Psychology’s Role In Addressing Environmental Problems

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

The news is full of stories like these: The most powerful hurricane in history hits Mexico. California endures a record-breaking drought. 2015 is on track to be the warmest year ever recorded.

These stories make us think about climate change, and public concern is growing—the majority of Americans believe climate change is occurring and that humans are part of the problem. But concern is not enough. Behavioral changes are needed to mitigate and adapt to environmental challenges.

It is critical that we consider the limits to human rationality—the biases, blind spots, denial, and inertia that get in the way of effective responses.  We must also understand the ways in which the natural environment is important to people, not just for its instrumental value but also for complex symbolic and emotional reasons.

Recently, my colleagues and I published an article in American Psychologist, where we argue that psychological research is critical to understanding—and influencing—our response to climate change.

Improving Communication

In order to make good behavioral choices, it helps if people accurately understand the problem. Research on risk perception and on decision making under uncertainty has revealed a lot about the ways in which people perceive or misperceive environmental threats.

People tend to be more convinced by the concrete than the abstract, and to give more weight to present sacrifices than to future consequences, all of which makes environmental change seem remote. So when we link climate change to specific, personal consequences, it can make it seem more “real.”  For example, one study found Italians in two cities knew about the risk of flooding, but only the residents who received information about how the flooding would affect them personally said they would do anything about it.

Psychological research is critical to understanding and influencing our response to climate change. 

What’s also important is that people feel they have the power to do something. People tend to ignore or deny problems they feel helpless to deal with, so environmental messages should convey some element of hope. “We’re already facing at least an average increase of 2 degrees Celsius” gives people nowhere to go with their concern, whereas “switching to renewable energy would immediately cut our carbon footprint by a massive amount” points people toward an effective behavior change.

Finally, the information people listen to largely depends on their social groups and connections.  Something said by a source you trust will be far more effective than the same statement from a stranger or a political opponent. Pro-environmental messages need to be designed to work within existing social networks.

Understanding the Paths to Behavior Change

Research on sustainable behavior change has turned up some surprising findings. It shows, for example, that financial incentives can sometimes backfire. In fact, personal values can motivate more pro-environmental behavior change than money. Far from acting only in their own economic self-interest, people’s support for environmental practices and policies is affected by the perceived fairness of those policies, the possibility that acting environmentally can enhance their status, and an intrinsic value for nature.

As in other areas, one of the most important influences on behavior is what other people are doing. Because people tend to adjust their own behavior to be close to the social norm, describing the sustainable behavior of others can be one of the most effective ways of encouraging people to reduce their demands on environmental resources. In one widely-cited study, researchers found that hotel guests were more likely to reuse their towels when told that most of the people who had previously stayed in that hotel had done so—and even more likely when they were told that most who had stayed in that room had. These messages were far more effective than general statements about protecting the environment.

Leveraging Well-being

We are only beginning to understand the ways in which people will be affected by environmental changes. The geophysical consequences of climate change, such as rising sea levels, increases in average temperature, and changing patterns of precipitation that include both droughts and downpours, will certainly affect physical infrastructure and human health, but they may also have more subtle effects on well-being.

Natural disasters threaten mental health, leading to increases in post-traumatic stress disorders, anxiety, and suicide. Changing environments provide an extra source of stress that may increase domestic violence and substance abuse. The migrations that result from environmental degradation weaken community ties and increase the likelihood of intergroup conflict due to competition over environmental resources.

On the positive side, our important emotional connections to place and to nature have been shown to improve the ways in which we think and interact with others, and can be used to motivate environmental care and concern.

Psychologists have the dual goals of understanding human behavior and promoting human well-being. Both of these goals are advanced by research that investigates the relationship between humans and their environment. In collaboration with others, psychologists can use their knowledge and skills to find ways to effectively motivate sustainable behavior, design technologies and policies that people will implement, and encourage successful adaptation to environmental changes.