The Psychology of Environmental Behavior that You’re Ignoring in Your Writing


“Changes in climate will doubtless be a key force in the future evolution of social systems, including all aspects of social, economic and political life, while impinging on the health and well-being of the individuals who populate them.” – Rosa & Dietz 2012

Human actions can and do shape the global climate. It is our environmental behaviors in the end that either mitigate or contribute to global climate change today. Even though our fundamental values, attitudes, beliefs and intentions often contribute to predicting our behaviors, environmental communication interventions are nearly meaningless if they don’t eventually produce environmentally significant action.

“Ultimately, most releases of greenhouse gases are driven by consumption of goods and services by individuals, households and organizations, and the manufacturing, transport and waste disposal that underpins that consumption.” – Rosa & Dietz 2012

Social and environmental psychology researchers have in recent years contributed significantly to our understanding of the psychological drivers of pro-environmental behavior. And yet, in my opinion at least, environmental communicators have been slow to adopt best practices gleaned from psychological research. Information and persuasion campaigns distributed through the mass media on how to save energy or the environment have long been popular strategies – and yet typically ineffective in producing policy outcomes and behavior change.

So what other strategies – other than information and financial incentives (which have had conflicting results) – do environmental communicators have at their disposal for potentially motivating change? One strategy – which is often ignored by communicators and yet has attracted the attention of many environmental psychologists – is the harnessing of norms, social norms and social motives. Normative appeals take advantage of social influence – what pro-environmental actions do important others approve of? What are most people around you doing to protect the environment or save energy? Norms are often powerful predictors of our own behaviors – what others approve of and do in turn influence what we approve of and do.

Shaking hands after a sports match is an example of a social norm. (Wiki)

Shaking hands after a sports match is an example of a social norm. (Wiki)

Normative messages tell us that a desirable behavior is very common (i.e. 77% of your neighbors use fans instead of air-conditioning to stay cool in the summer). These types of messages have been shown in some research to be far more effective than financial gain messages (i.e. you can save $10 every month by using fans instead of air-conditioning to stay cool). However, Jessica Nolan and colleagues (2011) show that energy experts often falsely believe that normative messages are ineffective and that financial gain messages are more effective than they really are.

Norms can be injunctive (i.e. most people approve of taking steps to save energy) or descriptive (i.e. most people take steps to save energy). Psychology research also shows that normative appeals work best when injunctive norms are aligned with descriptive norms (most people both approve of this behavior and actually do this behavior). In fact, if I know that most people approve of recycling, for example, but most people around me don’t recycle, I’m prone to not recycle – perhaps because I see that it is social acceptable not to take the actions I endorse. This is where many environmental communicators make mistakes in their messages to the public – they may try to promote a pro-environmental behavior by showing how common a negative behavior is (driving one’s own car, for instance, instead of car-pooling), thereby accidentally reinforcing the negative behavior as a descriptive social norm.

Injunctive and descriptive norms have been found to influence energy conservation, recycling, and other pro-environmental behaviors. The bottom line is that research has demonstrated that if we believe that others will participate in conservation, and we expect that our actions will be effective in bringing about the desired outcome (saving energy, for example), we will tend to actually participate in prosocial and pro-environmental action. Curiously, few environmental reporters and other communicators are considering these psychological factors when writing about energy conservation and other environmental issues.

In closing, I'd like to challenge environmental communicators, psychologists and enthusiasts to begin taking greater efforts to research and share the pro-environmental behaviors that are normal but perhaps underestimated in our culture today. What pro-environmental behaviors are most of our neighbors taking, that perhaps we aren't? If you find examples where a majority of people are engaging in a positive behavior (car-pooling, using energy-efficient lightbulbs, etc.), tweet that "norm" using hashtag #WeDoConserve.

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