Below is the text for a talk that I gave at the 2012 ISCN Symposium at the University of Oregon.
We’ve got a problem. And everyone here, at least, has a rough idea what that problem is: the world is getting hotter, leading to the melting of polar icecaps, the thawing of permafrost, floods, typhoons, draughts, mass migration of plants, animals, and people towards the poles and higher altitudes, mind-boggling drops in biomass and biodiversity, food and water shortages, political unrest, and even civil wars. And yet, most people continue to consume huge amounts of energy and spew carbon into the atmosphere. We need behavioral change, and we need it now.
I’m also quite aware that the change I’m calling for will be differently manifested in different parts of the world. The developing world has benefited less from and suffered more from the energy-intensive growth of the last half-millennium than the developed world. It would be both unjust and outright silly to propose that the costs of dealing with climate change be equally distributed.
My topic today is how best to promote better behavioral patterns in the developed world – places such as the United States, the Pacific Northwest, and, to be quite specific, college campuses like the University of Oregon. I’m not an expert in which behavioral patterns would in fact be better. That’s something for the rest of you to figure out. What I want to talk about is how to promote better behavioral patterns, whatever they might be.
In the end, and with many caveats, I’m an individualist about these things. Changing how everybody acts can only be accomplished by changing how somebody acts, for a lot of somebodies. For me, then, the question is how best to shape the behavioral patterns of individual people such that, if others are similarly shaped, ecological catastrophe is averted.
How is this to be done? Well, there are two fulcrums on which human psychology turns. We can try to change what the individual thinks, or we can try to change what she wants. In other words, we can try to change her mind or her motives. Within each strategy, there’s room for both traditional and non-traditional methods. Traditional methods have been tried for decades now. On their own, at least, they don’t seem to work. With that in mind, I’m going to explore some of the non-traditional methods that, together with methods currently in use, might just do the trick. In particular, I want to canvass three methods: availability cues, social information, and virtue labeling.
Availability is a psychological concept of fairly recent vintage. It refers to the degree of ease with which a rule, concept, or category can be brought to mind. For instance, if I asked you to estimate the number of seven-letter words ending in ‘ing’ in the first ten pages of an English translation of the novel Anna Karenina, you’d probably say 7 or 8. And if I asked you to estimate the number of seven-letter words whose second-to-last letter was ‘n’ in the same stretch of prose, you’d probably answer 3 or 4. These answers are inconsistent, because every seven-letter word ending in ‘ing’ is also a seven-letter word whose second-to-last letter is ‘n’, but it’s understandable that you might estimate in this way because it’s easier to think of examples of seven-letter words ending in ‘ing’ than seven-letter words whose penultimate letter is ‘n’: just think of a common verb, such as ‘jump’, then form the participle by adding ‘ing’.
Availability doesn’t just have to do with words. It’s a quite general psychological phenomenon. And, in just the last few years, we’ve started to understand how influential it is. There are basically two dimensions of accessibility. One, let’s call it chronic availability, is associated with long-term memory and representational structures. The other, let’s call it situational availability, is the short-term modification to chronic availability based on the current environment. You could improve the availability of seven-letter words whose penultimate letter is ‘n’ by showing someone ‘airline’, ‘combine’, and ‘cyclone’.
How is availability relevant to sustainability? Well, it turns out that people in novel situations are often unsure how to act. When such situations arise, the most accessible moral rule largely determines what they end up doing. Let me give you an example. Suppose you’re walking over a footbridge. You notice that a trolley is chugging down the tracks towards the bridge, and there are some people trapped in its path. They will surely die if the trolley proceeds on its current path. But wait: you also notice that there’s an extremely fat man on the footbridge next to you. If you push him over the railing, his girth will be sufficient to stop the trolley, saving the five other people. Should you push him?
When asked this question, most people are unsure what to do. There are two conflicting moral rules in operation: save lives! and don’t kill! In the end, don’t kill! usually wins out: about 90% of people usually say not to push the fat man. But, when the rule save lives! is made accessible, many people switch their answer, saying that it’s right to push the fat man. The prime can be very subtle indeed: it’s enough just to show someone an logo of the Red Cross for 20 milliseconds to prime saving lives.
To bring us back to sustainability: just as symbols associated with saving lives shape our decisions in moral choice situations, so symbols associated with ecology might shape our decisions in ecological choice situations. What we need to do, then, is to find the most compelling symbols and place them in the right contexts.
Next, I want to talk about what’s called social information or social proof. The basic idea here is that, when uncertain, people will use others’ behavior as a guide. The original research on this phenomenon was inspired by the problem of bystander apathy. In an emergency, you’re more likely to be helped if there’s only one other person around than if there are two, and you’re more likely to be helped if there are two than if there are four. What seems to happen is that people are unsure how to respond; they look to one another for cues; and they see inaction. That in turns leads them to think that the other people have decided there’s nothing really the matter, and so no one helps. Other early research on social information dealt with littering. As it turns out, if you see other people littering, you’ll be more likely to litter yourself; and if you see other people cleaning up litter, you’ll be more likely to do so yourself. It’s not hard to see how this might be relevant to campus sustainability: if students, faculty, and staff see others on campus recycling, turning lights off, using fewer paper towels, and so on, they’ll be more likely to do so themselves.
But that leaves us with a chicken-and-egg problem: how am I supposed to see you being green before you see me being green? Here’s where some trickery might be useful. People don’t actually need to see others conforming to an ecological norm to be convinced that that’s what’s done. You can just tell them instead. In a fascinating field study by Noah Goldstein, Robert Cialdini, and Vladas Griskevicius (2008), hotels compared three methods to induce guests to reuse their towels, thereby saving water and energy. The standard exhortation message stressed the value of the environment; it said, “HELP SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. You can show your respect for nature and help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.”
The global norm message stressed behavior by other guests at the hotel: “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. Almost 75% of guests who are asked to participate in our new resource savings program do help by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.” Finally, the local norm message emphasized the behavior of those guests who’d stayed in this particular room: “JOIN YOUR FELLOW GUESTS IN HELPING TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT. In a study conducted in Fall 2003, 75% of the guests who stayed in this room participated in our new resource savings program by using their towels more than once. You can join your fellow guests in this program to help save the environment by reusing your towels during your stay.” Exhortation was the least effective message: 35% of guests in an exhortation room reused their towels. The global norm condition saw a big improvement, with 45% of patrons reusing towels. The local norm condition was the most effective (49%).
How does this work? There are several potential explanations, but one I find especially attractive appeals to two constructs: self-concept and conditional norm-following. Your self-concept is the set of beliefs you have about your own character. You might think, for instance, that you’re shy, neurotic, and honest. People are averse to negatively revising their self-concepts, so if someone thinks of herself as, say, honest, she’ll be inclined to behave honestly in order to sustain her positive self-evaluation. Furthermore, self-concept is susceptible to situational influence, and one key way it gets updated is by thinking that someone else quite similar to me has a certain feature. So, for instance, if someone were to remind me that my twin brother is extremely conscientious, that would tend to make me update my own self-concept in the direction of conscientiousness. In social information studies like the towel study, other guests at the hotel are similar to me, so when I learn what they did, I update my self-concept in the direction of being green. And guests who stayed in the same room are even more similar to me, so when I learn what they did, I update even more.
The other relevant theoretical construct is that of a conditional norm-follower (Bicchieri 2005). Most people aren’t altruistic. They won’t conform to a socially beneficial norm just because it’s socially beneficial. What they are, though, is conditional norm-followers: they are inclined to go along with socially beneficial norms provided, first, that enough other people also conform to the norm, and, second, that enough others expect them to comply with the norm. The fact that 75% of the other guests at the hotel reused their towels satisfies the first condition. The fact that the hotel managers bothered to monitor this behavior and put up a sign about it satisfies the second condition. So, conditional norm-followers in this context will be more inclined to do the green thing by reusing their towels.
The third method I want to canvass is virtue labeling. The basic idea with this strategy is that character trait attributions tend to function as self-fulfilling prophecies. If you tell me that I’m charming, that will tend to make me behave in a more charming way. If I tell you that you’re courageous, that will tend to make you behave in a more courageous way. Virtue labeling works best when the attribution is plausible and public, and when the target of the attribution has a roughly correct conception of what the virtue in question calls for. This is because virtue labeling seems to function through two channels: self-concept and social expectations. I already mentioned self-concept: people are averse to acting in violation of their self-concepts, and they enjoy acting in according with them. So, if you can get someone to think of herself as ecological, then she’ll start to act more that way. This is why the attribution has to be plausible: you’re not going to get someone to update her self-concept if she doesn’t find the attribution plausible.
The second channel is social expectations: as I mentioned, a lot of people are conditional norm-followers: they’ll only comply with a social norm if they think enough other people are going to conform and that enough other people expect them to conform. This is why virtue labeling works best when it’s done publicly: if you tell me that I’m ecological in front of a bunch of other people, I can see that they now expect me to behave that way.
The labeling technique has been studied on and off for decades. Quite recently, a group of researchers led by Gert Cornelissen has investigated it in the sustainability context. Their findings are really encouraging. For instance, they found that you can alter someone’s self-concept by pointing out the ecological behavior that they already engage in, such as not littering (link). This in turn leads people to choose environmentally friendly products more frequently, and even to use scrap paper more efficiently. They also found that people tend to reinterpret their previous motivations in accordance with a label (link). For instance, if you have someone choose amongst several items, then tell them that the one they chose was also chosen by the most ecological participants in the study, they’ll then claim that they were motivated by ecological concerns. Furthermore, they’ll tend to behave in more ecologically friendly ways in the future.
These are just some of the subtle, non-coercive methods that might be used to promote sustainable behavior on university campuses. They’re mutually compatible, and also compatible with most traditional methods. It’s time we gave some of them a try.