Best Behavior and Environment Studies of 2021

December 20, 2021

And so we’ve reached the end of 2021. While some things have slowed down, like global travel and supply chains, we’re happy to report that evidence making the case for integrating behavioral science within the environmental field is only growing.

We compiled some of our favorite journal articles from this year. These diverse perspectives and experiments pay particular attention to emotions, equity, and effectiveness in program design. They also showcase the need for the behavioral science community’s ongoing engagement in environmental programs. We support the movement for open-access research, so you have access to the full articles regardless of affiliation.

Read on for our top seven picks.


1. Anger consensus messaging can enhance expectations for collective action and support for climate mitigation

Negative emotions often get a bad reputation for their effectiveness in behavior change work. But global climate strikes and marches share a particular emotion: anger. Anger here can be seen as a motivational state that causes people to address a perceived injustice. This article offers compelling evidence for anger’s huge potential to create greater climate action. In a study conducted in the United States, the researchers explored whether social norm messaging about collective anger can affect perceptions about climate-related beliefs and support for climate policy and action. They found that credible messages describing a shared and growing feeling of anger among Americans were effective at changing people’s beliefs–particularly in others’ support for climate mitigation, intentions to act on climate, and beliefs of human-caused climate change. These results were true across the political spectrum and had implications for individuals’ own intentions to act on climate change.

Read an open-access pre-print version of the article here. See the journal version here: Sabherwal, A., Pearson, A. R., & Sparkman, G. (2021). Anger consensus messaging can enhance expectations for collective action and support for climate mitigation. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 101640.


2. The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions

While individual action is important for climate change, action by wealthy people (the top 1% of income globally) is arguably the most important. People who have high socioeconomic status (SES) are categorized as those who have high incomes and wealth and are a part of a particular social class. They are responsible for more than double the emissions of all the people in the bottom 50% for income, and they are less vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Beyond their decisions about how they travel and where they live, high SES people have several behavioral options for reducing their emissions and those around them. The authors argue that there are five key roles for high SES people to influence greenhouse gas emissions: consumer, investor, citizen, role model, and organizational. This group and its networks have access to an immense amount of capital and power, which deserve increased attention by behavior change efforts.

Read it here: Nielsen, K. S., Nicholas, K. A., Creutzig, F., Dietz, T., & Stern, P. C. (2021). The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions. Nature Energy, 6(11), 1011-1016. 


3. Toward achieving persistent behavior change in household water conservation 

Research on household water conservation has taken off in recent years, as countries around the world try to address water shortages. Many studies in the United States have found success with social comparison, but this paper explores how to create lasting water use habits through replicable interventions across countries and contexts. Instead of social comparison, the researchers tested whether personalized water goals, water use information, or water-saving tips could lead to water conservation in a residential community in India. They conducted a two-year experiment that included a five-week intervention period, then a year of no intervention, and then a period of water billing. Groups that received goals, information, and tips used 15-25% less water two years later than groups that received only one of the information types or no information. These results offer promising opportunities for cities looking for cost-effective ways to reduce water consumption, pointing to the importance of a multi-layered approach.

Read it here: Vivek, V., Malghan, D., & Mukherjee, K. (2021). Toward achieving persistent behavior change in household water conservation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118(24). 


4. Biodiversity conservation as a promising frontier for behavioural science

We still love to see article titles like this, although someday (soon?) we hope that we all accept the premise that conservation needs behavioral science. In this perspective, the authors put out a call to behavioral scientists to invest more time in biodiversity conservation for three reasons: conservation is crucial for human survival, there are ample opportunities to test theories and principles in new contexts (particularly non-WEIRD ones), and conservationists want to collaborate more with behavioral scientists. Beyond sharing tips on how to work with environmental practitioners on complex challenges, the authors also share opportunities for future research questions. These include identifying interventions with the greatest impact, what works well across contexts, how intervention effectiveness varies with material and psychological costs for actors, and how to create long-lasting change.

Read it here: Nielsen, K. S., Marteau, T. M., Bauer, J. M., Bradbury, R. B., Broad, S., Burgess, G., … & Balmford, A. (2021). Biodiversity conservation as a promising frontier for behavioural science. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(5), 550-556. 


5. Addressing behavior in pollinator conservation policies to combat the implementation gap 

There’s a lot to like about this article, whether it’s the focus on protecting bees and butterflies, or the authors’ critical lens for behavior change programs, or the call to action for policymakers. The authors examine pollinator initiatives in the European Union and use the Behavior Change Wheel as a framework to assess where there are shortcomings in existing behavior change programs. Their findings reveal that the pollinator programs are using a limited set of behavior change interventions that rely heavily on educational strategies and technical solutions. Rarely were interventions using social, choice architecture, or regulatory strategies, which have all been successful in conserving pollinator habitats. The other main pitfall was that the programs either did not identify clear target actors or consider the larger system of actors contributing to the problem. With growing evidence for the use of behavioral science, policymakers must update their tactics and be more intentional in program design to achieve wins for biodiversity.

Read it here: Marselle, M. R., Turbe, A., Shwartz, A., Bonn, A., & Colléony, A. (2021). Addressing behavior in pollinator conservation policies to combat the implementation gap. Conservation Biology, 35(2), 610-622. 


6. The role of incentive-based instruments and social equity in conservation conflict interventions

Elephants may be a highly charismatic species, but when you’re a farmer who just experienced crop damage, saving elephants may not be your first priority. A set of researchers wanted to learn more about Gabonese farmers’ land management decisions and whether they could reduce the chance of killing elephants that damage crops. They also wanted to learn more about how perceptions of equity and positive attitudes about elephants influenced decisions. The study involved a digital, interactive game with 18 villages of 260 farmers to test out three different strategies: physical barriers and technologies for controlling elephants, financial incentives for conserving land for elephant habitats, and bonus ‘agglomeration’ payments for farmers who coordinate pro-conservation land-use efforts with their neighbors. The simulation results showed that payments, particularly bonuses for coordination, increased the likelihood that farmers would provide habitats. Positive perceptions of equity through involvement in decision-making and positive beliefs about elephants on farmer well-being also led to fewer killing decisions and more habitat creation. Interestingly, decisions to kill elephants were 64% higher in logging villages than those near national parks, which may be because of differences in conservation messages. The researchers concluded that while material incentives show promise for reducing human-wildlife conflict, what may be more effective is agencies empowering local communities to make decisions about their land management and improving attitudes about elephants.

Read it here: Rakotonarivo, S., Bell, A., Abernethy, K., Minderman, J., Duthie, A., Redpath, S., … & Bunnefeld, N. (2021). The role of incentive-based instruments and social equity in conservation conflict interventions. Ecology and Society, 26(2).


7. Editorial overview: Can behavioral science solve the climate crisis?

The latest issue of Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences offers a uniquely multi-disciplinary perspective on behavior change and climate change through a freely accessible issue. The editors invited experts to discuss cognitive, affective, motivational, social, political, and behavioral barriers for major action on climate change, while the editorial overview provides a progress summary in overcoming these barriers. The issue encourages behavioral scientists of all kinds to think creatively together to take on the climate crisis.

Read the overview here: van der Linden, S., & Weber, E. U. (2021). Editorial overview: Can behavioral science solve the climate crisis?. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 42. Explore the full issue here.


Don’t see one of your favorites? Let us know at behavior@rare.orgWant more? Read on below for more great articles from 2021.

Balmford, A., Bradbury, R. B., Bauer, J. M., Broad, S., Burgess, G., Burgman, M., … & Nielsen, K. S. (2021). Making more effective use of human behavioural science in conservation interventions. Biological Conservation, 261, 109256.

Bonner, A. C., & Biglan, A. (2021). Rebooting behavioral science to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Behavior and Social Issues, 1-15.

Cinner, J. E., Barnes, M. L., Gurney, G. G., Lockie, S., & Rojas, C. (2021). Markets and the crowding out of conservation‐relevant behavior. Conservation Biology, 35(3), 816-823.

Ferraro, P. J., Fooks, J., Iovanna, R., Kecinski, M., Larson, J., Meiselman, B. S., … & Wilson, M. (2021). Conservation outreach that acknowledges human contributions to climate change does not inhibit action by US farmers: Evidence from a large randomized controlled trial embedded in a federal program on soil health. Plos one, 16(7), e0253872.

Gonzalez, A. M., Reynolds-Tylus, T., & Quick, B. L. (2021). Clustering energy and water conservation behaviors as choices: examining the moderating roles of message elaboration and involvement. Applied Environmental Education & Communication, 20(2), 139-154.

Gosnell, G. K., & Bazilian, M. D. (2021). Changing behaviour is the key to solving the climate challenge. Nature Human Behaviour, 5(3), 294-294.

Huntington, H., & Shenoy, A. (2021). Does insecure land tenure deter investment? Evidence from a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Development Economics, 150, 102632.

Momenpour, Y., Choobchian, S., Sadighi, H., Malos, C. V., Viira, A. H., Kurban, A., & Azadi, H. (2021). Factors affecting wheat producers’ water conservation behavior: Evidence from Iran. Water, 13(22), 3217.

Rakotonarivo, S., Bell, A., Abernethy, K., Minderman, J., Duthie, A., Redpath, S., … & Bunnefeld, N. (2021). The role of incentive-based instruments and social equity in conservation conflict interventions. Ecology and Society, 26(2).

Sparkman, G., Attari, S. Z., & Weber, E. U. (2021). Moderating spillover: Focusing on personal sustainable behavior rarely hinders and can boost climate policy support. Energy Research & Social Science, 78, 102150.

Sparkman, G., Macdonald, B. N., Caldwell, K. D., Kateman, B., & Boese, G. D. (2021). Cut back or give it up? The effectiveness of reduce and eliminate appeals and dynamic norm messaging to curb meat consumption. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 75, 101592.

Tam, J., Waring, T., Gelcich, S., Chan, K. M., & Satterfield, T. (2021). Measuring behavioral social learning in a conservation context: Chilean fishing communities. Conservation Science and Practice, 3(1), e336.

Umoh, E., & Bande, Y. (2021). A template for promoting energy conservation in Nigeria’s residential sector. International Journal of Sustainable Energy Planning and Management, 32, 125-138.