The Bell Curve, An Interlude

Roger Guzowski

Roger Guzowski

OK, so here’s the mea culpa where I realize that I have probably skipped a step during the time that I have been writing this blog. If you have never seen me speak publicly, there is a core tenet that I often talk about that I have found in my 20+ years of implementing recycling and materials sustainability programs. That is that there is a bell curve of participation.

Several times in previous posts I have touched on this bell curve. Other times, I have implied it in my argument chain but not directly addressed it (If you accept that every theory or argument has a sequence of if-then statements that lead you to a conclusion, I realize in reading back that I probably needed to more directly explain this bell curve to help explain how I arrived at my conclusion). So let me take this interlude to fully address this bell curve head on.

To visualize how this works, imagine a traditional-shaped bell curve, the “population curve.” Now imagine overlaid over that curve an upside down bell curve, the “enthusiasm/dedication” curve.

When you put these two curves together, you get a model that looks something like this:

  • On one end, there is a small but committed minority that is very enthusiastic and dedicated to the cause. They are “Early Adopters” and “Crusaders”. They are a very small percentage of the population but their enthusiasm and motivation drives initial change.
  • Then, as you move toward the middle, the percentage of the population increases but the enthusiasm wanes. As you first make that move you reach “2nd Tier Supporters” that are more numerous but slightly less dedicated than the Early Adopters.
  • As you move even more toward the middle, you reach the point on the continuum that I typically refer to as the “Apathetic Middle” (which I will get back to in a minute). This is the vast majority of the population.
  • Then on the other side of the curve, you reach the “Opposers”, a decreasingly small percentage of the population that opposes the cause with a vehemence and motivation curve equal to that with which the Crusaders support it.

For any recycling or sustainability program to work in perpetuity (and truly be sustainable), it needs to reach that Apathetic Middle. They are the vast majority of the population. Their participation or lack thereof will make or break any program. If you want your program to grow beyond the pilot program stage and become integrated into the daily life of your campus (or any group be it business or municipality or state or even country), you need to reach that apathetic middle.

The problem is that the strategy to reach that Apathetic Middle is completely different from that to reach the Crusaders or 2nd Tier Supporters. It can be one of the hardest barriers to overcome. It is made even more difficult because this is a continuum so there is not a hard and fast point at which you hit the barrier and recognize it. Rather it manifests where each additional marginal step starts to become exponentially harder. Unless you change course, you end up at a point where you are “marching in place” or “treading water” or even sliding backwards as opposed to making progress.

I have never meant the term “Apathetic Middle” to sound disparaging. I first started using the term primarily to get program implementers (who are often within the early adopter category) to recognize how steep the drop off in enthusiasm is as they reach out to this larger segment of the population.

But as you try to expand your program to reach that Apathetic Middle, here are some things to note:

They may have “leanings” either in support of the cause or opposed to the cause, but none of those feelings are strong enough to drive their actions, at least not for long.

This Apathetic Middle has some elasticity to it. A crisis or call to action (the Mobro Garbage Barge, September 11th, an Inconvenient Truth) can result in dramatic temporary swings of the apathetic middle. But the key to that swing is to recognize that it is temporary and that the middle will revert back to its apathy over time and spend the preponderance of its time there. Actually as the call to action ends, there is often a swing into the opposition end of things (the whole “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” thing) as the elasticity of the curve brings it back to the middle). Also keep in mind that as powerful as a crisis moment can be when it comes to moving the middle, you cannot have continuous crises or calls to action to move the middle. If you try, they become desensitized. The result is that you end up with a “boy who cried wolf” situation in which they cement their apathy by tuning you out completely.

To reach this middle you need to embrace their apathy because you will not change it for long. To do so, your cause or change:

  • Needs to be easy to understand, the more complicated a cause or change is, the more that complication will serve as a barrier to reaching the middle.
  • Needs to be easy to do so that it does not require any additional action. Any additional action required, either initially or continually will serve as a barrier to reaching the middle.
  • Needs to be financially easy to support. Any increase in either initial or continual cost will serve as a barrier to reaching the middle.
  • Needs to be easy to support from a social perspective. If their supporting something makes you un-cool or socially unacceptable, it will be a barrier to reaching the middle.
  • Needs to be credible. If they think or find out that they change they are making is not credible, it will completely undermine that change. Even worse, it will make it exponentially harder to move them from their apathy in the future.
  • Needs to have a personal hook, a “what’s in it for me”. Just remember that personal hook might not be the same “I’m going to help” or “I’m going to save the world” personal hook that motivates early adopters. What makes this issue even more difficult is that the personal hook is different for everyone.

The more you can remove those barriers and tailor your change/cause to their apathy, the more of the Apathetic Middle your program will reach and the more it will achieve long-term sustained success.

If you want to be radical, change is radical. But acting radical and promoting radical behavior will not get you the success that you need with the apathetic middle to achieve long-term change.

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