Using Behavioural Science to Help Solve the Ecological Crisis

Applied behavioural science is a field of psychology that is about creating behaviour change at the population level (Haanterä et al., 2022). As such, it takes a systems-based approach to understand the factors that cause current behaviour and the barriers that members of a population have in implementing new behaviours to solve specific problems. Applied behavioural scientists often use their skills to help create more compassionate work environments, improve morale, increase organizational effectiveness, empower people, and reduce the negative effect of many forms of discrimination (Smith, 2003). Typical clients of behavioural scientists are government organizations, non-profit organizations, universities, and large for-profit organizations (Community Change, 2022; Evidn, 2022; Kotamarthi, 2021).

“…training in psychology is preferred, as it is considered fundamental to the work of behavioural scientists.”

Career Pathways

In Australia, a Bachelor of Psychological Science (Honours) is typically required to become an applied behavioural scientist, although, some behavioural scientists also have more advanced training such as a Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.; Haanterä et al., 2022). Others have industry-specific training that is relevant to the field, such as in environmental science or agriculture, that are then provided basic training in behavioural science during employment. However, training in psychology is preferred, as it is considered fundamental to the work of behavioural scientists.

Behavioural scientists have two main career paths after completing their education; academia or applied behavioural science (Kotamarthi, 2021). The academic route involves completing a Ph.D. where one specializes in a specific area of behavioural science. Once the Ph.D. is completed, graduates often become academics who teach behavioural science and conduct research. The applied behavioural science route varies depending on the type of sector; public or private. Behavioural scientists in the public sector can work directly for government organizations, non-profit organizations, and international organizations (e.g., the United Nations, World Health Organization, and the World Bank). Behavioural scientists in the private sector can work directly for large for-profit organizations such as technology companies, financial institutions (e.g., the Commonwealth Bank), and other large corporations that use behavioural science to inform their marketing efforts. Alternatively, a behavioural scientist can work for an external consulting organization that provides services to other organizations, public or private. Within these external consulting organizations, a behavioural scientist may start their career in an (either paid or unpaid) internship where they work as a research assistant (Haanterä et al., 2022). Instead, they may be offered an entry-level junior position as an associate behavioural scientist. From there, one can progress to a senior behavioural scientist role and/or other leadership positions.

IMAGE: Behaviour scientist career path diagram from Preeti Kotamarthi’s (2021) article on the Social Science Space website.

“…the international non-profit environmental behaviour change organization, Rare, in 2018 released its Climate Change Needs Behavior Change report as a call to action for behavioural scientists to use their skills in changing behaviour to address the urgent problem of climate change.”

Improving Environmental Outcomes

One focus of applied behavioural scientists is on improving environmental outcomes such as biodiversity conservation, water conservation and management, waste management, agricultural land management, and climate mitigation and adaptation (Bujold et al., 2020). In fact, the international non-profit environmental behaviour change organization, Rare, in 2018 released its Climate Change Needs Behavior Change report as a call to action for behavioural scientists to use their skills in changing behaviour to address the urgent problem of climate change (Williamson et al., 2018). In the report, 30 citizen behaviours were identified that would reduce emissions by 19.9% to 36.8% if implemented. One of these behaviours is the installation of rooftop solar panels, as estimates have been made that their adoption alone could generate 3,578 terawatt-hours of energy and avoid 24.6 to 40.3 gigatons of carbon emissions (or equivalent) from 2020 to 2050 (Hawken, 2017). Unfortunately, there are many factors that may prevent communities from taking the necessary actions.

Brisbane-based behaviour change consultancy, Evidn, was recently commissioned by The Nature Conservancy to address climate mitigation and adaptation efforts in New York, as it is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (Haanterä et al., 2022). This is due to the high likelihood of coastal and inland flooding, farming disruption, and increased health risks. The preliminary stages of a behaviour change project involve a review of the scientific literature on the topic, along with stakeholder research and engagement. In this case, one of Evidn’s senior behavioural scientists, Toneya McIntosh, spent time speaking to communities throughout New York about climate mitigation and adaptation issues to uncover a variety of themes that underly community acceptance of efforts to address climate change. She found that although there is overwhelming support for things like large-scale solar farms in the abstract sense, people often refuse these projects when it comes to them being proposed in their own communities. Similarly, people are reluctant to relocate further inland despite the increasing risk of their homes becoming inundated with water due to rising sea levels. This kind of stakeholder engagement that McIntosh undertook in New York is important for gathering necessary information, and also crucial for building relationships and trust with the very community where change is required.

IMAGE: Solar panels on the roof of a building in New York. © U.S. Department of Energy.

The next stages of a behaviour change project are to analyze the information gathered using theory and then develop a theory of change to address the problem (Haanterä et al., 2022). Here, behavioural scientists draw on a wide range of insights and theories from psychology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, anthropology, political science, economics, and other fields to understand the factors that drive the current human behaviour (Williamson et al., 2018). One core theory is from social science that was developed by Kurt Lewin (1951) called field theory. Field theory proposes that current behaviours are at the equilibrium of two opposing forces; driving forces and restraining forces (Haanterä et al., 2022). Changing behaviour is best achieved through the reduction of restraining forces, rather than through simply promoting reasons for change. The theory suggests that it is the reduction of these barriers that creates the greatest opportunity for change to occur.

IMAGE: Slide from Evidn’s Behaviour Science in Practice: Addressing Global Challenges lecture. © Evidn.

Other theories that are often used by behavioural scientists in achieving environmental behaviour change are Ajzen’s (1985) theory of planned behaviour, Andreasen’s (1995) social marketing model, Gifford’s (2008) social dilemma system model, Roger’s (2003) diffusion of innovations theory, and Stern’s (2000) value belief norm theory (Curnow & Spehr, 2011). Evidn has also adapted Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological framework and Stokols’ (1996) social ecological theory for its environmental behaviour change work (Haanterä et al., 2022). This is where situational factors (e.g., physical environment), social factors (e.g., social norms and the perceived beliefs of others), and individual factors (e.g., attitudes, beliefs, and perceived behavioural control) are all considered as to how they contribute to the current behaviour. Multiple aspects of these are then targeted simultaneously by the developed theory of change to facilitate the desired change in environmental behaviour. It is the implementation of these evidence-based behaviour change programs that provide one source of delivering and maintaining positive environmental change at the scale necessary to address the many environmental problems we currently face.

IMAGE: A diagram of Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) ecological framework.

References

Ajzen, I. (1985). From intentions to actions: A theory of planned behavior. In J. Kuhl & J. Beckman (Eds.), Action-control: From cognition to behavior (pp. 11–39). Springer.

Andreasen, A. R. (1995). Marketing social change: Changing behavior to promote health, social development, and the environment. Jossey-Bass.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Harvard University Press.

Bujold, P. M., Williamson, K., & Thulin, E. (2020). The science of changing behavior for environmental outcomes: A literature review. Rare Center for Behavior & the Environment and the Scientific and Technical Advisory Panel to the Global Environment Facility. https://behavior.rare.org/literature-review/

Community Change. (2022, May 20). About us. http://www.communitychange.com.au/about-us.html

Curnow, R. & Spehr, K. (2011). What are the best theories of environmental behaviour change? Community Change: Behaviour Environment Research Education. http://communitychange.com.au/what-we-do/20-insights-and-tools/improving-your-program/what-are-the-best-theories-of-environmental-behaviour-change/11.html

Evidn. (2022, May 20). Our approach. https://www.evidn.com/about

Gifford, R. (2008). Toward a comprehensive model of social dilemmas. In A. Biel, D. Eek, T. Garling, & M. Gustaffson (Eds.), New issues and paradigms in research on social dilemmas (pp. 265–280). Springer.

Haanterä, K., McIntosh, T., & Law, I. W. (2022, May 30). Behaviour science in practice: Addressing global challenges [Guest lecture by Evidn]. Topics in Applied Psychology, University of Queensland. https://learn.uq.edu.au

Hawken, P. (2017). Drawdown: The most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. Penguin.

Kotamarthi, P. (2021, August 5). A guide to career paths in behavioral science. Social Science Space. https://www.socialsciencespace.com/2021/08/a-guide-to-career-paths-in-behavioral-science/

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. Harper & Brothers.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). Free Press.

Smith, K. K. (2003). A world of possibilities: Implications for applied behavioral science. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 39(4), 476–485. https://doi.org/10.1177/0021886303261816

Stern, P. C. (2000). Toward a coherent theory of environmentally significant behavior. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), 407–424. https://doi.org/10.1111/0022-4537.00175

Stokols, D. (1996). Translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health promotion. American Journal of Health Promotion, 10(4), 282–298. https://doi.org/10.4278/0890-1171-10.4.282

Williamson, K., Satre-Meloy, A., Velasco, K., & Green, K. (2018). Climate change needs behavior change: Making the case for behavioral solutions to reduce global warming. Rare. https://rare.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/2018-CCNBC-Report.pdf

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Psychological Science Student, UQ | Designer, Design Good | Climate Leader, The Climate Reality Project | (Pronouns: he/him) | https://linktr.ee/jarrennylund

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Jarren Nylund

Jarren Nylund

Psychological Science Student, UQ | Designer, Design Good | Climate Leader, The Climate Reality Project | (Pronouns: he/him) | https://linktr.ee/jarrennylund

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