As the information age continues to pick up speed, there is an increasing amount of information available to people both about environmental issues—deforestation, global warming, overfishing—and what people need to do to respond to these issues—use recycled paper, walk more, don't eat endangered fish. And yet, despite all of this information there is still a noticeable gap between what many people know (there are serious environmental issues, here's what you can do to help) and what they actually do. A lot of environmental activist energy goes into closing this gap, so an important questions is—does all this energy investment have the intended effect? And is it having the maximum effect it could have? In other words, are we getting enough bang for our environmental activism buck?
Two groups of researchers—social marketers and conservation psychologists—are doing research that can contribute to answering these questions. Both groups of researchers are trying to understand what promotes human behaviour change. While social marketers are interested not only in environmental issues but also in more general questions regarding how to convince people to adopt socially beneficial behaviours (exercise, not smoking, not driving under the influence), conservation psychologists are explicitly interested in understanding how humans relate to and make decisions about their environment and choose their actions in relation to their perceptions of the environment.
These researchers have considered a number of factors that may or may not motivate humans to change their behaviour, as well as the ways in which this behaviour change occurs. A major conclusion for both of these types of research is that humans are very social animals and, as such, they are strongly influenced by social factors. Just how easily social factors come into play has been shown by some clever experiments. For example, in one experiment, researchers Aronson and O’Leary determined that simply posting a sign asking people to conserve water in a shower room athletic facility resulted in only 6% of people adopting the practices described by the sign even though 93% reported having seen the sign. Having someone in the room already carrying out these practices, however, resulted in other people entering the room adopting the suggested practices 49% of the time. Having two people in the room already carrying out the suggested practices increased this adoption rate to 67%.
Social Marketing and Conservation Psychology research also suggests that some common behaviour change tactics—increasing knowledge, encouraging guilt or shame, encouraging fear, the stick/carrot strategy—may only be modestly effective at encouraging long term change, are easy to misapply, and even prone to backfiring. For example, although in some particular cases guilt can motivate behaviour—specifically if the person experiencing the guilt feels competent to address the guilt-causing situation—in other cases—when the person feels guilty but helpless—the result is a sense of apathy and helplessness.
Ironically, while this sort of research is sometimes slow to make its way into activist circles, even when it does, it isn’t always greeted with great enthusiasm by people working to promote change. In particular, despite the growing evidence for the effectiveness of social strategies, many activists are themselves reluctant to adopt such tactics when it comes to encouraging behaviour change. McKenzie-Mohr and Smith, in their book ‘Fostering Sustainable Behavior’ note that many groups thumb their noses at social marketing strategies because they feel uncomfortable with tactics they perceive as being manipulative, whereas tactics like education seem more honest and 'pure'.
If this is the case, we might turn our social marketing gaze inward and ask—what would persuade environmental activists to take up these potentially more effective tactics while still remaining within their moral comfort zone? One strategy might be to at least make sure the strategies being chosen do not actively contradict what we know about human behaviours. For example, basing a campaign on "Be different! Make the right choice even if no one else you know is!" might be acknowledged to go against the grain of the social human psyche and perhaps would only be effective for the relatively small segment of the population who are enjoying rebelling against societal norms. Similarly, strategies that talk about ‘The vast environmental challenges that are confronting us’ may result in people feeling overwhelmed and helpless, and cause apathy, not action. In general, given the passion and energy behind environmental activism, it seems important to make the most of the significant efforts people make to generate change and use strategies that reflect what we know about how humans work. Besides, I hear it's becoming more and more popular in environmental activist circles these days—so why not give it a shot?