By Alex Roth
Jennifer Tabanico makes her living trying to change people’s habits and behavior. Her job requires a journalist’s investigative skills, an advertiser’s marketing talents, and a psychologist’s understanding of why people do what they do.
One day she might be helping the city of Oceanside coax residents into picking up after their dogs. The next she might be working with the city of Fort Worth, Texas, to improve its residents’ recycling habits.
Tabanico, who teaches Behavior Change Strategies for Sustainability for Extension, has been very successful very quickly. Her company, Action Research, which began as a small operation in North San Diego County, now has clients all over the country as well as a few in other parts of the world, and opened a second office in New York in 2016.
Virtually all of her company’s clients, she said, want to change behavior in a way that helps the environment or public health and safety.
She, too, is committed to the cause. Changing people’s basic habits, she believes, is essential for the planet’s long-term health. Her company’s stated mission is “changing behavior for the public good” by promoting “clean, healthy, and sustainable communities.”
“When you look at any environmental problem or even a lot of our health problems, you can really drill that down to individual behaviors,” she said. “At the end of the day, you’re really looking at individual decisions and choices.”
The key, of course, is figuring out the most effective way to sway your target audience.
“It’s more than just educating people, and it’s more than just getting people to care about something,” she said. “It’s really addressing the underlying motivations that people have.”
She teaches all the tactics required to succeed in this line of work, such as identifying and overcoming whatever obstacles might prevent a person from modifying his or her habits.
When it comes to, say, reducing water use, people might simply have a hard time remembering what days to water lawns and for how long. Or they simply might not care enough to change their ways. How do you figure out which of these is the main obstacle? And how do you proceed from there?
Tabanico hadn’t originally intended to embark on this career path. She thought she might go to medical school and become a doctor. But as an undergraduate and then master’s student at California State University San Marcos, she studied under Wesley Schultz, a social psychology professor.
It was during this time she started learning about community-based social marketing, “which is applying insights from psychology to motivate people to engage in (certain) behavior,” she said. “I kind of fell in love with that process as a graduate student. It really felt like I was making a difference.”
Meanwhile, Schultz, began doing some consulting work in the field. He formed Action Research, and Tabanico began helping him. The purpose of the company, she said, was to “link research from academics to the real world—program planners that are trying to engage communities or workplaces in behaviors that benefit the environment.”
In 2007, they hired staff and started building the company. She took over partial ownership in 2009 and complete ownership in 2015. Today, the company continues to grow at a rapid pace. She and her staff are working on 24 projects around the country as well as in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.
One client was the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, which oversees a variety of clean-energy programs. The agency was looking to convince residents of one particular building to cut back on their energy use. The problem: these residents had no financial incentive to do so because their rent covered their electricity usage.
Tabanico and her partners on the project began interviewing the tenants and giving them information about how much energy their neighbors were using. The idea was to motivate the tenants by using the “normative social influence” approach—in other words, using their neighbors’ behavior to convince them to change their own behavior.
The tactic worked. The building saw a marked decrease in energy use.
“A large body of research suggests that people look to others to determine their own behavior,” she said. “It’s been demonstrated time and time again that people tend to go along with the group. Whatever the majority of people are doing, people tend to fall in line.”
Tabanico also has written articles for a variety of technical publications, including the Journal of Environmental Psychology, BioCycle magazine, and the journal Social Influence.
When she’s not working, she might be kayaking, skydiving, or running an obstacle race. She lives in Oceanside with her eight-year-old son, who has been helping her clean up beaches since he was three.
She has worked on numerous local environmental issues since moving to the North San Diego County area in 1997.
“That’s where my heart has always been on a lot of the pollution-prevention work,” she said. “You can really see the local impact. That’s what I find very rewarding. I feel like I’m making a real impact.”
Updated September 26, 2019