Wednesday, September 02, 2015

It's the Environment, Stupid

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News flash: It is behavior, not feelings or attitudes, that ultimately leads to global climate change. Decades of experimental research, basic and applied, has shown that certain features of the environment are responsible for much of our behavior and, moreover, that altering those features can produce dramatic changes in behavior. In general, to understand why people do what they do, whether as individuals or in groups, one has to look to their history of behavioral consequences. It is no exaggeration to say that the consequences of our behavior are its single most important determinant.

More specifically, over the last one hundred years or so, behavioral psychology research has demonstrated that consequences more effectively influence behavior when they are relatively certain, immediate, large, and require relatively little effort to produce. In other words, we are more likely to repeat behaviors that are relatively effortless and that produce desirable consequences or escape or avoid undesirable consequences, especially if the consequences occur with a high probability soon after the behavior and are big enough to be valuable.

Because the problems that result from global climate change do not immediately follow the actions of any individual, company, or government and are not easily attributable to the behavior of any single entity, most of us cannot appreciate the dire effects of our collective actions on our planet and our behavior remains unchanged. In other words, the long-term deleterious consequences of our actions do not influence them in any direct way. Likewise, because most people have more pressing concerns (e.g., unemployment, lack of health care, etc.), they are less motivated to do something about their own small contribution to the problem. The immediate reinforcers for engaging in unsustainable behaviors are barriers that work against engaging in sustainable behaviors.

The primary goal in reversing climate change, then, is to establish and maintain “green behavior” (i.e., behavior that contributes to environmental sustainability) on the part of both individuals and companies. Once green behaviors have been identified, he environmental factors that promote or hinder them can be identified. Changing those environmental factors will lead to behavior change and, eventually, to climate change. The irony should not be lost here: changing behavior to save the environment and, ultimately, the human species, will require more widespread appreciation of the role the environment plays in determining the behavior in the first place.

Even by the 1970s, research had already shown that a variety of interventions based on operant learning could modify green behaviors such as reducing litter, increased bus rider ship, decreasing lawn-trampling, promoting the purchase of drinks in returnable containers, initiating a recycling process, or reducing energy consumption. In general, this research showed that the critical component of any effort to change behavior is arranging contingent consequences. However, that much of this research was published two or more decades ago and it is troubling that effective behavioral interventions incorporating simple technology have not been widely adopted.

In truth, behavior change efforts might be more usefully applied to promoting wider-spread dissemination of proven green-behavior technologies than continuing to investigate more ways of changing green behavior. Green technology continues to advance and afford ever-increasing numbers of opportunities for encouraging green behavior, with such technologies typically satisfying the critical elements of effective behavior-change procedures: immediacy and consistency of consequences with little response effort required to produce them. But this won’t happen without a corresponding behavioral technology; and behavioral psychology is in the best position to provide such a technology.

A behavioral analysis of the behaviors that contribute to climate change can help us understand why the behaviors occur and it represents an optimistic approach to altering the behaviors because, unlike other psychological factors, the consequences that influence one’s behavior are accessible and comparatively easy to alter. However, the very same understanding of the causes of human behavior that can lead to optimism also suggests that the deck is stacked against us; the adverse consequences related to global warming are too delayed and uncertain to affect our behavior. Without intentional intervention—informed by behavioral psychology research and practice—to alter the existing “anti-green” behavioral contingencies, the problem could indeed be intractable. However, we choose to be optimistic because of the ample evidence that environmental changes can produce positive changes in behavior. After all, it’s the environment, stupid.

* This post is adapted from an unpublished manuscript co-authored by Henry D. Schlinger and Matthew P. Normand.