Sunday, September 15, 2013

Psychology of Sustainable Behavior

It's a tough balance in offices trying to move towards institutional changes in sustainability. There are often many changes that occur, regardless of how the occupants consume. Higher efficiency heating and cooling equipment, or renewable energy sources can reduce our overall environmental impacts without changing our daily lifestyles. It is also a quick way to reduce our environmental footprints.

But, on the other hand, there is something to be said about the individual initiative to reduce our own consumption levels. While seemingly not as quick and impactful, there is always a place for small scale changes. And, one of the biggest misconceptions about individual behavior changes towards sustainability is that our individual actions are too small to make an impact.

Christie Manning, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies and Psychology at Macalester College, has investigated this topic in a recent paper, "The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior" (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, 2009). She discusses why we are not always rational decision makers, and that despite a lot of evidence backing man-made climate change and the need to reduce global levels of greenhouse gas emissions, many of us don't take action.

Her paper explains that while we have a rational side that understands rules and logic, there is also an associative side that works in parallel with the rational. This side is the one that takes cues to other, non-rational, associations we might have for any image, object, idea, or words. For example, she discusses the idea of biking to work. While the benefits of lowered transportation costs, and exercise appeal to the rational side, there is always the side that reacts badly to the thought of helmet-hair or coming into work sweaty. While quantification points towards biking, there is another, more personal side to us that just doesn't want to.

This happens almost everywhere. I find myself printing out articles to read so I can take notes, even though I am fully capable of this digitally on my computer. On days when I am in a rush, I find myself forgoing the reusable shopping bag, or my coffee mug, for the disposable versions. So, Manning offers some seven suggestions, based on psychological studies.

Tip 1: "Make sustainable behavior the social default"

This is already true in the Netherlands, where curbside composting is as common as recycling for us. Don't let anyone see you throw it into a garbage bin instead of the compost bin, as neighbors are known to find it socially objectionable if you don't compost. To establish this type of social default, Manning suggests communicating that there is social proof. You may not need to show that the whole country is doing it, but you can give evidence that a large group of people are "being green." In addition, being able to show off sustainability is also a part of the social default. Being able to demonstrate that you are, like many others, acting sustainably, helps positively reinforce behaviors and encourage more of it.

Tip 2: "Emphasize personal relevance"

Rather than referring to the abstract environment or polar bears, the key to creating individual change is to make it relevant to that individual. And, unless they have a pet polar bear, or are personally invested in the icebergs in the North Pole, messages about these abstract issues are not going to hit home. Instead, issues must be catered to the individual's worldview, and their location. This requires determining who your audience is, what matters to them, and how to frame the issue in a way that is significant to them.

Tip 3: "Make hidden information visible"

This doesn't mean that the challenges of climate change should not be conveyed to people. Making this type of abstract information understandable to people can also be an important factor. There are many graphic designers, artists, and other industries that try to overcome perceptual barriers. Chris Jordan's photography captures ideas of waste and consumption in his mosaics. Also, this type of communication can be used as a feedback system, giving people updates about their progress, and helping motivate continual action.

Tip 4: "Foster mindfulness"

The fourth tip is to "foster mindfulness." Awareness of what is going on around makes the decision towards sustainable behavior much more lasting. For example, understanding that there are vampire loads to appliances left plugged in, even when in standby , can help people make the conscious decision to turn off, or even switch off appliances at the power strip.

Tip 5: "Create opportunities for competence, skills, and knowledge"

According to Manning, people are more drawn to activities that they feel they have autonomy and knowledge about. Thus, hands-on approaches, and letting people try strategies , or conveying effective strategies to people can help give a clear sense of direction when they are faced with a decision in the future. For example, the MetroTransit offers a bike rack test station at the Minnesota State Fair, and at St. Paul office. Users who might have been intimidated to use the bus bike rack when faced with traffic, an impatient bus driver, and a bus-full of people eager to get to their destinations, can now try out how to secure the bike and release the racks, without all the pressure. This allows one less barrier to get in the way of biking somewhere.

Tip 6: "Make change a byproduct of other events"

This tip is based on our habit-prone human natures. Making sustainable behavior something that you must opt-out of, rather than opt-in to, can make the sustainable behavior the habit. Alternately, when we do change major elements of our lives, such as job changes, or moves, it is a good time to intervene and propose other changes. For example, the last time I moved, I received a coupon book with cleaning supplies. Since I was in flux and had nothing at the time, I opted to get what the coupons indicated. If chemically-benign and safer cleaning agents were introduced at the time, I'd likely have gone for those options instead.

Tip 7: "Balance urgency with realistic hope"

The doomsday threats and constant message of having to change, or else…. has the potential to move people to gravitate towards inaction. Manning suggests goals that seem achievable. This can be done by establishing goals that people can tackle on a daily basis, instead of goals of saving the world. These incremental goals should also be expressed as such, in smaller portions, over time. For example, most goals for sustainability are set in stages - 10% reductions by 2015, followed by 30% reductions in 2030. Phasing helps make the goal seem much more achievable, and gives people small wins to feel motivated to continue.

Many of these suggestions seem like common sense - why wouldn't we present information that is relevant to the audience? However, despite the simplicity, there are often many cases where it is not done. With so many audiences in the sustainability realm, many reports and studies attempt to appeal to all of them with the most data and the most chapters possible, hoping one will stick. However, the result is that not many of the general public are captured with these types of data-filled reports. Even when presented with scientific data, from an expert that has spent years studying and understanding climate science, people are still doubtful. Thus, taking Manning's suggestions to heart, and carefully constructing audience analysis, and establishing goals and messages that will inspire people rather than turn them off to sustainability will be an important next-step in our Institutional Sustainability project.

Manning, Christie. (Sept. 2009) "The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior." Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. Full report found at