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Psychology of Sustainability

Psychology of Sustainability

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1. Unsustainable practices have consequences on public health, and poor environmental behavior is linked to mortality.

The state of our environment is directly related to public health, and behavior that creates an unhealthy environment will create an unhealthy population. The World Health Organization estimates that 13,000,000 deaths annually are caused by preventable actions to our environment.

Air pollution accounts for 2 million deaths annually, and increasing global temperatures have increased the rate of of diarrhea by 2.4 percent and malaria by 6 percent. Additionally, increased temperatures will cause an increase in natural disasters such as extreme heat spurts, floods, droughts and fires. By acting more sustainably, we also impact human health.

During the 1996 summer Olympic games in Atlanta, transportation efforts were put in place to decrease the number of vehicles in Atlanta during the games. During this 4 week period, pollutants from vehicle exhaust dropped by about 30 percent, and reported asthma attacks by medicaid holders dropped by 40 percent. Thinking green is also thinking healthy8,14,22.

2. Making an effort to live sustainably improves quality of life and in turn increases happiness, longevity, and health.

Quality of life measures are increasingly recognized in medical and psychological research as important indicators of physical and social well-being.

Since quality of life relates directly to how we feel about our environment, improving our environment in turn improves our mental and physical health. Research indicates that there is a positive correlation between pro-ecological behavior and happiness. And a positive correlation between happiness and life expectancy.

Evidence also suggests that many of us take part in conservationist practices in order to feel pleasure and well-being5,16,21.

3. A sustainable environment has positive socio-political and health consequences.

If we continue our current rate of consumption, we may uproot communities by depleting the natural resources on which we depend, instigating social and political conflicts over access to diminishing resources.

As a direct or indirect response to environmental changes and sociopolitical changes, we can anticipate increases in depression, stress, and anxiety.

Sustainability efforts we make can avoid these negative consequences and maintain comfort and balance we enjoy in our communities3,16,21

4. In living more sustainably, we move away from consumerism and toward minimalism, which betters our environment and can positively benefit mental health.

Many developed countries, especially the United States, commonly link consumption to happiness. However, recent research shows that happiness and satisfaction levels do not correlate with consumption.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is a measure of a country's average life satisfaction and life expectancy in relation to its ecological footprint. Costa Rica consistently ranks highest, with positive life satisfaction and expectancy, with a small ecological footprint.  Other countries, in contrast, may have much higher resource consumption levels but no greater  happiness.

Constant consumption has negative ramifications such as dissatisfaction, stress, and the overconsumption of environmental resources.

By striving to be more eco-friendly and reduce consumption, we can decrease damaging side effects of consumption while increasing our happiness. In the video below, Graham Hill discusses why and how consuming less can lead to more happiness, and the benefits to practicing minimalism11,17,18.

5. Practicing sustainability in our organizations creates greater economic returns.

Our planet, our health, and our economy may all benefit from sustainable strategies.

6. Our actions have a ripple effect among our neighbors. When we demonstrate sustainable practices, others are more likely to do the same.

The tendency for people to imitate and mimic other people is not a new phenomenon. Observing others and following the majority is a staple for human learning and adaptation to new situations that dates back to ancient times.

Research shows that the strongest predictor of our sustainable behavior is the habits of our neighbors. When others are saving energy, we are more likely to conserve as well.  When others are using more energy, we are likely to increase our consumption, even if we were conserving energy before.

The influence our neighbors’ actions have on us is stronger than our personal attitudes and beliefs, and stronger than the cost incentives that sustainable practices have, making it crucial to incorporate sustainable practices into our collective lives.

Why are we so prone to calibrating with our neighbors?  Because humans are social animals, we have strong herd behavior drive.  As individuals, we want to be associated with a group.  Thus we follow the behavior of those in our reference group (family, friends, coworkers).

When the majority of us—our “herd” or tribe—demonstrate sustainable behavior, those around us are more likely to do so as well. However, when individuals start to deviate, it becomes easier for others to do so as well2,10,13,23,24,25

7. Make the sustainable choice the convenient choice.

When starting efforts to be more pro-environment, it is most effective to make sustainable options convenient and inexpensive in order to lessen friction that could inhibit behavior change.

Not surprisingly, research shows that the less convenient recycling is, the more likely it is for a person to believe that recycling is not important.  Action follows belief and waste goes in the trash.

Even when people believe that recycling and sustainable behavior are important, we are still unlikely to act on that belief unless recycling is convenient.

Convenient recycle stations increase both positive beliefs about the importance of recycling and recycling actions.

An organization named “Recycling at Work” conducted research based on 34 offices in the United States that adopted a recycling strategy that positioned a desk-side recycling bin next to a smaller desk-side garbage bin. When this strategy was put into place, recyclables increased from 65% to 85%, contamination in recycling dropped by 20%, and the amount of office paper in garbage cans dropped to nearly 0%2,7,15,25.

8. Change takes time and compliance, and sustainable practices must be accessible.

Inspiring people to change habits is not easy.  Further complicating sustainability campaigns is the reality that some people do not understand or believe in the damaging effects of poor environmental behaviors. People are much more likely to agree with and cooperate with policies when we believe they are both important and fair.

What are the most effective ways to inspire sustainability change in your organization or community?  Setting goals, embedding prompts, and social modeling have an impact.  Highlighting cognitive dissonance (inconsistency between beliefs and actions) while providing strong support for convenient sustainability behaviors can also make habit change more likely.

The key is to make green-living accessible, and make unsustainable practices less accessible. We are more likely to do the easy green behavior, than a difficult harmful one6,7,19,25.

9. When we make sustainability a group effort by listening/discussing ways to be greener, everyone in the environment feels engaged and involved.

Participation attracts people’s attention. A barrage of information, messages, and talk can be tuned out. Participation is highest when we listen and collaborate with others around the topic of conservation and sustainability15,19,20,25.

10. Visual prompts and strategic wording make a difference.

Visual prompts such as signs have a direct impact on individual behavior.

Research shows that when restroom signs ask users to turn off the lights on their way out, it is six to eleven times more likely that the lights will be turned off than when there is not a sign present.

The use of descriptive norms also have an impact on behavior. Descriptive norms are typical patterns of behavior, generally accompanied by the expectation that people will behave according to the pattern.

Research shows that when individuals are exposed to descriptive norms, we are much more likely to be influenced in the direction of the norm. This is because we naturally compare ourselves to others, especially to people we share similarities with.

For example, a sign above a recycling bin that states “Join your fellow team members and help save the environment. 75% of people in this office recycle on a regular basis. You can contribute to helping save the environment by recycling on a consistent basis.” can make a positive impact on the recycling rate in an organization1,9,12,26.


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