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In recent years, the “green,” or, environmental movement has been gaining in notoriety. Suddenly, an enormous market has emerged for green products, from environmentally friendly cleaning products to low impact vacations in eco-friendly destinations. Yet in spite of great publicity and interest, a so-called “green revolution” has not taken hold. However, as those with psychology degrees already very well know, behavioral psychology can help explain why, in spite of the existence of great amounts information on going green, individuals and corporations fail to adopt environmentally sustainable practices.

Everyday the population of the globe grows, people live longer and individuals enjoy a better standard of living. These three trends result in the greater consumption of material goods than ever before (coupled with a concurrent increase in industrial activity), increasing waste and pollution worldwide. Concern over the increase of pollution led to the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States in the 1960s. However, since the inception of this movement, environmentalism has been hardened political issue. Thus “green” has become a loaded term, causing the debate over the necessity of changing business and personal practices to become a partisan issue.

At the business level, the debate tends to focus on the question of whether environmentalism is good for industry or if it harms profitability. There is a perception that governmental and environmental regulations cut into a company’s profit. Unfortunately, this zero-sum understanding of the relationship between economics and the environment creates a strong resistance toward developing environmentally sustainable business strategies. However, creative solutions that preserve profitability while protecting the environment exist; the challenge is to shift the argument away from the environment vs. economic scenario into a debate over which win-win solutions are best.

A second obstruction to the adoption of environmentally sustainable practices is the hesitancy to make short-term sacrifices in favor of long-term benefits. This is underscored by the fact that an individual’s or business’ practices become established over time and difficult to change. Something as simple as beginning a home or business recycling program, weatherproofing a home to reduce wasted energy or modifying a business supply chain can present psychological challenges that induce procrastination and avoidance. As counterintuitive as the rejection of the long-term benefits in favor of immediate rewards may seem, it is a fundamental human trait that acts as a barrier to sustainable practices.

The third and final main barrier to going green occurs mainly at the individual level. Despite increased publicity of urgent environmental issues such as climate change, pesticide contamination of food and water and air pollution, individuals seem unwilling to act. This is because the human psyche can only accommodate a limited number of concerns at any given time. Termed the “finite pool of worry,” this theory explains the lukewarm response to environmental concerns at the same time that it provides a solution. Environmentalism on its own, despite its importance, occupies a low position on most individual’s priority lists. Concerns about the economy, the job market, personal health and quality of life tend to dominate a person’s day-to-day worries.

Therefore in order to increase its visibility, the issue of environmentalism must be reframed to fit within a person’s existing concerns. For example, people concerned about the job market, might be interested in the potential employment opportunities created by adopting renewable energy resources. When people can see how environmentally sustainable practices can benefit them personally in the short term, they are much more likely to act.

Clearly, behavioral psychology can help provide insight as to why, in spite of the urgency behind the sustainability movement, corporate and individual actions so often fail to meet expectations. By using behavioral psychology to identify the barriers to the adoption of new mindsets and behaviors, we can simultaneously highlight challenges and suggest strategies to overcome them. Resolving the resistance to environmentalism requires a multi-faceted and creative approach, but it is possible to intelligently foster a sustainable lifestyle from the bottom up.

This guest post was written by Allison Gamble.

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