Behaviour Change: Does what you think dictate what you do?

Have a think about where you stand on environmental issues, I mean have a real long hard think. Now, having done this, think about all the choices you make in your day to day life. Does your behaviour reflect your opinions and values with regards to environmental sustainability? If you’re anything like me, your answer is probably going to be: “sort of…”.

Why is it that as opinionated and ideological beings, we often do not uphold the values that we hold as important and as reflecting who we are? Nye and Hargreaves in their 2009 paper Exploring the Social Dynamics of Proenvironmental Behaviour Change attempt to show that it is often the social context with which we interact with others that plays a major part in shaping our behaviour. The article examines two programs developed by the Global Action Plan (GAP) group; an international network of member organisations that aim to “empower people to live and work increasingly sustainably”. Nye and Hargreaves focus specifically on the GAP UK arm of the network and their two programs Environment Champions; a workplace-based program, and EcoTeams; a program aimed at households.

The authors found that in the workplace, the initiation of the Environment Champions program instilled a new set of informal rules that changed the understandings and expectations of what it meant to be a ‘good employee’.  The designated ‘Champions’; employees who were chosen to instigate the changes in the workplace, were often projected by other employees as being “the recycling police” or “Mr Environment”. This shows how the general workplace consensus on what was expected of them began to shift.

This program makes people think twice while in the workplace, as employees are no longer judged just on how hard they work or their standard of work, but also their ethical integrity. This idea is similar to that which Carmen Lawrence described in her lecture on the psychology behind environmental behaviour change: if it’s clear that people around you are being responsible, it is a poor reflection on yourself if you do not change your behaviour. There is also something to be said about the global reach of the GAP program, as being part of a global network may enhance this ‘keeping up appearances’ effect. The UWA Environmental Services Department runs a similar internal version of this program called the ‘Green Offices Program’. I wonder if joining a global network like GAP wouldn’t be a more effective option…

The EcoTeams program brings together groups of four to eight individuals from the same street or neighbourhood in facilitated meetings to discuss environmental problems and practical ideas for change. This setting serves to reinforce people’s values on environmental sustainability and acts as a catalyst for behaviour change. Respondents in the EcoTeams program stated that mixing with other like-minded individuals provided a welcome sense of social support and reassurance that they were not alone, geographically or metaphorically in their beliefs.

This resonated particularly strongly with me, as sometimes I feel surrounded by others that do not share my sense of urgency and necessity for action. Most of my friends are not particularly environmentally-minded and often it is easy to become disheartened or lose momentum when attempting to change behaviour when you feel like your fighting a lone battle. I feel that being part of a group like this would invigorate and enthuse people with green values to make the changes in their lives that they want to, but who have perhaps just lost their sustainability mojo.

I am in no way excusing myself here for my sometimes lackadaisical effort to be green, however there is definitely something to be said about the inspiring effect of being around others that are taking action. This article demonstrates the power of a communal approach to sustainability. Perhaps this communal focus is the way forward into the future?

What do you think?

By Ryan Wilson

Nye, M. and Hargreaves, T. 2009,  Exploring the Social Dynamics of Proenvironmental Behaviour Change


4 comments so far

  1. Alan Gill on

    Hi Ryan,

    I agree with you – intentions don’t always turn into actions. I had a conversation the other week with a family from Victoria who lament about all the coal-fired power stations in the La Trobe Valley, spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere so that they can run their houses. Despite of this, they admit to a contradiction of ideas and practices as they get home and turn on three TVs for a family of four.

    One of the greatest challenges facing environmental educators is getting their message to translate into actions. The communal approach can work, as has been seen through the “Quit” campaigns, where it is no longer that socially acceptable to smoke. Will is become socially unacceptable to pollute, or to drive a massive 4WD to the shops?

    For a social, behaviour changing campaign to come to fruition, time and patience is needed. The anti-smoking campaign has been on the march for decades, whereas carbon-emission-reducing campaigns have sprung up within the last 5-10 years. Are we expecting too much, too soon?

    I must admit to the same sins as you – I believe we should reduce our own emissions, while there is more that I can do myself. I still think we can be advocates, though.

  2. broganmicallef on

    Hi Ryan,

    Your post was incredibly hard hitting. The whole time I was reading it I was thinking, that’s exactly what I do!

    It’s sad to think that although one of the most important things to us as humans is our individuality and our right to form our own path, at the end of the day all we really care about is what other people think. This is especially true with regards to the environment.

    I definitely understand people’s reactions to “the recycling police” and “Mr Environment”. Although I think I’m a fairly environmentally-driven person, I do find myself drawing back from those who have serious “sustainability mojo” as you put it. I guess sometimes it’s just too hard and we don’t like other people making us feel guilty. The vast amount of contradictory information that is floating around doesn’t seem to help either.

    I also agree with Alan. The biggest issue is definitely getting people to turn environmentally-friendly thoughts into actions. I suppose the problem is that, like that family from Victoria, we don’t seem to always make the connection between the ‘big bad coal company’ and tuning into our favourite program every night. Until we really understand the cause and effect of our choices and actions, I really don’t think anything will change.

  3. kohx01 on

    Hello Ryan,

    I have to say I totally agree with you and Alan about our intentions and actions. I can’t say I’m an extreme environmentalist. I do what I can, I guess. Like, for instance, I’m an international student. I travel back and forth twice a year. I can’t imagine how my carbon footprint would be like, but it’s not like I can help it. I think regarding environmental issues, though we always have the right intentions, we would still tend to prioritise our needs. No?

    Anyway, I certainly agree that pro-environmental behaviour is somehow affected by social and cultural factors. Ever heard of how the Japanese sort their trash? You’ll be amazed when you find out. Like in Yokohama, they actually divide their trash into 10 categories, and for that, residents were given booklets on how to sort them. While I was there myself, I also realised that they DO NOT have a single trash can anywhere in public. I found out later that the citizens were expected to take home their trash. It’s cool how they managed to instil this behaviour into themselves. I’m sure most countries would actually have an opposite effect if they actually take away all the public trash cans.

  4. clayte01 on

    Despite there already being three comments here, this post was that thought provoking, that I felt the need to comment, nonetheless.

    As you might expect, I can only agree with you, Ryan; and Alan, Brogan and Kohei. It does seem like a kind of “positive peer pressure” is needed to make people think, and push them into action.

    When I lived at home, my mother and I would recycle, use power-saving light bulbs, reuse the grey water on the garden, we had a timer in the shower, and always switched appliances off at the wall. Most of these things were instigated by myself, yet when I moved out of home, my mother continued them where as I started having 20 minute showers, leaving my CD player and computer always plugged in and turned on. Without someone there to say “Did you leave this turned on?” I found I let myself get away with un-environmental behaviour, which slowly slip into being habitual.

    I wonder to what extent these results could apply to behavioural changes other than within the context of the environment. I am thinking of things like exercise and diet, where people know they should eat better and get more exercise; they may even be critical of others perceived as “fat and lazy”, yet often it can take having someone to motivate–someone to exercise with, or go on a diet with–in order for people to actually make a change to their lifestyle, their behaviour.

    What do you guys think? I know that this study was only about the environment, but do you think there are other areas where the principles apply?

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