Greening The City, One Mind At A Time
Creating a more sustainable city will require, on the one hand, sweeping changes in policy and technology. Think bans on plastic bags, countless miles of bike lanes, and a cost-effective solar generation grid that can power an entire city. But creating a more sustainable city will also requires lots of individual changes on the part of city residents: decisions to recycle, to reduce consumption, to drive less if at all, and to support new legislation aimed at reducing the collective carbon footprint. Greening the city, one mind at a time is a way of life.
Bringing about those individual behavior changes is to some extent a technical problem, revolving around one central question: what motivates people to adopt more sustainable behaviors? To put it more broadly, what motivates people to change their behavior at all?
We environmentalists like to think that a sea change in consciousness is just on the horizon, when society – facing the impending havoc of global warming, peak oil, and global water shortages – will suddenly adopt a reverent attitude towards the planet. But let’s get real: social change almost always occurs slowly, and is often won piece by piece and mind by mind through calculated advocacy work.
Creating a more sustainable city requires creating more sustainable citizens, and that’s going to take more than rote repetition of the virtues of going green. As important as sustainability is, it’s an idea that is not going to sell itself to the majority of the population. To make faster headway, it would help for environmental activists to understand how the mind works and what factors can influence human behavior. By pairing key psychological mechanisms with our message of concern for the environment we can get more people to adopt sustainable behaviors, and in doing so we can move closer towards the world we wish to see.
Here are a few simple methods, validated by years of psychology research, which environmentalists can use to better succeed in their work:
1. Invoke Social Norms
Think you know why home owners conserve energy? Think again. A study by researcher Robert Cialdini and colleagues found that neither environmental concern nor the desire to save money were the motivating factor for most people who conserved energy. Instead, it was their perception of what others were doing. Home owners who thought that most other people conserved energy were themselves most likely to conserve. And while brochures about the environmental, financial, or community benefits of conserving energy did not motivate home owners to reduce their energy use, those who received a booklet stating that most people in their community already conserved energy did begin reducing their own energy usage. Other studies have confirmed that so-called “social norms” messages can be more effective than pro-conservation messages in eliciting sustainable behaviors like re-using towels in a hotel, refraining from littering in a public park, and using less water in the shower (Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius 2008; Cialdini 2003; Aronson and O’Leary 1983).
2. Get A Commitment
Getting someone to commit to a behavior change is a powerful way to ensure they’ll follow through. A study conducted by social marketer Doug McKenzie-Mohr found that members of the public who made a verbal commitment to ride the bus did ride it more often, for months into the future. On the other hand, providing bus route information and even providing free bus tickets did not increase the rate at which people rode the bus (McKenzie–Mohr, Smith and Smith 1999). Salt Lake City residents who signed a commitment to recycle were more likely to follow through with it than residents who received a flyer, a phone call, or even a personal visit about recycling (Werner et al. 1995). And in another study, people who made a public commitment to conserve energy ended up conserving more than those who did not make such a commitment (Pallak, Cook and Sullivan 1980).
3. Give Feedback
Providing positive feedback on behavior change can help increase that behavior. For example, signs posted on recycling containers that proudly mentioned how many cans had been collected the previous week led people to recycle 65% more (Larson et al. 1995). Similarly, households that got feedback on the number of pounds of materials they were recycling each week went on to increase the amount of material they recycled by 26% (DeLeon and Fuqua 1995). In another study, households that were mailed letters about their reduced energy usage subsequently decreased usage by another 5%, whereas a control group that did not receive a letter actually increased their usage (Seligman and Darley 1977).
For more on the role that psychology can play in helping to spread social change, visit http://www.ChangeOfHeartBook.com
By: Nick Cooney, Author
Change Of Heart: What Psychology Can Teach Us About Spreading Social Change
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