Changing behaviour

24th November 2014

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Jan Maskell describes what sustainability professionals can learn from psychology

The Going Green Working Group – part of the British Psychological Society – recently conducted a survey of sustainability professionals. It found that an emerging issue, one that is highly challenging both now and in the future, is the integration of sustainability into core business. Psychology focuses on factors that influence an individual’s behaviour, either the individual alone or as part of a group. It is individual change that can achieve social, economic and environmental sustainability, ultimately embedding these into the core strategy of organisations.

Psychological research can explain why people behave responsibly and sustainably, and the possible factors that can motivate sustainable actions. Applying psychology helps to create the conditions that make sustainable action the most appealing or natural choice.

Irrational beings

Research by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in the US, indicates that we are not rational decision-makers; our thinking is the product of two parallel, separate systems of reasoning. One is a fast, automatic, associative system, which is unconscious, sensory driven and impulsive. The second is a slow, reflective, rule-based system, which is conscious, rational and deliberate.

Occupational psychologists and sustainability professionals can take into account these differences and create circumstances where fast thinking enables us to make the most appropriate, sustainable decisions without having to use effortful slow thinking. There are six stages – the so-called 6Es model – where psychologists and sustainability professionals can work together.

Explore – options for improvement

Does the organisation have a business strategy? Was it developed by the whole organisation?

Organisations are often already doing very useful things that can be reused and developed for sustainability purposes. Leadership development, for example, can include sustainable leadership. Recognising what you already do well is a constructive and creative method to use rather than trying to start from scratch. By using techniques from “appreciative inquiry” – a model employed to discover what is best about an organisation, what it could become, what it should be, and then making it happen – organisations employ positive psychology to set the agenda for change and improvement, creating a vision of how things will be.

For 80% of people who are unwilling to take, or who are unaware of the need for, sustainable actions, a perceived lack of personal control with a high level of perceived risk generates dissonance, and is a possible root for the lack of sustainable behaviour.

Attribution theory, which is concerned with how people interpret events and react, suggests that, although individuals will be aware of their own personal control to take action, they believe one of the following responses:

  • I have not caused this – so there is no perceived link to the consequences;
  • I don’t see any impact – so there is a remoteness from the effects; or
  • I cannot make a difference – so there is a lack of control over the situation.

The extent to which individuals believe they can control the events affecting them – the so-called locus of control – is seen to be with the organisation, the government or agencies. This is where organisational interventions help individuals to take action.

Encourage – make it easy and worth doing

Are there organisational plans with a goal for reducing carbon emissions by a set time, divided into team and individual goals? Are there feedback loops to know how well you are doing against your goal? How much have your carbon emissions reduced?

Work on goal-setting by Edwin Locke and Gary Latham shows that goals are motivating: directing attention, maintaining momentum and guiding towards successful strategies. The most motivating goals are those that are specific, challenging and realistic. Specific goals are stated in concrete terms, such as improve performance by 20%, or in behavioural terms, for example cycle 20 miles a day. These are better than vague statements, such as “do your best”.

Feedback improves performance when working toward a specific goal. Feedback works because it creates cause-and-effect connections in a person’s brain – someone wanting to avoid negative outcomes and seeking positive outcomes. When a person receives positive feedback for putting a plastic bottle in the recycling bin, their brain notices the reward and they will want to repeat the behaviour in future.

Is it easier to behave sustainably than not? Is sustainable behaviour the default option?

Situations can be structured so that sustainable action is the default option. People can choose. However, most people will not bother to make the effort needed to switch from the default option to something else. If you make the default meal option a low-carbon one (low in animal products), with the possibility of requesting a meal high in animal products, few people will take the trouble to change.

In addition, make the most sustainable option the first, most obvious choice. For example, when you are giving directions to a location, provide the public transport information, the bike or the walking directions first, followed by other options.

Enable – educate and develop

Does your organisation run workshops and training to educate and enable employees to try out and develop new ways of working more sustainably?

When an organisation runs an awareness programme, bringing people together to educate them, it will be applying aspects of Richard Ryan and Edward Deci’s self-determination theory (SDT). It is concerned with the motivation that influences people to choose a specific option, and the degree to which that behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined. SDT suggests that people are drawn to activities where they feel autonomous, competent and with a sense of relatedness to others.

People need information that helps them safely gain the knowledge and skills they need; helps them choose; and gives them the opportunities to try things.

Organisations can support this by:

  • creating a safe, supportive, non-threatening environment to gain competence and mastery;
  • giving people a chance to try things out;
  • demonstrating things in person or video and running through the steps; and
  • making experts available to answer questions.

Do your campaigns use clear images, icons and analogies about what individuals can do, and the impact this will have?

One powerful way to overcome perceptual limitations is to recreate the information missed by an individual’s senses with vivid, concrete images and to connect behaviour with impact. Putting images on labels and posters, such as those on recycling bins, helps to connect the behaviour with the item. Analogies make abstract numbers into something people can understand or visualise. For example, recycling one drink can saves enough energy to power a TV for two hours.

Engage – get people involved

Does your organisation have green teams, supplier networks or project teams to consider how to reduce emissions or resource use?

Encouraging direct social contact with others who already do something sustainable increases the likelihood that more people will pick up that behaviour. Networks of people who work together to become more sustainable have another psychological influence: they promote an environmental social identity. When people feel part of a group, they are more likely to adopt the values and behaviours associated with that group.

There is evidence that social influence from these network interactions has helped people to change their behaviours and maintain or increase the change for at least two years after the change programme finished.

Exemplify – lead by example

Is there obvious leadership commitment and support for sustainable actions?

Research shows that people are more likely to respond to a request for action when the appeal comes from someone they know – and the people closest to us influence us the most. Having managers demonstrate the desired behaviour is important for two main reasons: leaders and managers should be seen to behave responsibly; and their behaviour should be consistent with organisational policy.

Social norms are the implicit social rules that govern behaviour in an organisation and can create opportunities for change, but these are constantly shifting. Communicate with normative messages, such as: “70% of our employees have signed up for the energy reduction programme”; or “Seven out of 10 people in the Manchester office consistently recycle”.

Use expressions, such as “many of your colleagues” or “other staff in this building”. This gives people evidence, and social proof, that sustainable behaviour is not only acceptable but that it is desirable.


Evaluation is important for making further improvements. There are two main assessment techniques. Formative evaluation focuses on what has been achieved and is used to monitor change and determine where improvements need to be made. Summative evaluation will focus on whether the concrete individual and organisational goals have been achieved. This will examine what the benefits are for the individual employees, customers and suppliers, as well as the community.

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