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


  • Yes Sylvia, you are absolutely right, we are all, by definition, resisting changes but at the same time very curious.
    Businesses are very good to integrating this duality when come to create and introduce new products, early adopters are here to reassure the general users that all will be fine; their reward is to be seen fashionable. Think iPod
    Green initiatives are gently embracing this marketing model, but still have a long way to go. Think Toyota Prius
    But more fundamentally they should not introduce green products or services because they are green and use this only argument to get adoption, consumers need a much stronger argument to feel good/fashionable and embrace change. Think again Toyota Prius but with Congestion Charge.

  • I love the theory! And what a great synopsis..Thank you!

    My private concern however about most really interesting articles on ‘Change’ is that there are many who admire the problem and know precisely how to frame it, but few with the same intellectual and academic gifts who really know how to help clients translate that into useful practice.

    A useful analogy might be very bright Civil Servants.who have all the ‘right’ policies to advise their political masters, that no majority ever votes for. They weren’t necessarily ‘wrong’; they just didn’t understand all the variables (‘the practicalities’) at the coal face, which so often defy all rational explanation however well-researched..

    My own interest is not in promoting ‘green’ it happens, but in helping much smaller populations to embrace change, such as within a defined organisation – which is hard enough! I firmly believe that an academic understanding of the ‘known’ knowledge of organisational change is vital. But in practice, if you haven’t experienced organisational change in depth and in practice yourself, as a knowledgable theoretician you may certainly be wrong-footed,. Far too many variables! And yet, of course, if the pragmatist only knows what worked last time without any under-pinning theory, he or she is just as likely to fail next time.

    I have no significant message here on implementing ‘change’ for any wide, value-based, interest-driven populations here, whether for the Greens, a political party, a health trend or a religious faith group, There are far too many variables at stake to be addressed individually, and plenty of articles on how large populations may be ‘influenced’ more generally. Some ethically, others less so.

    But in implementing change within a much narrower population, for example in a formal and more narrowly-defined organisation such as a company or similar organisation, knowledge of Organisational Development research in implementing change is clearly invaluable, as identified above. However, if you have never been part of such a programme, preferably as both a specifier and a consumer, I consistently find that all the academic knowledge available may have little value in practice for you as an effective a change-agent,

    First, in smaller, defined organisations, there is far less room for failure. Secondly, individuals are statistically far less predictable than larger groups overall. And thirdly, although ‘leadership’ may be an essential requirement for any ‘real’ group of people undergoing change; the true protagonists for change may actually be far harder to identify in practice, as may also be the antagonists most especially, and both may far often be far harder to spot in practice than any global theory may suggest. So also may be the.real motivations, obstacles and incentives for change. And every situation is different.

    Please be warned? – whether as an academic, client, facilitator, stakeholder or observer? These are very deep waters to swim in, and never for the enthusiastic amateur,

  • I like the reminder that we are more likely to find fines a more powerful reason to change than rewards of the same amount. Is this analogous to the “baggage” problem in organisational change? The scenario is this: When asked to change a working practice for a clear commercial reason it will be played out over a history of relationships between the workers. It is this landscape against which the emotional turmoil begins. Without working through this mine field with counselling skills how can we possible imagine that the choice of the worker to change would be rational! The reward “more job security” is clearly less powerful than the fine “do this or you are fired”. So to convey the commercial reality of “we change or I will close the business” into a positive emotional landscape in which workers engage and enthuse is truly the work of great leadership!
    Following Jeremy’s point above – finding the change agents is the key to making this work – and often it will not be those at the top of the hierarchy. Get these change agents to be the active listeners as well as the drivers – work to strengths and then change will happen quicker.

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  • Great summation of the factors change agents need to consider.
    Does show (alarmingly) how little reason is involved and that we have to work with people’s emotions, senses, and the sub-conscious a bit more, rather than overloading them with information, as us greenies tend to do bit too much of.

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  • Alex Muzyczka, Sheffield UK

    ‘Those at the top’ are unlikely to change, its the students leaving school/university (and supposedly entering employment) who I worry about – all that passion to succeed in life, in the majority, fuelled by an appetite for wealth. It is these people who will be at the top in 20 years time, when the effects of climate change may have a noticeable grip on the UK.

    I would like to see education embedding more sustainable principles as the ‘default’ for this generation. Then year after year, there will be less to change.

  • Putting aside the penalty/reward debate, this is exactly why, even as a solar PV installer I was a passionate defender of tariff cuts for over 50kW projects. We need in the UK to change the perception of how we harness energy and use (waste) it. Solar PV on a domestic scale is one way to encourage a change in mentality, which may be a more important factor than the sheer number of kW’s produced.

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