This paper explores how human behavior can negatively and positively affect the environment. The body of the paper covers the following topics: 1) An explanation (with examples) of how environmental cues shape behavior; 2) How behavior can be modified to support sustainability and how this can limit any negative impact on the environment; 3) How social norms influence behavior and beliefs about the environment; 4) Two possible solutions that could successfully change behavior and habits in order to lessen negative environmental impact.
How Environmental Cues Shape Behavior
Cavanaugh & Fitzsimons (2009) co-authored a paper entitled “Happy Holidays? How Sights and Sounds of the Holidays Cue Different Feelings & Consumption Behavior.” The authors examined how emotional cues affect the behavior of consumers at holiday times when they are situated in stores and/or shopping malls. The normal situation at these times – particularly those particular ones where giving gifts is expected behavior – is that the stores are heavily loaded with imagery and with special displays and background music.
In studies of behaviour at Christmas, they found that those exposed to religious imagery and music tended to spend more on others and donate more to charity than others exposed to non-religious stimuli. In a Valentine’s Day study, their study found that female participants not in a romantic relationship tended to buy less of the tempting food items but spent more on personal care products. Overall, their studies found that self-indulgence is dampened by holiday cues which “reaffirm important goals”, but any cues that threaten those goals can instead lead to a coping reaction framed in increased indulgence.
How Behavior can be Modified to Support Sustainability
James (2010) published “Promoting Sustainable Behavior” which looked at how to persuade people to adopt a sustainable style of behavior and how this can help reduce negative impacts on the environment.
She began her paper by noting that persuading others to behave in a sustainable way “is not easy” but that it is important to try and by using methods “that change attitudes and behavior” if greenhouse gas emission reduction targets are to be achieved (p. 2). She noted that although there is a tendency to believe that individual actions will have little overall effect, even small steps taken by individuals do have a positive impact on our environment.
James summarized the promotion of sustainable behavior as a series of key steps: Firstly that it is crucial to “attract attention.” As an example she mentioned “talking” litter bins that say “thank you” when trash is thrown in (p. 4). Secondly that messages used are “persuasive” (p. 6) and the “strategies” employed are designed to bring about change (p. 9). She also advised paying attention to “delivery” (p. 12) (for example, to approach people in person, in a nice way, and on days which are good for them), and to always ensure those messages and strategies are directed at the right “audience” meaning not just preaching to the converted – although that sector of the population should not be ignored.
How Social Norms Influence Behavior and Beliefs About the Environment
Kinzig, a professor and senior sustainability researcher for Arizona State University (ASU) posted a summary (Feb 2013) of an article her team published in the Bioscience journal, reporting their findings that what she termed “pro-environmental behaviors” such as recycling and conserving water resources, can affect “pro-environmental values” and vice versa. Essentially, their report indicated that behaviors dictated by policies that are pro-environment can become the norm for individuals who repeatedly behave in that way, which can make that necessary difference to make mitigation of climate change and therefore a sustainable future a real possibility.
Another slant on this subject was offered by Cialdini et al. (2005-2006) in their paper “Managing social norms for persuasive impact” published in Social Influence in 2006. Citing an example of messages provided to visitors to the petrified forest in Arizona, the messages were essentially intended to discourage the theft of petrified wood. The messages were framed in two ways:
- Based on “descriptive norms” (referring to the behavior of others);
- Based on “injunctive norms” (the level of disapproval by others).
Interestingly, it was found that the messages of the first type were actually likely to provoke increased levels of theft, whereas the second type of message was found more likely to reduce the level of the thefts. Further research by Cialdini et al. confirmed these findings to be generally true, especially if the “injunctive” message type was phrased using negative wording.
Ways to Encourage Behavioral Change
Two possible solutions that could successfully change behavior and habits in order to lessen negative environmental impact were provided by Monroe (2003) in her paper published in Human Ecology Review, entitled: “Two Avenues for Encouraging Conservation Behaviors.” She noted that the public must be involved in meaningful measures that will have positive environmental impacts, and that those can cover a wide range such as individuals growing food in the garden, riding a bicycle, using solar panels to heat water, and more.
Further, Monroe indicated that organizations can undertake activities like sponsoring environmental campaigns, conducting research on strategies, and/or promoting “green” policies, etc. She also recognized that businesses can provide technical answers that help make sustainable behavior a more attractive proposition, but because time is short, emphasized that overall the most effective avenues need to be followed – those that will bring about conservation behavior that is not only effective but is also long-lasting.
Monroe defined “conservation behaviors” as “those activities that support a sustainable society.” She defined the two broad approaches that can be used to encourage the increased adoption of behaviors making positive contributions to the environment. The first involves the employment of “social marketing tools” to bring about modification of a specific behavior type in a particular target audience. This method can be successful due to its very specificity in addressing the known attitudes in respect of the particular behavior. The second strategy involves providing general education about the environment to make people more environmentally literate. Though this strategy may not bring such immediate results, it will lead in the longer term to generally better motivation to adopt environmentally positive behaviors. Deciding which of these two strategies is most effective in any instance can be determined by assessing specifics of the target audience and other factors.
In closing, Monroe suggested that if these wanted new behaviors are not developing sufficiently, it may be because we are not using these strategies intensively or often enough, or that the opposition to their implementation or adoption is stronger.
The findings of the research reviewed have demonstrated that human behavior can negatively and positively affect the environment, including the aspects of how environmental cues shape behavior, how behavior can be modified to support sustainability, how social norms influence environmental behavior and beliefs, and offering two possible strategies to change behavior and habits in order to lessen negative environmental impacts.
Cavanaugh, L., A. & Fitzsimons, G., J. (2009). Happy Holidays? How Sights and Sounds of the Holidays Cue Different Feelings & Consumption Behavior. Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 36) pp. 170-171. Retrieved from http://www.acrwebsite.org/volumes/v36/naacr_vol36_169.pdf
Cialdini, R., B., Demaine, L., J., Sagarin, B., J., Barrett, D., W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P., L. (2005-2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social Influence, 2006, 1 (1), 3-15. Retrieved from www.researchgate.net/social_normsimpact//d912f508b198293a80.pdf
James, R. (2010). Promoting Sustainable Behavior. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved from http://sustainability.berkeley.edu/os/pages/talkinglouder/docs/Promoting_Sustain_Behavior_Primer.pdf
Kinzig, A. (Feb 2013). Social norms, behavior influence environmental policy. Arizona State University (ASU). Retrieved from https://asunews.asu.edu/20130214_behaviorpolicy#
Monroe, M., C. (2003). Two Avenues for Encouraging Conservation Behaviors. Human Ecology Review, Vol. 10, No. 2 pp. 113-125. Retrieved from http://www.humanecologyreview.org/pastissues/her102/102monroe.pdf