The psychology of sustainable behaviour
Human behavior underlies almost all environmental problems, such as air and water pollution, climate change, deforestation, and loss of biodiversity. Research in psychology offers clues as to why people engage in unsustainable behaviors despite their concern about the broader consequences. At the same time, the research also explains why people go out of their way to behave sustainably, and how it is possible to motivate and empower sustainable actions. The goal of the psychology of sustainable behavior is to create the conditions that make sustainable action the most appealing or natural choice. Most people want to live in a way that treats the ecosystems we depend on with care and respect, and people express increasing worry about the state of our natural environment. Yet we all find ourselves engaging in unsustainable daily behaviors that have negative environmental impacts. We are intelligent, thinking creatures. Why is it so difficult for us to change our behavior and act upon our environmental concerns?One reason is that though our rational minds may know that change is needed, it is not always our rational minds that drive our behavior. Why we are not always rational decision makersOne of the most important observations from psychological research is that many decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes on the basis of information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of. There is accumulating psychological and neuroscience evidence that thinking is the product of two separate systems of reasoning: a rule-based system, which is conscious, rational and deliberate, and an associative system, which is unconscious, sensory-driven and impulsive (Sloman, 1996; 2007). In their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein, (2008) liken the rule-based system to Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, and the associative system to Homer Simpson.These two systems of reasoning, the rule-based and the associative, work in parallel. However, they do not always agree. The rule-based system is slow and makes decisions based on careful consideration of facts and evidence. The associative system, on the other hand, arrives at a decision much more quickly, giving us our gut-feelings. The associative system is outside of conscious control and responds to subtle sensory cues such as familiarity, emotional (affective) reaction, fleeting real or mental images. Our conscious experience hides the influence that the associative system has on our daily choices; most of us feel like our decisions are based on thinking through the facts. However, the associative system plays an unconscious but powerful role in every move that we make and influences or overrides the conclusions of careful, deliberate thinking. Occasionally, the associative system completely takes over certain decisions, for example when we are multi-tasking, acting on autopilot, or have otherwise disengaged focused thinking.Sustainable behaviors have little appeal to the associative system. Consider a behavior like biking to work: a person’s rule-based system thinks it’s a great idea because of all the benefits (health, money savings, fitness), but his associative system responds with a definitive “No way!” perhaps because it just can’t handle the idea of walking into the office with “helmet hair.”One way to empower sustainability is to make sustainable actions appealing to the associative system (the Homer Simpson in each of us). A second strategy is to get the attention of the rule-based system so that it can assert itself against the associative system’s rejection of a sustainable action (“Helmet hair is really no big deal. We’re biking!”). An even better strategy does both: makes a sustainable action appealing and attention-getting for both rational reasons as well as gut-feeling, associative-system reasons. The tips described in this handbook are designed to create conditions that bolster people’s inclination (rational and...
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