State of the Planet

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Psychology of Environmental Decision Making and Sustainable Behavior

By: Brian Kateman and Kim Espinosa

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Countries vary dramatically in their records of environmental responsibility. Some nations such as Switzerland and Norway are well known for their dedication to environmental protection, while countries such as Iraq and South Africa lag far behind. There are certainly socio-economic reasons for these stark differences, but is it also possible that human psychology shapes our perception of environmental responsibility?

Dr. Hal Hershfield of New York University along with two colleagues Hye Min Bang and Elke Weber of Columbia University determined that citizens may use perceptions of their country’s age to predict its future continuation, which in turn motivates them to be more concerned with environmental quality. The results of the studies are published in Psychological Science.

The researchers linked the age of countries to the Environmental Performance Index (EPI). The EPI is an index developed by Yale University to quantify environmental performance of a given country. Countries with longer pasts generally had a higher score on the EPI. This remained true even after controlling for economic and political factors. The researchers concluded that a country’s age might act as a reflection for estimations of its potential future. Furthermore, between-country differences in concern for the environment at the individual level may explain the relationship between country duration and environmental performance. In other words, living in a nation with deep historical roots may facilitate a longer view of the future, promoting a greater concern for the environment.

To further explore the proposed link between country duration and environmental performance, the researchers conducted a series of experiments in which they manipulated participants’ perceived length of a country’s existence. The results were striking: participants who were primed with a timeline suggesting that the United States had a relatively long history were more likely to think of the United States as a well-established country. Additionally, participants encouraged to think about the United States as a country with a longer history were willing to donate significantly more to an environmental organization than were those encouraged to think about the United States as a country with a shorter history.

The studies have important implications for policymakers interested in harnessing these effects to promote environmental conservation and sustainability. As summarized in the research paper, “such concern and action was elicited by participants’ perception that their country has a long past (and by implication, a long future), and not by its actual age. Thus, prompts that very simply compare a given country with a shorter-lived entity or that promote the country’s historic past rather than existence in its current political identity may effectively change long-term environmental behavior.”

Interested in learning more about the tools policy-makers can use to promote pro-environmental decision-making? The Center for Environmental Sustainability is offering a course in collaboration with The Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, Earth Institute, Columbia University on the Psychology of Environmental Decision Making and Sustainable Behavior. Drawing upon a body of cutting edge behavioral and social science research, this course explores the mental barriers to scientific communication and information processing, including the concepts of framing, biases and heuristics, and choice architecture. Learn about the difficulty that individuals and groups have in processing and responding effectively to complex environmental challenges such as climate change, natural resource consumption, and ecosystem degradation. Understand how to design policies and programs that are more effective at promoting sustainable behaviors.

Course dates: Tuesdays, February 25, March 4, 11, 25 & April 1 – 6:10-8:10PM.
Interested in learning more? Contact

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