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The Psychology of Green Habits

Montana Denton
November 2, 2023

As the planet heats up and we inch further along our trajectory toward irreversible temperature thresholds, it’s more important than ever to take climate action. Although sorting your recycling each week or installing an energy-saving appliance in your home may seem like a mere drop in the tidal waves of change needed to reverse the environmental damage we’ve caused, collective action is borne out of each and every individual’s daily decisions. According to Project Drawdown, an organization that quantifies the effects of potential climate solutions, about a third of the climate solutions we need to enact real change will be led by individual decision-making.

Be it individual or collective, the responsibility to bring down our society’s greenhouse gas emissions is one that all of us shoulder, and it’s growing more urgent by the day. In fact, climate science has sparked significant behavioral science discourse as scientists study how they can best encourage people to make eco-friendly choices in their own lives.

Sustainability Starts with Science

According to a collaboration between researchers in Sweden, the U.S., and the U.K., expecting people to change their behavior by simply telling them what’s the most beneficial for the planet isn’t all that effective. Instead, the most powerful influences on behavior change are a bit more external.

By pooling the results of several hundred individual studies that assessed sustainable-behavior situations like choosing between meat or vegetarian food options to whether people were recycling their litter in the proper receptacle, the researchers found that subjects changed their behavior by an average of 3% when they were educated about the climate consequences of their actions.

Though education is an effective tool for making the public aware of a climate phenomenon in the first place, according to Magnus Bergquist, a lead author on the study, “The problem with educational information is often that it doesn’t include any clear motive for people.” He equates it to knowing that we should exercise regularly or consume less alcohol — “Just knowing what’s right, or healthy, or environmentally friendly isn’t really a sufficient model for changing behaviors,” Bergquist says. Yet when people were presented with financial incentives — like monetary rewards or savings — to make a more climate-friendly choice, they changed their behavior by four times as much, 12% on average.

However, the most effective way to encourage people to change their behavior on behalf of the environment is what the researchers call “social comparisons.” Causing an average 14% change in people’s behavior, people are most motivated by seeing someone else’s example. People are more likely to litter on a sidewalk that’s already scattered with trash than one that’s clean or are more likely to install solar panels on their houses if their neighbors are.

Behavior psychology has long investigated the power of social norms, and climate action is no exception. According to Susan Joy Hassol, the director of Climate Communication, a nonprofit science outreach project, “those who know someone who has stopped flying because of climate change are more likely to curtail their own flying—and the effect is increased if it’s a high-profile person that’s stopped flying.” She adds,“This social contagion is why it’s so important to talk about the climate actions you take.”

The Force of Habit(s)

Over a third of a person’s daily actions are habitual, nearly unconscious choices made thanks to what we’re used to. Yet the trouble with habits is that they require conscious effort to change. While some actions — like implementing cleaner and more readily accessible forms of public transit — rely on the likes of policymakers and national governments, other actions are far more achievable on an individual scale.

The findings of the study have laid the groundwork for better informing policymakers of the best ways of encouraging people to foster more climate-friendly habits. The researchers also note that the different intervention strategies studied can be combined, potentially creating exponentially greater behavioral change by appealing to various groups and priorities. “There’s so many routes to our goals,” says co-author Matthew Goldberg. “And we need to take advantage of all these different routes because we reach different people.”

Some environmental psychology experts have recommended closing in on the psychological distance of the potential future implications of climate change by encouraging tangibility. As Bergquist noted, people need clear motivations — potentially from several intervention strategies —in order to spark a lasting behavior change.

Cultivating Climate Habits

Scientists generally agree that people can create the most positive changes in the following areas, all of which contain large elements of individual control: transportation (flying and driving), diet (meat consumption and food waste), and household gas and energy use.

Even if you’re not ready to make the leap to installing solar in your home or becoming a vegetarian, there are countless ways to continue building your sustainable habits without significantly altering your lifestyle (or your wallet!). Be more mindful about turning off lights and appliances when you’re done with them in your house.

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Look for a plant-based option the next time you go out to eat — it just may help to increase demand for plant-based options, encouraging restaurants to alter their menus accordingly. If you have the financial flexibility, take a look at the carbon footprint of flights to your next holiday destination —  a few hour’s layover may mean significantly lessened emissions from your travels!

Each sustainable choice is part of the foundation of a habit, creating slow but sure momentum toward systemic change. While habits take time to stick, the most important piece of the puzzle is consistency. Perfection is the enemy of good — each action taken, no matter how small, does a lot more good than you think.

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