Cover Story

Whether they're talking about trash, overpopulation or global warming, environmental psychologists agree that human behavior is the cause of environmental degradation. They agree that incentives like bottle deposits encourage people to recycle, that posted reminders get them to turn off their lights and that conveniently placed trash cans keep them from littering.

That's the easy stuff. When it comes to advice on the best way to foster earth-friendly behaviors--such as responsible consumerism, energy conservation and family planning--experts offer differing but often complementary approaches.

Some believe that appealing to people's self-interest is the best method. Other authorities say the field's emphasis on individual behaviors is misguided and instead advocate organizational, political and other large-scale changes.

All are working to produce empirical evidence to show that their approach will save the world.

"We need the wisdom of many disciplines to solve environmental problems," says Stuart Oskamp, PhD, who organized a special section on environmentalism for American Psychologist last May. "And psychologists have quite a bit of knowledge they can apply to the challenge."

Changing individuals' behavior

Ask Oskamp what he believes is needed, and he points to a classic study of competition and cooperation.In the "Robber's Cave" experiment conducted by Muzafer Sherif, PhD, researchers took a group of boys to an isolated campsite and divided them into two groups that quickly became quite competitive. The only way to bring the groups together was to present them with problems affecting them all, such as a break in the water supply or a truck stuck in mud.

Oskamp thinks environmentalists should use a similar approach to mobilize people to change their behavior.

"We need to convince people to unite in a war against the common enemy of an uninhabitable earth," says Oskamp, a psychology professor at Claremont Graduate University in California. "We need to all work together toward common goals."

California's recent electricity shortage offers a perfect example of this approach in action, says Oskamp. The threat of blackouts grabbed people's attention, he notes, and the power company provided concrete suggestions for reducing energy consumption.

"If you can present effective actions that can be taken by individuals, they're much more likely to respond than if you present them with the overwhelming problem of preventing global warming," he says.

But grabbing people's attention shouldn't mean using appeals that make them feel frightened or guilty, warns Susan D. Clayton, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

"Those kinds of appeals tend to make people resentful," she explains. "They'll stop thinking about global warming and other threats to the environment because doing so makes them feel guilty about the ways they're contributing to the problem."

Making people feel guilty also increases the chances they'll view environmentalists as "other" at best and "enemy" at worst, she says. Feeling blamed for environmental problems can lead people to feel so antagonistic they may deliberately do things that harm the environment, she adds.

Appealing to people's self-interest is a smarter strategy, Clayton argues. Her research explores whether the value people derive from their own emotional connection to nature increases the likelihood they'll engage in eco-friendly behaviors. Her preliminary data suggest it does.

"We should be reminding people that this is not an us-them kind of issue where environmentalists want you to do something that will lead to sacrifices to your own lifestyle," she says, noting that ranchers and farmers often combine hostility toward environmentalism and deep emotional attachment to their land. "It should be, 'Here's something that you can do to protect the things you value.'"

Raymond K. De Young, PhD, takes a similar approach.

"If we begin the discussion by talking about how a constrained, austere life is an ecological necessity, people are going to get an image of freezing in the dark," says De Young, an associate professor of environmental psychology and conservation behavior in the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment. "They'll stop listening. People just don't resonate to that kind of information."

What they do resonate to is a more positive approach, says De Young. Drawing on the tenets of positive psychology, his work focuses on the benefits people derive from engaging in what he calls environmental stewardship behaviors.

Instead of doom and gloom, he says, conservation messages should emphasize that a simpler life is not only more environmentally sustainable but also helps individuals restore themselves mentally. Once life is less frenetic, says De Young, people will have more time to spend with their families and do things that matter to them. Appealing to these intrinsic motivations will also produce more lasting changes than promoting a sense of urgency and crisis, De Young is convinced.

"It may very well be true that our future existence will be much more materially constrained than it is now," says De Young, who began his career as an engineer. "The way to 'soft land' there is to give it a positive spin."

It takes a village

Not all psychologists are convinced such appeals to self-interest are the way to go. According to Doug McKenzie-Mohr, PhD, there are many situations where that approach doesn't work. Neither do the informational campaigns that dominate the field.

He cites as just one example a study by psychologist E. Scott Geller, PhD, who found that a three-hour energy conservation workshop increased homeowners' knowledge but had no effect on their behavior.

"We see mass marketers using information-based programs to promote the purchase of products and think we can use the same approach to bring about behavior change," says McKenzie-Mohr, a psychology professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. "Selling products is much simpler than trying to get people to engage in environmentally friendly behaviors."

What's needed is a strategy that recognizes that people often face barriers that prevent them from doing the right thing. If there's no public transportation, for instance, even the most avid environmentalist may be forced to use a car.

The community-based social marketing approach McKenzie-Mohr has developed--described in more detail on his Web site at www.cbsm.com--uses a four-prong approach: identifying barriers, eliminating those barriers and amplifying the benefits of the desired barriers, piloting the program and evaluating it.

"This approach is more labor-intensive, takes longer and is more expensive," says McKenzie-Mohr. "It's also dramatically more likely to work."

Other psychologists point out that exclusive focus on individual behavior is short-sighted.

"By inclination, psychologists tend not to look at external constraints on behavior," says Paul C. Stern, PhD, study director of the National Research Council's Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change.

Psychologists also more apt to focus on behaviors that are familiar to them, he believes. These tend to be frequently repeated actions such as recycling. Less frequent actions, such as deciding where to live, are far more critical in terms of environmental sustainability.

More important, Stern notes, focusing only on the individual overlooks the biggest culprit when it comes to environmental degradation: organizations. Although individual behavior is obviously important, targeting organizations for change would have a much bigger impact, says Stern. (See related article for what APA is doing to become a more green organization.)

In response to this misconception, Stern has developed an "environment-first" research strategy. His goal is to persuade researchers to begin their projects by thinking hard about which behaviors would make the biggest difference to the environment.

Indeed, many agree that taking a more global approach to environmental problems is the way to go.

"The answer to environmental problems is not for us to turn down our thermostats or buy cars with better mileage," says George S. Howard, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Ind. "The answer is to vote for politicians who are willing to enact environmentally friendly policies."


Rebecca A. Clay is a writer in Washington.

Further Reading

  • Gardner, G.T. & Stern, P.C. (1995). Environmental Problems and Human Behavior. Allyn & Bacon.
  • Howard, G.S. (1997). Ecological Philosophy: Creating a More Earth-Friendly Human Nature. University of Notre Dame Press.

  • McKenzie-Mohr, D. (1999). Fostering Sustainable Behavior: An Introduction to Community-Based Social Marketing. New Society.

To subscribe to a listserv devoted to conservation and psychology, send an e-mail to conservation-psychology@listserver.itd.umich.edu.