Self-Study Module: Step 5

Step 5. Assess potential for adoption of single behaviors and the environmental practice


In Step 5, you and your team try to figure out which of the potential behavior(s) you identified in Step 3 are likely to be adopted by the target audience that you studied in Step 4. (A Quick Review of Steps 3 and 4).

To begin, get out the Track Your Progress Worksheet, and review Questions 1 – 5. In Step 5, you will:

Rate the preferred initiatives for its potential for adoption

1. Begin with a general analysis.

Rate each preferred initiative according to the six criteria on the worksheet (see worksheet question #5 repeated below). Using the audience information you collected in Step 4 regarding the potential behaviors or initiatives you identified in Step 3, decide if it is it likely that the user will consider the initiative for the reason stated. [yes, maybe, don’t know, no]

  • For example, if you want to reduce fertilizer runoff into a lake, you might have proposed a number of different options for property owners to consider, such as: build a rain garden, landscape the riparian area with native plants, calibrate your fertilizer application, etc.
  • Do you know enough about your audience to determine which of these activities are likely to be acceptable, if any? For example, if you know that property owners like to garden, any of the three options may be acceptable. But if most of the property owners are elderly or less physically able, none of these options may be practical. 

2. Study acceptable behavior in more detail.

If you are able to narrow the choices to one or two potentially acceptable initiatives, study the likelihood of adoption of those behaviors in more detail.

  • For example, if you have found or believe that your audience is most interested in or most likely to take action regarding fertilizer applications, you may want to interview your audience, or observe your audience applying this practice to learn more about their skills, and more about any barriers to implementing a careful effort to calibrate and time fertilizer applications to reduce impact on the lake.  [Background: Table I. Recommended Tools and Descriptions]
  • Through this process you may discover a relatively simple solution to initiating the new behavior. You may find one or two barriers or skill deficits, for example, that can be easily rectified through neighborhood demonstrations and tips from garden store employees. If not, move on to the next step.
  • Take the trouble to answer the questions carefully, because you will use your rating to select the behavior(s) that will become the focus of your outreach activities.

3. Rate single behaviors required for preferred initiative

Work with an expert to enumerate the steps necessary for any particular initiative, into single behaviors (you practiced this process in Step 3). Then use audience information you have collected to rate those single behaviors using the scale in Question #5. You may need to investigate the current likes and skills of your audience to have enough information to answer Question #5 below and on the Track Your Progress Worksheet.

  • For example, to landscape the riparian area with native plants, the audience needs to want to know and be able to act to take each of the following steps: What and where is a riparian area? Which plants should the person select, for the riparian area? Once plants are selected, where can plants be obtained? What is the best time and method for planting? How do you care for the riparian plantings.
  • Can the audience perform each step? Are there any steps that are a barrier to implementation? Can you offer training or provide assistance to address that barrier?
  • If you’ve discovered that you don’t have the information you need to make this decision, go back to Step 4 and arrange to collect more detailed information.

Taking the trouble to review each preferred behavior in detail may save you the trouble of proposing a behavior that is unacceptable to your target audience or may save you from focusing on a big change when a small adjustment will solve the problem. Of course, you can modify this process in any way that is reasonable for your situation.

Question #5. Questions for rating the potential for change related to a specific behavior (from Track Your Progress Worksheet)

5. Rate potential for behavior change
Is it likely that the user will adopt the behavior? [yes, maybe, don’t know, no]


Landscape the riparian area with native plants

Does it meet an audience need or address an interest?

Does it have an impact on the problem?

Does it provide users with an observable consequence?

Is it similar to what the user does already?

Is it simple for the user to do?

Is it low cost in $, time and energy for the user?

Knows where to plant, and wants to plant?
Knows what to plant, and is able to obtain plants and plant them?
Wants the planting to succeed and knows how to care for the plants?


Predict behavior change

The six criteria in Question #5 above are derived from a summary of behavior change theory and research. Why people change behavior change is complex and subtle. There are many theories that describe a potential rationale in more details: about why people change their behavior or that indicate how to predict a change in behavior. While these theories express the potential for change in different ways, there is wide agreement on significant components. These may help you to further narrow your behavior recommendations.

For example, individual qualities or skills that have potential to significantly affect environmental behavior include: (Stern, 2000):

  • Interest, knowledge, skills, and/or environmental sensitivity
  • Private sphere behavior (individual locus of control; personal responsibility)
  • Behavior affecting group decisions
  • Public sphere behavior (empowerment)
  • Environmental activism

For additional information about behavior change theory, see:

Applying theory to the needs assessment process:

If you have expert assistance, you may be able to apply one or more theories of behavior change as part of the audience assessment process in Step 4.

For example, a Wisconsin project applied the theory of planned behavior in the development of a survey. As an illustration, one of the survey questions, listed in Table 1 below, tested the property owner’s intention of making the prescribed change, based on parameters that theory has predicted as likely to impact a behavior decision. Given the results, how would you analyze the likelihood that property owners would implement a rain garden project?

Considering the six questions in Question # 5 above, what other questions could you ask to help identify barriers to the likelihood of building a rain garden? Could you ask the same question about other options to help you figure out what behavior is most likely to be adopted?

Table 1. Lake Ripley survey question about property owner’s intention related to the preferred behavior (Fogarty et al., 2007)

Likelihood of building a rain garden

1=Very unlikely; 6=Very likely
I would help my neighbors build a rain garden in the next two years if they asked for my help as part of a larger community event.


I (or somebody in my household) will build a rain garden on my property in the next two years if I received cost-sharing assistance.


I (or somebody in my household) will build a rain garden on my property in the next two years if I am given detailed instructions how to do so.


I (or somebody in my household) will build a rain garden on my property in the next two years if some of my friends and neighbors also build one.


I (or somebody in my household) will build a rain garden on my property in the next two years if some of my friends and neighbors helped me.


I (or somebody in my household) will build a rain garden on my property in the next two years.


I (or somebody in my household) will hire someone to build a rain garden on my property in the next two years.



Select the most acceptable behavior

Obviously, there is no simple recipe for selecting one or more behaviors that your target audience is likely to adopt. But by asking the questions suggested in Question #5, you will know a lot more about the audience potential for adopting the preferred behavior. You will be more prepared to select an alternative behavior, if appropriate, or to provide an outreach initiative that specifically addresses one or more barriers you identified in the process of analyzing acceptability.

Gardner and Stern (1996) recommend eight principles to keep in mind when intervening to make change (Table 2). These principles serve as a reminder of the complexity of the process of changing public behavior.

Table 2. Principles to consider when trying to change behavior

Principles to consider when trying to change behavior
  • Use multiple intervention types to address factors limiting behavior because limiting factors:
    • Are numerous (technology, attitudes, knowledge, money, convenience, trust)
    • Vary with actor and situation, and over time
    • Affect each other (interactive principle)
  • Understand the situation from the actor’s perspective
  • When limiting factors are psychological, apply understanding of human choice processes
  • Address conditions beyond the individual that constrain pro-environmental choice
  • Set realistic expectations about outcomes
  • Continually monitor responses and adjust programs accordingly
  • Stay within the bounds of the actors’ tolerance for intervention
  • Use participatory methods of decision making



Aizen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In J. Kuhl & J. Beckman (Eds.), Action-control: From cognition to behavior (pp. 11- 39). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

Booth, E. M. (1996). Starting with behavior: A participatory process for selecting target behaviors in environmental programs. Washington, DC: GreenCOM, Academy for Educational Development.

De Young, R. (1993). Changing behavior and making it stick: The conceptualization and management of conservation behavior. Environment and Behavior, 25(4), 485-505.

Gardner, G. T., & Stern, P. C. (1996). Environmental problems and human behavior (p. 159). Boston: Allyn and Bacon..

McKenzie-Mohr, D. (1995). Promoting a sustainable future: An introduction to community-based social marketing. Ottawa, Ontario, Canada: National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy.

Fogarty, E., Huston, J., Maskin, R., Van Belleghem,  B., & Vang, S. (2007). Phosphorus free for Lake Ripley. Community-based social marketing program to use phosphorus-free lawn fertilizer. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, Urban and Regional Planning.