The Psychology of Sustainability: Why It Is Hard To Make Progress
No two words define the human race more accurately than problems and solutions. Throughout our existence, we have gutted ourselves in intense wars, saw financial collapse, and unjustly mistreated marginalized societies. All of which took solutions and intense problem solving to reverse or mitigate. But perhaps the more significant problems we face originate from our own psychology.
Humans are notoriously short-term thinkers; it is why we worry about present situations that realistically have little influence on our future livelihood. We stress about work presentations knowing they will have little significance years after, and have trouble planning our schedules months, even weeks, ahead of time. Our shortsightedness is inevitable and one reason why it is challenging for us to visualize the consequences of our everyday actions. This article will look into cognitive psychology as it relates to living sustainably and will provide solutions to how we can better encourage sustainable action.
Psychology of Sustainable Action
Climate change is arguably our world’s biggest threat, we know this, yet our brains are wired to not always act in accordance with what we consciously think. In her paper The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior: Tips for empowering people to take environmentally positive action, Christie Manning takes a closer look at why this is the case in regards to sustainably. She notes that sporadic thoughts of unconscious origins often influence decisions. Beyond what we may think, many human decisions are concluded unconsciously from our associative system, rather than after conscious rational thinking, a function of our rule-based system. When people react to a “gut feeling” or say something like “I just felt the right answer,” the associative system is often at work. Although these two systems work in tandem to formulate the decisions we make, associative thoughts sometimes override rational reasoning. To reiterate one of Manning’s examples, many people understand the environmental, economic, and physical benefits of riding your biking to work- it is rational- yet only 0.6% of Americans do so! Reasons not to- we do not want to arrive sweaty, or it is inconvenient- are figments of the associative system.
It is also part of human biology to rely on social norms when conducting behavior. We all like to fit in and avoid the consequences of appearing outcast. When we are unsure of the consequences of a given action (can be positive or negative), we look for social proof that the action is acceptable by watching and mimicking others. Placing GasPods on your vehicle is a sustainable act; you can improve gas mileage by around 5%, however, if it is not yet a social norm and people are unsure of the reactions they will receive (although we know they will be positive), they will not indulge in the behavior. This goes for many environmentally friendly acts that, when incorporated, can make a huge difference!
What We Can Do To Encourage Sustainability
As we have discussed, how our brain derives thought and judges social settings will result in the actions we conduct. Below are three proven ways we can utilize cognitive psychology to more effectively encourage sustainable action.
Remove Psychological Barriers: Barriers can be physical, the price of buying an electric vehicle, or social, the peculiar faces you might get from the people around you. Although we cannot control the pricing of consumer goods, reducing social barriers to sustainable behavior can help reinforce them. If you notice someone abiding by sustainable driving habits or see a coworker using reusable containers, for example, give them a smile or compliment. Positive feedback is perhaps the best incentive for encouraging long-run sustainable behavior.
Show Direct Social Proof: Normative proof is a great way to spread awareness about a given topic. If people hear that three out of five people in their neighborhood use reusable instead of plastic water bottles, they will be more inclined to emulate. However, showing direct social proof of this fact- pointing out a majority of people with reusable water bottles- is more powerful. As we mentioned, people do not want to seem outcast, so if you can provide direct evidence that a sustainable action is accepted and carried out, more people will indulge. As you can imagine, over time, a domino effect will occur.
It All Starts with Personal Change: Although cliché, there is great weight behind our personal actions. Friends and family are perhaps the biggest influencers on the way we live; transcribing how you and the environment are better off from sustainable living habits will encourage them to live similarly. The halo effect, another term in psychology, explains how our impressions of someone impact how we perceive their overall character. Living sustainably is responsible and inspiring; characteristics others look up to and will want to emulate.
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