The Psychology of Sustainability

Psychology is involved in all of our decisions and can lead us to make both good and detrimental ones. Psychology also plays a role in advertising, motivation, and many social and collective action problems such as, you guessed it, sustainability! A blog post by Terrabluteams lists five psychological biases that work against our efforts towards greater sustainability in our “consumptive American economy.” (See Kaitlynn’s post for more on consumption!) The five biases are:

  1. The bandwagon effect: We tend to do what others do
  2. Giddens’ paradox: We have difficulty acting on things we can’t see
  3. The endowment effect: We demand much more to give up an object (even if it cost us very little to get it)
  4. Delayed gratification: Instant payoffs > Delayed payoffs
  5. The ostrich effect: We ignore obviously negative situations
We tend to do what others do

Thankfully, we can also use psychology to our advantage. Christie Manning’s “The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior” explains, in great depth, seven “tips from psychology” that can help us achieve our goals and counteract the effects of our biases. The seven tips, listed in order of effectiveness (starting with the most effective), are:

  1. Make sustainable behavior the social default: This plays on the bandwagon effect- social norms, whether we admit it or not, are actually very powerful! As the article says, norms are developed, not instantly established, and transitioning into a new era of more sustainable thinking creates a fair share of ambiguity.  So set the norm, encourage it, and make it visible!
  2. Emphasize personal relevance: We are much more apt to listen and take action when we can see how the threat and our actions will affect us. Personal relevance becomes especially clear when the focus is more local and the presentation corresponds with our own point of view. One specific point Manning makes is that “it’s not about the environment,” it’s about all of us. Discussing problems as environmental issues reinforces the artificial separation we have created between us and the environment.
  3. Make hidden information visible: The cure for Giddens’ paradox. Most of us don’t naturally perceive climate changes, see massive waste pile up, or notice the effects of a species’ extinction. Our lives carry on normally day to day. To help illustrate the effects, we can use concrete pictures, animations, and words. Additionally, informational or social feedback loops can also help demonstrate the direct effects of individual actions and provide immediate gratification.
  4. Foster mindfulness: Because people “in a more mindful state of awareness tend to at more sustainably.” Mindful thinking can be prompted by presenting new or surprising information, appealing to personal values, and by focusing on improvement, rather than perfection.
  5. Create opportunities for competence, skills, & knowledge: Simply stated, we are motivated to pursue activities where we feel competent, autonomous, and related to others. One way to foster these feelings are by giving task-specific information, or information about what we can do, not just the mechanism behind it. Other approaches is by providing hands-on opportunities to try new behaviors, and by communicating effective actions.
  6. Make change a byproduct of other events: For example, through habits. Creating and changing habits is difficult but we can help by making the sustainable choice the default, or by having an opt-out system, and by taking advantage of moments of flux, or when habits are disrupted and therefore easier to change. This also avoids requests to give something up (bias #3).
  7. Balance urgency with realistic hope: While we must understand the true risks and consequences of our actions, too much negativity or fear-inducement will create hopelessness which promotes measures geared toward emotional coping, rather than action, or even counterproductive behavior (the ostrich effect). To combat this effect, we can offer realistic hope by having a positive vision focused on solutions, foster a sense of unity, focus on small gains, and set significant yet attainable goals.
Manning, Christie. (Sept. 2009) “The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior.” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Sustainability success ultimately hinges on actions taken by individuals, making it important to get more people on board, committed to the cause, or at least out of unsustainable habits. Although a bit lengthy, I definitely recommend reading the article when you have a chance for much greater details, explanations, and helpful application examples!

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