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Empowering Sustainability: The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior

Christie Manning (Macalester College), Elise Amel (University of St. Thomas), and Britain Scott (University of St. Thomas)

The majority of people in the world understand that human behavior is driving serious disruptions of the natural systems we rely on for food, water, and all other resources. Concern about these issues is on the rise: opinion polls show that most Americans think we should do more to preserve and protect the environment. Unfortunately, this concern is not enough because real and perceived barriers prevent us from taking action.

Research in psychology describes three types of barriers:

Physical and infrastructure barriers such as cost (e.g. upfront costs for home insulation), inconvenience (e.g. biking to work means arriving in need of a shower) or lack of facilities (e.g. no public transit).

Social barriers: signals from other people and from the media implying that green behaviors are undesirable (e.g. clotheslines are forbidden in certain neighborhoods).

Psychological and perceptual barriers such as our inability to sense pollution (e.g. CO2), incomplete knowledge, difficult-to-break habits, fear of change, or negative emotional responses to things like composting. 

Fortunately, there are many ways to empower ourselves and those around us to live more sustainably. Here are some tips from psychologists for creating positive change within and around you. Using these tips will also begin to chip away the broader resistance to change that keeps infrastructure barriers in place.

Tip 1: Make green socially acceptable. You can do this by demonstrating your own green behavior and by giving positive social cues anytime you see someone else do something green. For example, wear your bike helmet to your next meeting and give a thumbs-up to people waiting at the bus stop.

Tip 2: Make impact visible. Does anyone know how much energy they use or how their driving habits influence their gas mileage? Probably not, since feedback about these things is rare. Most people willingly adjust their behavior when given direct feedback, such as the mileage display available on the Prius dashboard: the mileage display plummets with every abrupt acceleration and people quickly learn adjust their driving to prevent this.

Tip 3: Use the right words. Certain words evoke an emotional response that discourages action. For example, even people who love the environment want nothing to do with actions encouraged by “environmentalists.” Also, words that evoke feelings of dread should be used sparingly. Presenting the doom and gloom of global warming without also describing reasonable and effective ways to address it leads to coping mechanisms (e.g. denial, resignation, apathy) instead of action.

Tip 4: Seize the moments of change. From an evolutionary perspective, habits are a good thing. As behaviors become automatic, precious brain energy becomes available for more important tasks. However, many habits are unsustainable and changing habits is uncomfortable, hard work. Fortunately, there are many points in life when habits are broken for normal reasons (e.g. moving, having a baby) and at these times people are more receptive to trying a new, greener way.


Fostering Sustainable Behavior,

Changing minds,

Water Words That Work,

Empowering Sustainability

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