by Annie Gilliland
I recently attended a talk by Carol Werner, a professor of Psychology at the University of Utah, on the motivations behind creating green initiatives in the work place and how to improve what already exists. “There is no silver bullet for behavioral change,” she started out.
Werner continuously stressed that the physical environment and social network of a place must support and encourage a desired behavior. Convenience is important, and we need to focus on making it “easier to be green than brown.” Consider public transportation: a physical and social environment that promote ease and popularity will most likely increase ridership. Werner expanded on an interesting concept surrounding transportation, though: a free transit pass is not always helpful. If you’re used to living somewhere where it’s free and then you move somewhere where it’s not, you are less likely to continue to use public transportation. People need to learn to think about the behavior and why they like doing it, beyond the most obvious reasons like cost.
We learned about the power of social norms. People are heavily influenced by what’s popular with others around them. Werner says that if you work with people who are interested and willing to change, the naysayers will eventually feel social pressure and most likely change, as well. This can even help break unwanted but longstanding habits. Institutionalizing is important to making sure changes last: again, the more people doing something, the easier it may be to influence those who have not yet changed.
People also like to feel validated. They like to know what they’re doing is important and they like to have their stress or frustration recognized. Werner said that for an example, she and her students had tried posting several versions of a sign that said, “Please recycle. It’s important.” While the signs were up, more people recycled. But as soon as they were removed the behavior stopped, and people reverted back to throwing most things in the trash. When they tried a sign that said, “We know recycling can be inconvenient, but it’s important!” the behavioral changes lasted for much longer after the sign was removed.
Werner left us with three main points: consider your physical environment and pay attention to things like placement and size, do not give up, and always emphasize the positive.
Readers, what are some ways you have tried to influence environmentally responsible behavior in people around you?
Annie Gilliland is an MS student in Environmental Humanities at the University of Utah, and works for the Office of Sustainability.