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Accepting Innovation and Change – What’s the Process?

New technology such as the solar panels or electric vehicle shown here, increases the likelihood that someone near you will adapt similar technology. Photo by Dave Petzel.

Janis Petzel, MD

People accept new ideas at different rates. We see this clearly in current events involving both climate change and Covid vaccines. Some people jump in early; others change only if they are dragged kicking and screaming. It doesn’t matter what the innovation happens to be: a public health measure, climate adaptation, or a consumer fad, the process is similar. A body of research stretching back to the 1960s explains how change creeps into human behavior (or stalls).

Diffusion of Innovation by Everett Rogers, first published in 1962, describes why some ideas flop and why some succeed. When a new idea arrives in a community, people decide very early, before they have much experience, if they are for or against the innovation. The new idea diffuses into the community in phases Rogers calls Persuasion, Decision, Implementation and Confirmation. Eventually, the innovation sticks, or it dies.

Rogers’ original work involved a public health outreach effort in the Andes Mountains aimed at convincing villagers to boil their water to reduce intestinal diseases. But in the worldview of the local people, heating water, even if it was cooled before use, would cause health problems, not prevent them. The public health worker from the city was not a good change agent. The only villagers who followed her advice were a couple of women the locals considered odd ducks.

You can imagine the resistance to change in that Peruvian village, the in-groups, gossip and cliques. But we’re no different–look at the vaccine stalemate across our country! Just because you can see that an innovation provides an obvious benefit, doesn’t mean that someone else will see it that way.

New ideas have to feel compatible with a person’s values and are more acceptable if they come from a trusted source. Acceptance (aka “diffusion”) is smoothest between people with shared interests. A neighbor can be a great change agent. Seeing you take the plunge with solar panels or carpooling or insulating your home may give your neighbors the courage to give it a go. Taking the action you want others to take also eliminates the resistance’s hypocrisy argument: if it’s so important, why aren’t you doing it?

Advertisers are expert at manipulating an emotional sense of shared experience to create an urge to buy new things. They are also good at simplifying technology that is difficult to understand or that people can’t try before they buy—situations that slow down acceptance according to Rogers’ work.

We can create a genuine, positive emotional reaction by being good examples, by listening and by searching for shared interests, even if at the beginning it’s only that we both like mustard on our hot dogs. Words matter. Talking about “severe weather events” may open more conversations than talking about “climate change.”

It’s also useful to assess where the other person is on the bell-shaped curve of phases of change. Rogers’ succinct group names and descriptions paint a clear picture: Innovators (2.5% of population) are “Venturesome,” Early Adaptors (13.5%), “Respectable.” The Early Majority (34%) are “Deliberate,” the Late Majority (34%), “Skeptical.” And my favorite descriptor: Laggards (16%), are “Dogmatic, Fatalistic or Traditional.”

Diffusion of innovation takes longer as you go from the beginning to the end of this list. Trying to convince Laggards may be a waste of breath. Late Majority folks come in late because by then, they have to work harder to say no than to say yes. Early Majority people learned from the experiences of the Early Adapters, who caught the change bug from the early Innovators.

For the things I care most about, climate adaptation, and Covid vaccinations, our country is at different stages. For vaccines, the Innovators (clinical trial volunteers), Early Adaptors (older people and healthcare workers) and Early Majority (all of us who jumped at the chance), and some of the Late Majority have been vaccinated (about 56% of eligible people in U.S have both doses as of 9/23/21). We’re down to the most skeptical and the Laggards. It may take mandates to get these people vaccinated.

For solar panels, electric vehicles, clean energy grids, etc., we appear to be moving from Early Adaptation into Early Majority. We should see rates of clean energy technology use picking up quickly. Keep talking and keep connecting. It’s important. Fingers crossed, our government sees fit to fund the needed incentives that will get interested people over the buy-in hump.

Janis Petzel, MD is a physician, grandmother and climate activist whose writing focusses on resilience, climate, and health. She lives in Islesboro, Maine where she strives to walk the walk to a fossil-fuel free future. She serves on the Islesboro Energy Committee and is a Climate Ambassador for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Source: Accessed 9-24-21. As of 9-23-21, more than 55% of eligible people in the U.S. have received two doses of Covid vaccine, and close to 65% have received one dose.

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