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

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) 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. Under-conservation and over-consumption are modern tragedies to be addressed and studied in order to understand their patterns and contribute to the shift towards sustainability. Social sciences can play a crucial role towards the goal of achieving sustainable levels of impact on the environment. If politicians are in charge of the regulation of the different sectors; social and behavioural science can play a substantial role to support the definition of the most appropriate policies and the design of the most effective interventions.

Pro-environmental awareness among consumers continues to grow. Despite the fact that consumers consistently report they are willing to buy sustainable products and services, ultimately, do they? In order to address this gap, we must communicate within our societies and spread the awareness that the earth system has a sealed, finite set or resources that need to be carefully managed. But what is the best way to communicate? The challenge to produce effective messages to trigger sustainable behaviors is not an easy one. Overall, despite persuasive social campaigns and information displayed on global warming, there has not been an actual reaction from the general public. In fact, the assumption that more knowledge or education will lead to more pro-environmental behavior is over-simplistic. Behavior change is very difficult, and information is not sufficient to drive change. Furthermore, insofar as these representations are experienced by people as threats, individuals will automatically engage in psychological defence mechanisms that enable them to avoid confronting the issue. Lifestyle changes are often resisted, and appeals to use fewer resources, suggesting that people have to cut back on some comforts, are not accepted.

To identify effective interventions to change people’s behaviors, barriers to change must be removed. Therefore, it is essential to understand the elements that encourage or obstruct pro-environmental behaviour. For instance, short-term orientation and problem denial are particularly powerful factors that induce environmentally burdening modes of consumption. In these cases, actual problem recognition is the first step to focus on. People often fail to behave sustainably because short-term goals are favoured; they avoid the problem if information is not properly internalised; or act unsustainably when their self-control is too depleted by everyday life stressors, leaving no room for collectivistic behavior. To make people genuinely recognise the issue and enhance its internalisation, we can work on several levels. One solution is to link sustainability more closely to the public by increasing empathy; to address short-term reasoning a solution is to induce more abstract thinking; and for problem denial to design interventions to convey sustainability as social norm in order to normalise this issue as a part of our lives.

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.

Self-concern. From a psychological perspective, a major difficulty today lays in the predominant individualist, self-concerned tendency that shapes our society. Stern at al.’s research (1993) found that motivation for pro-environmental behaviour is a combination of three elements: the egoistic orientation, the social orientation, and the biospheric orientation. Not surprisingly, the egoistic orientation resulted to be the strongest orientation, followed by social and ultimately biospheric concern. However, this is not necessarily a negative outcome: the egoistic orientation can be a motivator for sustainable actions as long as these are compatible with the person’s desires and needs. Personal benefit is particularly useful to explain the consumer viewpoint. In fact, most of the consumers enter the world of sustainability through the personal safety/health dimension of the personal benefit zone. Hence, self-concern can be exploited by demonstrating how sustainable behaviour is in the person’s interests. In order to do that, nature and the environment should be perceived as personally relevant, leading people to feel that it is worth acting for it. To work on moral convictions could be an effective way to move around this obstacle: “Moral convictions are socially shared conventions that prescribe what is appropriate and what is right and wrong”. Therefore, the moralisation of environmental issues (e.g. ‘to waste food is unacceptable’) may lead to more sustainable behaviors. Particularly, it would be relevant to analyse how to encourage a deep internalisation of the belief that nature is vital and must be protected. The practicality of this strategy lies in the fact that moral values tend to be internalised easily. Therefore, the founding of moral convictions on sustainability may offer a solid base to tackle the individualist tendency and generate behaviors that are collectively oriented.

Empathy (and positivity!). To establish environmentalism as a moral value, nature and ecology must be felt as a personal issue.  While people generally agree that they care for the environment, they visualise it in a distant way, declaring their concern for the world’s population ‘in general’ (see Gutsell and Inzlicht in Van Trjip 2013). The vast majority of the public is not concerned on the impact of global warming on themselves, on their family or community, and do not realise how climate change can affect them. This is also due to exceptionally effective psychological defence mechanisms that we engage in (see Winter and Koger, 2004). This detachment may be a reason for people’s disengagement and their failure to behave sustainably. Hence, to reconnect the self with nature, it is paramount to find ways to make individuals connect in a more personal way. Rresearch has shown that positive framing encourages higher-level construals in individuals, namely the capacity to think in a more abstract manner (Fujita, Clark, Freitas; in Van Trijp, 2013). Furthermore, it is recurrent in the literature the understanding that to frame sustainability in a positive manner, providing positive stimulus and reinforcements, is more likely to generate the target response in terms of behavior change (Geller et al., 1982). Positive stimuli also decrease the probability in individuals to generate resistance or response-avoidance behaviors (ibid.). In sum, to encourage pro-social behaviours an emphasis on empathy seems necessary to re-connect people to the natural world. But in order to develop emphathy, rather than gloomy predictions of the impacts of climate change, message should communicate positive visions of what could be attained, and how people and communities can help themselves.

Self-efficacy. In the evaluation of strategies to develop pro-environmental behavior, the concepts of human agency and collective efficacy must be considered. In fact, the capability of people of shaping their socio-economic lives partially depends upon their perceived sense of personal efficacy. Another reason for the lack of engagement is that for the majority of the consumers, the overarching concept of sustainability is too broad and complex to be relevant on a daily basis. They cannot grasp the concept because they are unable to perceive tangible results or palpable attainments from their performance of sustainable actions. As Bandura (2000) illustrates, perceived efficacy affects behavior: it determines whether individuals reason optimistically or pessimistically; it influences their actions, goals, motivation and commitment in the efforts they carry out. Particularly, not only the individuals’ but also “a resilient sense of shared efficacy becomes critical to furthering their common interests” (ibid.). Therefore, the concept of collective agency has to be taken into account to understand the causal dynamics of human behavior, and most importantly to be emphasized to produce the desired behavioural changes.

Social Norms. Finally, in the context of sustainable behaviour, normative social forces and contextual factors play a pivoltal role. According to Ajzen’s Theory of Planned Behavior (Ajzen, 1991), the final determinants of a person’s behaviour are the beliefs regarding its consequences and the normative beliefs about the social prescriptions. People are influenced by subjective norms that are part of a social pressure. Perceive behavioural control is also determined by control beliefs about situational factors that inhibit or facilitate the performing of a specific behaviour. Norms continually shape our behaviour as we constantly read the social setting that surrounds us. Thaler and Sunstein (2008) stressed how social pressure can radically influence individuals, as we orient our behaviour looking at what the reference group or majority is doing. Thereby identifying ways to communicate behavioural norms, by changing cues in the environment, is a key tactic to promote environmental conservation. 

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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