15 ways to use behavioral science in sustainability

The conservation of nature depends on the choices and decisions of the global population, the report says. Todd Lappin, Flickr
7 May 2019

Kevin Green and Katie Williamson will be speaking at the Behavior Change for Nature: Expanding the Environmental Toolkit webinar held by Rare on 14 May at 12 p.m. (EST). Register here to join.

Rare’s managing director of Climate and Water Paula Caballero will speak in a video address for the Global Landscapes Forum Kyoto on 12 May, which can be viewed online through the conference’s Digital Edition.

Forty-six years into its work to promote behavioral science as an agent of change for conservation and sustainability, Rare recently published Behavior Change for Nature: A Behavioral Science Toolkit for Practitioners.

Produced in collaboration with the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a multinational consultancy that uses nudge theory – a behavioral economics concept about the influence of indirect suggestion – to improve government policies and services, the toolkit explores a range of new strategies and tactics to encourage behavioral change.

“This toolkit is a way for us to consolidate Rare’s and BIT’s learnings and created a hub to continue to build on and bring together everything we’ve learned from behavioral change,” says Katie Williamson, associate of Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment (BE.Center).

The creation of the Be.Center in 2017 has created a structure for Rare to centralize its learnings on behavioral change, she adds. “It is also a place for us to continue to develop our behavioral change theory and to partner with academic groups and other practitioners.”

The toolkit categorizes fifteen strategies into three identified methods of applying behavioral science to achieve conservation and sustainability goals: ‘Motivate the Change,’ ‘Socialize the Change’ and ‘Ease the Change.’

“One of the most fundamental components of Rare’s approach is tailoring heavily to the specific audiences with whom we’re working,” says Kevin Green, senior director of the CBE.

Williamson describes ‘Motivate the Change’ as focusing on people’s subconscious decision-making practices. The first five strategies in this area address emotional appeal, personal values, identities, interests, humanized messages, cognitive biases and incentives.

These characteristics are important for crafting effective conservation messages, Green says, because “it helps to deliver information and messages in a way that’s palatable and welcome for any human being.” He adds that environmental solutions and sustainable behaviors can mean different things in different places, so messages are more likely to lead to action if they are co-designed in collaboration with local communities and founded on their own ideals.

Habitual mental shortcuts for decision-making, status quo bias and decision fatigue when presented with a myriad of options are some of the frequently encountered hindrances to change that Green names. “We might think about introducing 20 different sustainable agricultural practices – all of which would do better than conventional agriculture – but end up having agricultural producers not choose anything at all,” he explained.

“But if we really focus on one or two specific practices, it can be a lot less cognitively taxing for agricultural producers to imagine how they can take on that practice and adapt themselves.”

While cognitive biases and heuristics often create barriers or hindrances to change, Green says they also represent opportunities if perceived in a different light. For instance, when a group transitions away from a particular status quo, it can be a suitable time to introduce new behaviors to substitute those to which they are already accustomed.

After messages have emotionally connected with an audience’s values and identities and cognitive biases have been addressed, then comes the more challenging work. The toolkit’s next five strategies – grouped under ‘Socialize the Change’– deal with promoting norms and reciprocity in socially observable settings that encourage accountability and peer-to-peer commitment. Communication of such norms must be administered through credible messengers.

“Human beings don’t always act according to their values. So it’s not necessarily true that if we convinced much broader propositions of the global population to care about ecological values, the right behaviors would follow from that,” says Green.

This is why, he argues, Rare’s approach taps into the social aspect of human nature by making the practical adaptation of sustainability messaging observable and attaching reputational effects to their follow-through or lack thereof.

Anecdotally, if a community were to be encouraged to recycle, but recycling receptacles were placed out of general sight, then they would not help boost the reputations of those who recycle, Green exemplifies.

“Making behavioral goals more observable using norm-based messaging demonstrates that the more sustainable behavior (e.g. recycling) is the norm in the user group, or it could become a norm – that there’s the opportunity for it to be the new equilibrium,” says Green.

Changing a group’s equilibrium can be difficult because early adopters of sustainable behaviors tend to be perceived as “losing out” through unacknowledged sacrifices from which everyone else still freely benefits. “So developing a strong group identity as a basis for cooperation is important to enable the group to recognize that there is a potential new equilibrium where everyone behaves sustainably and everyone benefits,” he says.

The last strategies in the toolkit, ‘Ease the Change,’address behavior – instead of attitudes, awareness or intentions – as the focal point of campaigns and policies.

These strategies concern removing frictions, promoting more sustainable options in everyday decisions, changing the framing of these options, supporting implementation through practical planning, and simplifying what people are being asked to do.

“We can be strongly influenced by how decisions are framed or presented to us because we have evolved to favor speed over complete accuracy,” says Williamson.

“What this bucket of strategies has in common is that they target the environment or context of decisions to create change, rather than an individual’s motivations or social network.”



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