Who Needs to Litter?
Updated: Jun 30
As we come out of lockdown one of the things that saddens me the most is the amount of litter in our streets and parks, and on our beaches. The vast majority being food and drink wrappers and containers.
It would be easy to say “I don’t understand why people are so inconsiderate and lazy!“, and at one level I don’t understand. But as a coach, steeped in the business of why we do what we do, I know there is always a deeper level.
At a deeper level, all behaviour makes sense.
In this article I’m taking a guess at what’s going on. Read it not with the intention to agree or disagree - I haven’t done the research so take my conclusions with a pinch of salt - but to see the bigger picture of how behaviour makes sense when we dig a little deeper. How can this help you to help others, or yourself?
Let’s start with laziness. I don’t believe people are simply “lazy”, like it’s a label we can attach to someone’s personality. Laziness (and its close relative, procrastination!) are side-effects, or outcomes, of something else that is often fear-based.
Likewise with being inconsiderate. I don’t hold that people set out to be inconsiderate, as if that was their goal.
So then I get curious as to what’s really going on.
A useful place to look is needs. We all have basic needs - and I’m not talking cake and wine although I agree they are very important.
Here’s a simple model for what we all need:
Safety: Keeping safe from physical and psychological harm
Belonging: Staying connected to others in a meaningful way - family, friends, colleagues and social groups
Dignity: A sense that we matter, that we have value and merit
We find a way to meet these needs - ideally in positive ways but we will resort to negative ways if we have to. Much of what we do to meet our needs is subconscious, and often explained away by the stories our conscious mind makes up.
Back to littering… here are a couple of ideas as to what might be going on:
Fear: If I’m in a group and the “norm” is to leave our litter behind, then if I speak up to suggest we might want to maybe possibly consider taking our litter home with us… uh oh, I risk psychological safety (e.g. I am ridiculed for being a “goody two shoes”) and I risk my sense of belonging (I am now on the outside of the gang). It’s far easier for me to meet my needs for safety and belonging by going along with the behaviour of others.
Lack of self worth: If I have low self-worth, that is, if I feel that I don’t really matter, I need to find a way to feel better about myself. To do that I have to perform psychological gymnastics that have me hold that I am, at the very least, more worthy than someone else or groups of other people. There are all sorts of nasty side-effects to this and they play a part in all the -isms (racism, sexism, …). Once I have made myself superior, I will likely start to feel entitled. As I drop litter I’ll be telling myself “Why should I take mine home when others aren’t?”, or “It’s someone else’s job to tidy this up”. These are the stories I make up to cover the deeper hurt.
This is not to excuse littering; I would be delighted to see people prosecuted as the law allows. It’s more that if we want to solve any of society’s ills we must be willing to look beyond our indignation and righteousness.
While I don’t have the deeper solution for littering - it seems the surface solution of prosecution is our best bet for now - the point of this article was more to shine the light on what lies beneath the behaviour. Being able to look at underlying needs is a powerful way to help us in our day-to-day lives.
As a very practical and common example, if you’ve had an argument with your partner or colleague, notice what you are feeling then take a look at the needs listed above. What needs did you both have that weren’t being met? How can you resolve the argument to meet your needs and theirs? Hint, it’s nearly always possible.