been all that easy for us to adopt either and as we learn about new ways to live more sustainably, we will continue to make these changes to our daily routines and habits.

But let’s be real – it would be a lot easier to not think about these things and, certainly, a lot easier to not do them.

Don’t isn’t the same as won’t

It’s quite possible that at this point in the article I’ve created a feeling of hopelessness and I’m sorry for that. Digging into the underlying reasons for inaction is always a bummer, which is why we prefer to focus on solutions.

There’s no reason to despair. Just because inertia means people don’t do things, doesn’t mean people won’t do things.

We have amazing methods at our disposal for jolting people out of their status quo bias and into the world of slight inconvenience with lots of global benefits.

We can make our requested actions and behaviors more social, more fun and even more personally meaningful so they don’t feel like it’s something they “have” to do but rather something they can’t do without. This freebie guide can help.

Next up

Check out Part 2 of this series here. Hint: it may not be that people don’t want to take action…

If you want to dig deeper into this topic, plus learn how to use communication & outreach techniques to motivate action, then join my online course on creating conservation movements.