Student’s Corner

Psychology and eco-friendly behaviors

In this Student’s Corner article, we talked about making small structural changes (e.g. upgrade to an efficient shower head and faucet) to reduce water consumption indoors. Sometimes, even more subtle changes can influence our behavior on a subconscious level, taking us closer to our eco-friendly goals. We are psychological beings and often can’t rationally explain some of our decisions. Have you noticed that you are more likely to purchase a T-shirt that is $10 off compared to a computer with the same discount? In both cases, you save the same amount of $10 but the brain considers the relative savings. This is one example of a heuristic, a mental shortcut that allows us to solve problems, make judgments with minimal mental effort. We can take advantage of these heuristics to improve our behavior from an environmental perspective, both personally and collectively.

Very popular in marketing, the “anchoring and adjustment” heuristic is also observed in food consumption. In an analysis of 72 trials, people consistently overeat when given larger portions and plates (Cochrane Library). Even with lower food quality, people still eat more when given a larger container, as proven by a Cornell University study in which moviegoers ate 34% more stale popcorn when given a large bucket. What are the implications for the environment? This study found out that Chinese buffet diners with larger plates led not only to a 45% increase in food consumption, but also a 135% increase in food waste, compared to those with smaller plates. As the author puts it, “dinnerware provides a visual anchor of an appropriate fill-level, which in turn, serves as a consumption norm” and we end up wasting more food. One way to reduce food waste is to use smaller portions and plates. And this is not just a theoretical proposition.

By reducing plate size by as little as 3 cm, there was a 22% reduction in food waste from hotel guests according to a 2013 study. This is very significant. Imagine how much food could be saved by just nudging the size of dinnerware. This also save the energy, and effort that goes into the production and preparation of the food. Another way of taking advantage of the anchoring effect is to eliminate the use of trays in buffet-style dining places. Universities saw their food waste decrease by as much as 30% after removing trays from dining halls. Our very own River Campus dining halls no longer have trays, what has helped the University of Rochester meet its sustainable dining goals.

Capitalizing on psychology is much more impactful in collective environment, but you can implement the same tactics in your personal life. If you are buying your first set of dinnerware, consider smaller plates and bowls. Likewise, you can try to identify other areas of your life where psychology can help you be more eco-friendly.


Written by Kelly Jean, Class of 2022

Photo by Fakurian Design on Unsplash

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