Norms, Nudges, and Nature
A shortlist of our favorite behavioral studies from 2017
The ideas behind Rare’s approach to designing conservation solutions are no coincidence. For decades, there has been a growing literature and research base around the science of human behavior, particularly as it relates to environmental issues. So much so that we launched the Center for Behavior & the Environment in part to help put that groundbreaking research closer to the hands of practitioners all around the globe. In a world that demands solutions to a growing number of challenges involving humans and nature, we are fortunate to have so many scientists taking this job seriously. Without further ado, here is a glimpse of some of the year’s best peer-reviewed articles highlighting how researchers applied behavioral science to conservation, natural resource limitations, and green habits in 2017.
Dynamic norms promote sustainable behavior, even if it is counternormative
Norms are widely recognized as an important tool for behavior change. New research suggests that people are willing to change their behavior even when it breaks away from current norms. They just have to know that the current norm itself is changing. In this article, researchers Sparkman and Walton from Stanford University examine two kinds of norms: static norms refer to those that explain the current state of behavior, such as the percentage of people currently exploring vegetarian diets; on the other hand, dynamic norms describe a change in behavior against the current norm, such as the percentage of people who have recently begun to try vegetarian diets. They conducted five separate experiments comparing the effect of static norms and dynamic norms in different scenarios regarding meat consumption and water conservation. The findings reveal that humans are highly sensitive to dynamic norms in all experiments, leading participants to express greater interest or act in more pro-environmental ways when compared to current static norms.
Nudging and boosting: Steering or empowering good decisions
The subject of nudging has been a popular one with psychologists and behavioral economists in recent years. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Development and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm have developed an alternative approach for influencing behavior, called “boosts.” They explain several key distinctions between nudges and boosts in theory and practice. While nudges attempt to make the target behavior easier by influencing a person’s environment, boosts also engage directly with human agency and cooperation by building competence, skills, and knowledge in the decision-making process. Hertwig and Grüne-Yanoff argue that boosts have the further potential of durability, whereby the target behavior may continue even after the intervention is over. By growing individual competencies, boosts also create the opportunity for greater change across multiple behaviors. For example, if trying to influence local and organic food purchasing behavior, a nudge might put highly visible labels in the grocery store identifying these items or strategically locate them right as customers walk in. In contrast, boosts might employ labels but also give customers feedback about their choices or create opportunities for them to take a workshop on the benefits of eating organic food, recipes using local ingredients, and local farmers’ livelihoods. In this way, boosts work to build competence and knowledge in addition to affecting the purchasing environment. The authors recommend empirical studies to compare these two intervention strategies, so practitioners can better understand which method may be best in a given situation.
The missing pillar: Eudemonic (meaning-centered) values in the justification of nature conservation
What makes people care about nature enough to do something about it? This has been a longstanding question for social scientists, and this article makes the claim that beyond ecosystem services, health benefits, and the moral or intrinsic value of nature, people who have greener habits find caring for nature to be deeply meaningful. A number of European researchers did a study that conducted life history interviews with 105 individuals from 7 European countries and different professional sectors who were screened as being especially “committed” to nature. The findings revealed that these individuals’ behaviors were strongly motivated by them feeling like they were making a difference, reflecting about their larger goals, and realizing their greater potential as people. These reasons all support the notion that intrinsic motivation may be more effective than extrinsic incentives. Other important themes included involvement with nature as children, governments who supported conservation action, and recognizing the difference between eudemonic (meaning-centered) happiness and hedonic (pleasure and pain driven) happiness. Overall, the authors support a “third pillar” of motivating environmental action: finding the personal meaning and growth opportunities in it.
Read the article here: Van den Born, R. J., Arts, B., Admiraal, J., Beringer, A., Knights, P., Molinario, E., … & Vivero-Pol, J. L. (2017). The missing pillar: Eudemonic values in the justification of nature conservation. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 1-16.
The role of psychology in preparing for lean times: The behavioral context of energy descent
The field of psychology continues to be useful in understanding the dynamic relationship between human behavior and environmental change; it also gives us insights into how humans might try to cope with and adapt to that same change. This chapter provides an overview of the behavioral context that will emerge as humans grapple with finite resources and climate change. Raymond De Young, an environmental psychologist at the University of Michigan, argues that we will need to prioritize mental clarity, helping others, skill building, personal growth, and emotional stability to help all humans transition to new lifestyles mandated in a different world. In this way, psychological challenges may be our greatest barrier as well as our greatest opportunity for change. De Young describes how the human brain evolved to allow us to plan into the future, build mental maps of a diverse range of environments, and experiment often so we can learn from our successes and failures. These are exactly the kinds of tools that we will need to respond effectively to environmental change, bolstered by the willingness to share our experiences with others. By drawing on our adaptive qualities, psychology helps to identify a unique lens to tackle whatever lies ahead.
Read the article here: De Young, R. (2017). The role of psychology in preparing for lean times: The behavioral context of energy descent. In A. M. Columbus (Ed.) Advances in Psychology Research 116. Chapter 9 (Pp. 207-214) Hauppauge, N.Y.: Nova Science Publishers.
Spillover effects in environmental behaviors, across time and context: a review and research agenda
What if every time we helped others adopt a pro-environmental behavior, it led them to adopt other similar behaviors? Psychologists Nilsson and Schultz describe this outcome as the “positive spillover effect,” where desired change in a target behavior (e.g., water conservation) also leads to change in non-target behaviors (e.g., eating less meat). There are also negative spillover effects, where a desired change in one behavior negatively impacts another behavior or causes inaction. Nilsson and Schultz present a review of three kinds of spillover effects: across different behaviors, times, and contexts. In general, they found that positive spillover is most likely to occur when people have examples from their past of when they acted in a pro-environmental way with the support of cues and feedback. For example, if someone brings reusable shopping bags whenever they go to the grocery store, they are likely to do this across different times locations, especially if there are reminders about bag use in the store. Negative spillover occurs most often when individuals perceive they have successfully done a green behavior and then feel justified in any future anti-environmental behavior — sometimes called the “moral licensing” effect. For example, if someone takes several short showers over the course of a week, they may feel more empowered to take a very long shower on another day. These spillover dynamics help us to better understand the impacts and limitations of behavior change, so we can design better interventions moving forward.
Read the article here: Nilsson, A., Bergquist, M., & Schultz, W. P. (2017). Spillover effects in environmental behaviors, across time and context: a review and research agenda. Environmental Education Research, 23(4), 573-589.