Thinking Green: The Psychology of Sustainable Behavior

By: , Weston, CT // October 10, 2022

If everyone understands that our behavior impacts the natural world and health of the planet, then why do so many continue to behave in ways that are detrimental to the environment? Human choices underlie most environmental issues. Why the gap between awareness and concerted action toward resolution? Is our collective apathy a form of mental illness? Are we to suffer a fate similar to the frog who boiled to death in gradually heated water? Hopefully not, given that this fable has been debunked—even frogs act in a rational manner and jump out of hot water. Despite scientific evidence correlating human survival with the health of the planet, it is unclear why there is such a lack of consensus, and moreover, lack of coordinated action, toward sustainable solutions. Perhaps it is up to neuroscience to solve this riddle. A new terrain in neuropsychology offers a fresh and promising approach toward understanding human motivation and related to the environment.

In celebration of World Mental Health Day, I chose to combine my interest in psychology with my interest in the sustainability by researching the intersection of these subjects. To my surprise, there appears to be growing academic interest in the idea behind the psychology of sustainable behavior. Some institutions are developing new courses to directly explore the phenomenon of cognitive awareness of the state of our natural environment and failure of counteractive behavior. The University of Michigan, for example, offers a course through its School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) on The Psychology of Environmental Stewardship, which examines the issue of environmentalism through the lens of behavioral psychology. Cornell’s Human Behavior and Design program offers a Ph.D. in Environmental Psychology. Even professional associations, such as the American Psychological Association, have recently recognized “climate and environmental psychology” as a subspecialty.

There is growing scientific evidence suggesting that an understanding of the neuropsychological mechanisms that govern our decision-making may reveal methods toward motivating individuals and collectives to face global environmental challenges. In a collaborative study entitled The Psychology of Environmental Decisions researchers advise that the goal of achieving public consensus on actions to mitigate environmental crises can only be achieved by assessing the factors leading to cognition of the issues and predictive willingness to take mitigatory action.

Given that most environmental issues are highly emotive, politically charged and value laden, individuals have a psychological predisposition which influences decision-making. Predispositions can be governed by a variety of diverse factors, including political orientation, scientific literacy, cultural worldview, socio-economic status, social norms, and risk perception, to name just a few. The complexity posed by the multitude of factors is daunting, but researchers can explore these factors in isolation, or in combinations, in controlled laboratory conditions.

Although a one-size-fits-all solution is not likely, at least researchers have begun to explore the psychological factors that influence behavior in this context, which may eventually shed light on how to encourage sustainable behavior. However, it’s important to acknowledge that the division between humans and the environment is an artificial construct—human beings are part of the ecological system; thus, environmental issues are personally relevant to everyone. Emphasis on interconnectivity is, in my view, the most persuasive psychological motivator, and has the best chance of overcoming reluctance to engage in sustainability and stewardship, even in instances where personal sacrifice is required. During Covid, for example, efforts to contain the virus were widely tolerated because of the personal relevance of severe illness and death; as a result, travel restrictions and temporary economic shutdowns had not only the effect of limiting disease, but also the visible effect of reducing smog in large cities, some of which had not experienced clear skies for several decades or more. Thus, when perceived risk is combined with personal relevance, humans are capable of significant behavior modification. For this reason, I remain somewhat optimistic that humanity will eventually awaken to the urgency of climate change and related environmental crises; my only fear is whether we awaken in enough time to avoid irreversible consequences.

Ben R. Newell, Rachel I. McDonald, Marilyn Brewer and Brett K. Hayes, “The Psychology of Environmental Decisions,” Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour. 2014. 39:443-67,; doi: 10.1146/annurev-environ-010713-094623.

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