Rethinking the Way We Approach Pro-Environmental Behaviour Change
Climate change is happening; that's something most of us can agree on. But how do we re-think our decisions, habits and everyday routines toward more environmentally-friendly behaviour? It turns out the answer could be more to do with design than education.
We live in a sort of psychological paradox; our minds rely on and constantly replay our past memories and thoughts about the near future, and yet our behaviour is largely guided by our immediate experience: our emotions, immediate gratification and/or consequence.
This is in stark contrast to how we, ideally, ought to be going about things. Mindfulness, and other present-oriented practices, have shown us the incredible benefits of practicing being 'in the now'. Additionally, there are huge benefits to behaving in ways that nurture and sustain our health, wealth and environment in the future, specifically over the long term.
This complicated case of cognitive dissonance is why, for the most part, we have failed to change important behaviours like saving for retirement or acting in a pro-environmental manner despite knowing and understanding the need to do so. In trying to effect behaviour change for too long we have relied on 'go-to' solutions - like informative or educational communications and evidence-based justifications - without first understanding the nature of the fickle beast that we are dealing with.
Traditional communication and education fails to change behaviour
For the most part governments, organizations and environmental impresarios have relied on communicating scientifically-grounded ‘facts’ to society about the environmental issues at hand. The assumption here has been that people will educate themselves on the facts of the matter and rationally take these facts into consideration whenever they are faced with an environmentally-significant decision. Do I want this plastic shopping bag? Should I drive to work or car pool? Do I really need a long shower?
The dismal results of this 'traditional' approach are evident all around us. We don’t have to look much further than the strongest proponents of environmental change, most of whom would be blatantly lying if they said that they were behaving in an absolutely pro-environmental manner. The sad truth is that some of these proponents probably face the most psychological distress as the dissonance between their beliefs and actions is so large.
Importantly, this is not entirely their fault, or, any of ours for that matter. It is simply the nature of the 'nature problem'; it doesn’t suit our psychology and motivational drivers very well at all. As Dan Ariely poignantly says,
"If you search the whole globe for the one problem that would maximize human apathy you would come up with global warming."
To really understand this and why, we need to unpack the psychological challenges associated with behaving in a pro-environmental way.
The most central psychological challenges include:
The negative effects of environmental change happen in the future, however pro-environmental behaviour often requires negatively perceived inconvenience in the present.
We don’t readily 'see' environmental change steadily worsening and there is no meaningful feedback. The evidence exists most often as raw statistical data.
We struggle to empathise with the people who will most benefit from our actions in the present (including society's most vulnerable, future generations and even our future self).
Anything pro-environmental that we do is 'just a drop in the bucket'. We can’t see how the small acts accumulate to have an impressive effect and there is no feedback system in place when we engage in these behaviours to positively reinforce them.
There are few, if any, meaningful inherent emotional and social triggers to motivate us to pro-environmental behaviour change.
Understanding the multitude of psychological challenges associated with this problem helps us to see the limitations of a purely rational, informational or educational strategy. The most common platitudes like “if only they knew... if only they understood it properly” simply don’t apply here.
What can we do?
The question that thus arises is “well, what can we do? How do we start tackling this problem, effectively and globally?
I’d like to propose a slightly counter-intuitive alternative to the traditional approach. It’s what behavioural economists, call reward substitution. As the name suggests this approach utilises an unrelated immediate reward or punishment that motivates people to behave in line with their long-term interests and/or in a pro-social and pro-environmental manner.
A great practical example of reward substitution was an innovative project I worked on with pro-environmental non-profit organisation The Sustainable Brothers & Sisters earlier this year. The project took the form of a game; the goal was getting festival-goers to recycle their rubbish at large events and music festivals. In such a setting, a purely educational approach about the benefits of recycling and the environmental issues it helps with was just never going to work.
So, instead of trying to directly motivate people to recycle because it was good for the environment - which, let's be honest, most of them knew already... - we simply offered them the opportunity to win a reward that was immediate and meaningful to them within the context of a festival... Tequila!
The idea was simple. Three separate bins were set up two metres away from an upcycled tyre. Each bin was designated for a specific type of recyclable waste; glass, plastic or cans. Festival-goers would stand inside the tyre and try to throw their waste into the correct bin. If they missed or their waste landed in the wrong bin, they would have to pick it up and throw their waste away properly. If their waste was thrown in the correct bin, they were rewarded with a roar of appreciation from the audience around the game and, of course, a free tequila.
That was it. Although it appeared simple and trivial, the game had some built-in and extremely powerful motivational triggers:
An immediate, meaningful reward (the winners receiving free tequila)
An immediate social reward (the roar of the surrounding audience when a participant 'won')
A slightly challenging and engaging game that produced a nice combination of winners and losers (made winning more meaningful to know that not everyone could do it)
A subtle negative emotional response if the participant missed (Interestingly, participants that missed were the most likely to return to play again)
The game became extremely popular, even leading to one of the most fascinating and unexpected festival 'fashions' I had ever seen: people walking around the festival, looking for litter that they could pick up to play the recycling game. We weren’t just encouraging people to throw away their own waste, but actively motivating them to take the time to survey the grounds of the festival for the empty bottles and beer cans of others to throw away too.
While this has been extremely successful within the context of festivals, it doesn’t necessarily lead to festival-goers carrying this pro-environmental, waste conscious attitude and mindset over into their everyday lives. This brings me to the most important aspect of this entire issue; the misconstrued assumption that people are entirely responsible for (and conscious of) their behaviour. If there is one thing behavioural science has taught us, it’s that the context in which a person find themselves plays a much larger role in determining their behaviour than is normally assumed, than they might even do themselves.
Shifting the focus from education to design
We need to fundamentally shift our focus away from educating individuals about the multitude of pro-environmental and pro-social considerations that they have to monitor countless times each and every day, and rather direct attention toward those who are designing the contexts, the situations and man-made 'environments' we find ourselves in. Rewarding pro-environmental behaviour with an immediate, relevant and socially beneficial reward is one way of doing this. Another could be simply making the pro-environmental action easier to perform, or more socially visible when doing so.
Whichever strategy designers, policy-makers or even individuals decide to adopt, the underlying point is the same; focus less on teaching people why they should be doing something and more on understanding their psychological make-up and motivations within the contexts that are being designed for.
One of my favourite examples of this, was by the energy conservation company Opower. Instead of educating households on why they needed to save electricity they simply appealed to one of the most compelling human motivators of all - social pressure.