Student’s Corner

6a00d8341c046f53ef01543359eeeb970c-800wiMotivating Sustainable Behavior

In a world where people are so set in their ways, how does one go about motivating behavior change? I face this question all the time, having two jobs on campus that are related to sustainability. Sometimes it feels like the odds are too great – people seem disinterested, distrusting, and are often misinformed about environmental issues and the impact that individual actions have. So what can we do?

My last assignment of the school year was a literature review for Karen Berger’s capstone course, EES 320: Sustainable Systems. I wanted to focus on a topic that would help me to better understand how to effectively motivate others to take an interest in environmental issues and to act accordingly. I became familiar with a surprisingly long list of fields of study that focus on varying combinations of environmental science and psychology.

Unfortunately, there was no perfect answer to my questions. Rather, I found a lot of information on what makes behavior change so difficult. Some interesting points include:

• Humans are remarkably irrational. Very rarely do we act based on logic; we are driven by emotions. The example I kept coming across was going grocery shopping on an empty stomach – the hunger we feel is much more influential on how much food we’ll buy than the logical need. Part of the reason that we don’t often think logically is due to time constraints. Considering the positives and negatives of every single decision would take up virtually all of our time.

• Our values determine our attitudes which determine our behavior. Values are very deeply rooted, are shaped by experience, and are solidified relatively early on in life. Our attitudes, essentially whether or not we view concepts positively or negatively, are determined by our values. However, to further complicate things, our attitudes and behavior do not often align (for example, believing that lying is wrong, but then telling a lie). When our attitudes and values conflict, we experience cognitive dissonance, a discomfort felt through anxiety, guilt, etc. Often, this discomfort will drive us to make allowances for our behaviors rather than to change them (i.e. “The lie I told wasn’t that bad, and other people lie more than I do. So it’s okay).

• Our brains create mental shortcuts so that we can make room for new information. This type of cognitive processing is called heuristic processing. We don’t think about actions once they become automatic, like stopping at a stop sign or opening a door. This lack of awareness surrounding our everyday behavior makes it harder to be conscious of automatic habits.

• Social norms are extremely powerful. People have a natural desire, even a need, to be “normal” and accepted by others. Making something a social norm guarantees behavior change, even in individualistic societies.

Though these facts don’t seem to bode well for motivating sustainability, it doesn’t mean that influencing behavior change is impossible. Ecopsychologists emphasize the effectiveness of practiced mindfulness, or self-awareness, surrounding values, attitudes, and behaviors. Ecotherapy has also been shown to augment sustainable behavior. This essentially involves spending time in restorative natural environments. For more information about ecopsychology, check out this link:

There is also much research surrounding effective social marketing, which is marketing that focuses on achieving behavioral goals for a given social good. A great report on that is linked below.



Written by Melissa Kullman, class of 2014

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