Battling Climate Change with Behavioral Science, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I explained the science behind why people don’t take action around topics like climate change, that they know to be urgent issues. In Part 2 of this series, I'll share strategies around how to drive sustainable behavior despite these challenges.

The first strategy is to help people inoculate themselves from the effects of fear mongering, by encouraging them to turn off sensationalized news sources and take the time to savor the good in their lives. We can also train people to counteract constant fear-induced fight-or-flight responses with a few long, mindful breaths, which has been found to activate the so-called “pause-and-plan” response, this transfers control back from the emotional centers of the brain to the cognitive mind where more rational decisions can be made.

Then we can begin to help people build a self-identity as somebody who cares and takes action on climate change issues. We can do this by helping people recognize and celebrate positive actions they have already taken. This begins to change people's identities, associate positive feelings to sustainable behavior, and open them up to taking further productive actions. Research has shown that humans have a desire to maintain consistency in their self-identity. If they discover behaviors that are not in line with their past behavior or identity, we experience cognitive dissonance, a very uncomfortable feeling which we’re eager to take action to rectify. This has been found to make people much more open to requests for desirable actions, even if the new actions are much more difficult.

Research has found that focusing on benefits in the short term are much more likely to influence behavior.

Another strategy is to emphasize the immediate benefits of a desirable behavior, rather than the long-term benefits to climate change. Many sustainable behaviors have clear payoffs in terms of health, happiness, social currency, and financial interests. Research has found that focusing on benefits in the short term are much more likely to influence behavior. For example, to facilitate people walking somewhere rather than driving, it's much more effective if you point out that exercise, fresh air, and sunlight have been shown to improve mood and productivity for the rest of the day, as opposed to pointing out climate benefits which will accrue over many years.

Another powerful strategy is to use social proof. People tend to look to other people who are similar to them to decide how they should behave. Unfortunately, social proof discourages sustainable behavior more often than it encourages it. For example, if people see their own neighbors being wasteful of resources, they will feel comfortable being wasteful themselves, even if the other populations of people act very differently. However, a behavior change campaign can emphasize sustainable activities already happening in someone’s community. We can also focus on sustainable actions that are particularly visible, like driving electric cars, installing solar panels, biking or reusing shopping bags to encourage much more of the same behavior.

Robin is the Founder of the behavioral consulting agency Live Neuron Labs. He has a 20+ year obsession for applying behavioral science through technology to improve human behavior. He’s a member of the Stanford Persuasive Technology Lab with Dr. BJ Fogg and has been privileged to do behavioral consulting for dozens of companies like Amazon, UnderArmour, American Heart Association, Walmart, and LG. He serves as an officer for the International Action Design Network and founded the 1500 person strong Austin Chapter, Action Design ATX. He lives with his wife and son in beautiful Austin, Texas.