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Behaviour change theory: psychological factors

Following on from last week’s introductory post on behavioural theory, here’s a summary of some of the individual-level factors that influence whether people do green things or not.

Rational beings?
In standard neoclassical economics, people are seen as self-interested, rational beings who weigh up the costs and benefits of various actions, and proceed accordingly. While people do sometimes act rationally in their own self-interest, this model has been criticised for failing to take into account many of the psychological, social and contextual factors that also affect our behaviour.

Behavioural economists, for example, argue that we do many things automatically and are often guided by psychological and social biases. This approach forms the basis of the 2010 Institute for Government MINDSPACE report, and for the popular book Nudge, both of which have had some influence on the government’s response to the challenge of pro-environmental behaviour change.

Below are some examples of the type of individual-level psychological factors that might influence whether or not people do green things such as insulate their lofts, buy renewable energy or recycle.

Given the emphasis that is put on person choice in policymaking circles, it is striking that quite often people choose not to make a choice at all. This is demonstrated by the fact that 20 per cent of households in the UK still get their electricity from their old regional supplier, and their gas from British Gas, despite the fact the markets have been deregulated for over a decade and big efforts have been made to persuade householders to switch.[i]

Even with simple choices people often to stick to defaults. This was shown, for instance, in an experiment done by a conference centre with vegetarian food.  When the centre had meat as the default lunch option 83% of people ate meat, but when it made vegetarian food the default 80% ate the vegetarian dish and only 20% of customers asked for meat. It makes sense for the default action to be a sustainable one.

Emotions such as fear and joy can directly influence our judgment; people in a good mood tend to make unrealistically optimistic judgments, while people in a bad mood tend to be pessimistic.[iii]

Fear can be an effective motivator in some contexts, but typically only when people feel personally vulnerable to a threat and feel that they are in a position to control it.[iv] Fear is often counter-productive when it comes to climate change, because most people in the UK do not feel personally threatened, and often do not feel their individual actions will make difference. In some cases fear can lead to people continuing with the same actions but feeling more anxious or denying the problem.[v]

Positive framing, emphasising the benefits of a low-carbon future and changes to lifestyles, have been shown to elicit a positive response.[vi] If fear is used in messages about sustainability, then academics suggest that these messages need to “contain clear positive options for involvement and ideally a way to share the feeling.”[vii]

Loss aversion
Humans tend to be loss averse; that is they put more effort into preventing a loss than securing a gain. This means that “a fine can be a much stronger disincentive than a reward is an incentive, even if they are of comparable amount.”[viii] This suggests that policies such as the coalition government’s commitment to “encourage councils to pay people to recycle”[ix] may be less effective than other options such as ‘variable charging’ which includes a mixture of rewards and charges.

Probabilistic judgments
Another trait that affects our response to incentives is that we tend to overestimate the likelihood of something very frightening (e.g. a plane crash) or exciting (e.g. winning the lottery) happening. As a result, prizes and competitions can be a cheap way of attracting some people to green schemes, although this may be counter-productive if the prize itself is unsustainable.

Time preferences (hyperbolic discounting)
We tend to value today over tomorrow.[x] This means that the threat of immediate losses, or the attraction of immediate gains, can be a stronger incentive than rewards or penalties in the future. Thus, not only the amount, but the timingof financial incentives is important. The government’s Green Deal to retrofit the UK housing stock is positive as it removes the up-front costs of measures such as insulation, (so we don’t pay now). But just removing a financial barrier is unlikely to be enough to encourage many people to take part.

Salience and framing
People pay particular attention to what appears novel, accessible (items on sale next to checkouts, familiar ideas) and simple (snappy slogans).[xi] This can be summarised by saying that we pay attention to what is salient. One study found, unsurprisingly, that simple, personally relevant and easily comparable information is more effective in promoting home energy efficiency than technical, detailed, factual, and comprehensive information.[xii]

Habits: cues and moments of change
Habits are “behaviour sequences that are or have become automatic and thus require little or no cognitive effort”.[xiii] Much of our behaviour at home is habitual; we wash, brush our teeth, use appliances and throw away rubbish as part of daily routines that often involve little thought. As Professor Imran Rasul states “habitual behaviours are activated by situational cueslike sights, words or sensations. Therefore, detecting and altering these cues, a technique called priming, might be helpful in changing the habit.”[xiv] For instance, having visible recycling facilities, a visual cue, can help remind us to recycle.

Changes in context or life situation may be good opportunities to change unsustainable habits. Verplanken and colleagues’ ‘Habit Discontinuity’ hypothesis states that, because habits are ‘cued’ by the context in which behaviour takes place (e.g., using the car when leaving the house to go to work), habits can be disrupted at particular moments in time when the context changes (e.g., moving house, changing job.)[xvi]

This is not by any means an exhaustive list, but illustrates the kinds of individual psychological factors that affect whether people live sustainably. Next week I’ll look at examples of social and structural factors.

[i] Which?, 2011,History of theUK energy market, the-energy-market417 from HoL

[iii] Professor Imran Rasul and Myra Mohnen, University College London, October 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from N-R,

[iv] Dr Adam Corner, Dr Lorraine Whitmarsh, Professor Nick Pidgeon and Professor Greg Maio, Cardiff University, September 2010, Memorandum to House of Lords subcommittee on behaviour change, Science and Technology Committee Behaviour Change Written Evidence from A-C,

[v] See footnote iv

[vi] Alexa Spence and Nick Pidgeon, 2010, Framing and communicating climate change: the effects of distance and outcome frame manipulations in Global Environmental Change, 20, 656-667

[vii]   See footnote iv

[viii] See footnote iii

[ix] Cabinet Office, 2010, The Coalition: Our programme for government,


[xi] See footnote iii

[xii] Charlie Wilson and Hadi Dowlatabadi, 2007 Models of decision making and residential energy use. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 32: 169-203

[xiii] See footnote iii

[xiv] See footnote iii

[xvi]   See footnote iv

Written by

Sylvia was the editor of Green Alliance's blog from 2010 to April 2013. She is an assistant producer on Al Jazeera English's flagship environmental show, earthrise, and an award-winning print journalist who writes for publications including the Guardian, the Evening Standard and New Scientist. She was previously a policy adviser at Green Alliance.

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