Behavior Change Misperceptions

There are numerous approaches to creating behavior change, many of which are covered in our Strategy Guide.  Although there is some debate about which approaches are most appropriate for particular environments and audiences, environmental psychologists generally agree on which are not very effective at creating durable behavior change.   As you read through this section, keep in mind that we are not negating the importance of things such as educating people about the environment and getting people outside. For example, we recognize that getting people out into nature has been shown to have numerous benefits for individuals (Mayer et. al., 2009). However, if the goal of your program is to change your audience's actions, research suggests that the following pathways are not the most effective means of doing so. 

Common Behavior Change Myths:


Knowledge and Awareness 

Probably the most dominant behavior change myth is the idea that if individuals were more knowledgeable about environmental problems, they would act on these problems in an environmentally-responsible way. As a result of this misperception, many communication and education-based programs, (run by everyone from national governments to local non-profits,) design information-based, science-heavy programs (Owens, 2000). An example of such a program would be providing people with information about the amount of litter in their local river, in the hope that this would result in people changing their own littering behaviors. 

One simple way to begin to understand this gap between knowledge and behavior is by thinking of this example: most people know they should eat five to seven servings of fruits and vegetables a day, yet their actual behaviors often do not reflect this knowledge. Similarly, various studies have shown that knowledge of an environmental issue is unlikely to be sufficient to change behavior. For example, Katzev (1987) conducted a series of studies demonstrating that individuals who received pamphlets or tip booklets containing information on energy conservation did not significantly change their energy conservation behaviors. It's also important to note that research has shown that if individuals are provided with too much information about environmental problems, they may experience "overload", causing them to feel helpless, leading to an immobilization of action (Kaplan, 2000). Overall, the research demonstrates that there is a gap between environmental knowledge and actions. Stronger sources of motivation are needed, as human behavior is often difficult to change (Kollmus & Agyeman, 2002, McKenzie-Mohr et. al., 2012 ).

In contrast, while "declarative knowledge" about environmental problems or issues is unlikely to be sufficient for fostering behavior change, other types of knowledge may be important. This includes "procedural knowledge," or information on how to perform environmentally-responsible actions, and "behavioral competence", or the feeling of being confidence and able to take action (Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera, 1987; Zeleny, 1999).

Care and Concern

Another popular behavior change misperception is the idea that if individuals could be made to care more about environmental problems, they would act on these problems. Here is an everyday example of this myth: while one may be concerned about his or her heart health, one may not take action to improve it, such as through exercising daily. Many communication- and education-based programs expressing this misperception tend to highlight the seriousness of these problems, often conveyed from a natural science perspective (e.g., focusing on the number of species that will be harmed from water pollution.) 

A number of surveys have shown that most citizens in the United States and elsewhere express concern for the environment, but reported that they are not necessarily acting to reflect this concern (Stern, 2000; McClafferty 2001; Leiserowitz et. al., 2005; Opinion Works 2011).  In general, research on the relationship between environmental concern and behavior shows a low to moderate connection between the two (Hines, Hungerford, and Tomera, 1987; Bamberg, 2003). Human behavior is complex, and motivated by multiple factors. New research suggests that concern may have some indirect effects on behavior; however, since many people report having concern without taking action, it may make more sense to influence more direct factors leading to behavior change (Bamberg, 2003).

Fear and Guilt

The third behavior change misconception we often see is the idea that using an appeal to negative emotions, like fear and guilt, will change people's actions. This is especially common when addressing more immense, often overwhelming issues like hunger, poverty, and climate change. For example, you may have seen climate change ads that contain negative images such as polar bears stranded on small remains of ice. Images like this are meant to inspire environmentally responsible action in the viewer. 

However, evoking negative emotions can actually lead to the opposite result-- for example, Frederickson (1998) found that fear often leads to the urge to escape rather than act, and guilt leads to feelings of resentment. Therefore, evoking such feelings will not lead to the desired behavior and may actually cause individuals to "tune out" and discredit environmental communicators or educators (Hastings et al., 2004).

Spending Time in the Natural Environment

Finally, simply exposing one to nature has not been shown to have a direct link to environmentally responsible behaviors. Much of the research on the effect of exposing one to the natural environmental thus far has focused on changes in knowledge and concern, which we demonstrated above are not strong predictors of future behavior. Programs that get people out into nature, while beneficial on many levels, may not be the most effective pathway for changing people's actions in their daily lives (Mayer & Franz, 2004). While Chawla (1999) suggests that many environmentalists attribute their current career paths to experiences in nature as a child, the reverse argument can also be made-- that many other people who had similar experiences as children do not become environmentalists.

It is important to note that the base of research in this area is not particularly strong for either argument, and more research is needed. Emerging research (Schultz, 2002; Lieflander et. al., in press) may offer more insights into the ways that one's connection to nature can result in environmental actions. This research suggests that one's level of interconnectedness with nature may influence future environmental actions, particularly for young children. 

Other factors, such as social influences or action skills, may be much stronger determinants of behavior than spending time in nature, and therefore more important influences to leverage in environmental outreach programs (Hungerford & Volk, 1990; Cialdini, 2001). Programs may be more effective in fostering such behaviors if they are based on research-supported strategies rather than, (or in addition to,) ones focused on exposing people to nature.