Injecting Social Sciences into the Climate Movement

Shamu, San Diego, CA. Credit: Patty Mooney
What do the boomerang effect, the deficit model, and the Shamu principle have to do with helping reduce our carbon emissions? What about the foot-in-the-door effect, spillover, and the single-action bias? Turns out that these and other insights from the social sciences could be instrumental in our quest to tackle climate change.

At the end of May, National Wildlife Federation hosted a forum on Harnessing Social Science Expertise to Advance Climate-Conscious Behavior Change. During the two-day event, we brought together leading thinkers from the social sciences with leaders of climate advocacy programs from national NGOs. The group was challenged with identifying creative and concrete ways to infuse behavior change research into efforts that NGOs could realistically implement for reducing carbon pollution.

Indeed, changing individual behaviors—from consumer choices to how we use electrical devices to how we get around—will be essential for decreasing carbon emissions to levels scientists say are necessary to avoid serious impacts. By some estimates, changing behaviors could cut household carbon emissions by 20%. But realizing this potential will require wide-scale change across a number of behaviors.  Thus, we need to use insight from the social sciences to catalyze a long-term process of change.

Sneak Peek at Forum Discussions

In the coming months, we will be synthesizing the forum discussions and sharing them widely. But, we thought we’d share a few snippets now to pique your interest in how social sciences could shape future climate advocacy.  So many fascinating discussions took place over the two days that it’s hard to summarize them here or even pick out a few to highlight!  For me, many of the immediate take-away lessons have to do with how we can do a better job communicating with people about climate change, how we might target our efforts to have the biggest effect, and incorporating insight from the social sciences into a broader vision for achieving major carbon reductions. 

Revamping Climate Communication

For years, I have operated under the principle that if I could just explain climate science clearly enough or in a way that better connected with people, then they would “get it” and change their behavior accordingly. Social science researchers call this assumption the deficit model and have long known that this approach is largely ineffective. Turns out that telling someone information, in other words filling their knowledge deficit, is only one of many factors that influence decision making.  And, in many cases, other factors, such as deeply held cultural and religious values, carry much more weight.

What’s more, providing too much information about a subject can actually cause people to take the opposite action than that intended. That’s where the boomerang effect comes into play. There are many examples of behavior change campaigns that have failed in this manner, perhaps most notably those directed at getting teens to avoid drugs. Some studies have shown that anti-drug ad campaigns made teens more open to drug use, possibly because they conveyed a message that drug use is something that lots of teens are doing. All of which, of course, makes me wonder how our efforts at communicating about climate change might be boomeranging.

It’s not all disheartening… Another point made was the importance of making education fun. Now, this is an idea that NWF already heartily endorses for our wildlife education! (Have you seen all our great kids programs and magazines?) A challenge for the climate advocacy community is to inject some fun into our programs. 

Targeting Catalysts for Long-term Change

The other thing that was clear from the forum discussions was that the challenges and opportunities for behavior change go far beyond more effective communication. If our goal is to achieve a long-term shift away from carbon-intensive behaviors, then we need to be thinking strategically about how we engage people in this process. What sorts of actions are best to propose first? Should we focus on a single action or provide a whole menu of options? How do we take advantage of group dynamics to support these behavior changes?

Social scientists have already studied some of these questions and can help us figure out effective strategies. For example, the foot-in-the-door effect is a well-studied theory that people are more likely to accede to a second, more demanding request after they have already agreed to perform a prior, smaller act related to the same cause. Carefully choosing and sequencing requests so that they build on one another is one way to create what researchers call spillover, the idea that one behavior change will lead to other related behavior change.

Of course, this territory must be carefully navigated so as to avoid the single-action bias, the tendency to feel like you’ve already done enough after making one change. Replacing light bulbs, for example, accomplishes a part of the household energy reductions, but should be part of a larger effort to address energy usage. And yet after installing them, one may feel less compelled to take further conservation steps.  Countering this tendency might require embracing the Shamu principle, which essential boils down to using incremental rewards to build a behavior through a series of intermediate, increasingly proximate behaviors (give Shamu a fish if he comes close, then if you can pet him, then if he comes on command, then he if jumps, etc.).

Tapping into group dynamics and peer influence is another important key to supporting sustained behavior change. Take for example, the Green Living Program designed by David Gershon and colleagues at The Empowerment Institute. Their approach centers on establishing EcoTeams composed of 5-6 households that meet regularly to support their shared journey to more sustainable lifestyles.

A Vision for Long-term Behavior Change

Participants also discussed the potential for creating an intentional interplay between three levers for affecting pollution: (1) policies and laws that regulate major sources of pollution; (2) innovative technologies and products that create new opportunities in the consumer marketplace; and (3) efforts intended to influence individual behaviors. While much environmental advocacy to date has focused on the first two categories, often leading to significant gains, the breadth of the carbon pollution challenge demands a more comprehensive approach. In fact, effective programs to change climate-related behaviors may be vital for building the public support for carbon pollution regulations and the broad consumer demand for better, more efficient products. Creating such a vision for climate advocacy is complicated and daunting, but also quite exciting!

Next steps and how to learn more

Over the next months, we will be synthesizing the findings from our forum discussions and seeking opportunities to share them more broadly. At the same time, we will continue to nurture these discussions, which really only scraped the surface of opportunities for integration and collaboration. Moreover, we will identify opportunities to put the lessons learned into practice for NWF’s program planning. We see this forum as NWF’s initial foray into this area, and the beginning of the exploration of many exciting opportunities.

If you’re interested in learning more or joining the conversation, please feel free to contact us.

Amanda Staudt, NWF Senior Scientist, Climate and Energy Programs

Kevin Coyle, NWF Vice President, Education and Training

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Published: June 11, 2012