(Re)Connecting People with the Environment: Psychological Barriers and Avenues for Pro-Environmental Behavior

Victoria Luna Capoferri (2014)


It is now common recognition that human actions are generating irreversible, long-term changes to the environmental conditions that support life on Earth. Because the causes to this threat are predominantly anthropogenic, a comprehensive redefinition of our lifestyles and practices is required. The famous ‘dilemma of the commons’ (Hardin, 1968; Ostrom, 1990) clearly elucidates the issue. The cause of most environmental problems is a social context in which a collective cost is produced through the combined behavior of a plurality of individuals. Therefore the momentarily rational or optimal choice of a person generates, combined collectively, a suboptimal or irrational condition for the society as a whole. This can be exemplified by cars’ city air pollution, overfishing and depletion of the oceans, or waste. It is essential for the public to genuinely understand that if these problems are caused by human behavior, they can as well be reversed by human behavior. Given the complexity of the issue, a multidisciplinary background is necessary to understand the spectrum of perceptions and understandings that determine people’s behaviors and actions in this domain.Environmentally responsible behaviour is multiply determined and several factors underpin it. Literature analysis reveals four main psychologically relevant mechanisms that are especially involved in the relation between people and the performance of pro-environmental behavior: self-concern, empathy for the environment, self-efficacy, and social norms.


People can significantly contribute and succeed to environmental sustainability by adopting different behavioural patterns. In this article, I have outlined some psychological barriers that prevent these behaviors, along with some potential avenues of transformation. The challenge for policy makers and researchers, is to understand the psychological (i.e. cognitive, motivational, etc.) as well as the structural factors that obstruct pro-environmental behaviours. Given the complexity and very broad range of intertwined factors that intervene in the relationship between humans and the environment, the issue needs to be addressed from several perspectives. For a final shift towards a new behavioral paradigm, people will need to identify environmentalism as an embedded component of their life-style, and to portray it as a normal dynamic. Such a vision is ambitious to come about, however changes of consciousness in consumers are already occurring and have to be promptly sustained and encouraged.


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