Psychologists determine what it means to think ‘green’

Usa_today_logo_jpeg The American Psychological Association is holding a four day meeting in Boston centered around how people experience the environment and the psychological implications of spending time in nature and its affect on a person’s perception of the environment.

Psychologists_jpeg Posted Aug 15, 2008
By Sharon Jayson, USA Today

Those who make human behavior their business aim to make living "green" your business.

Armed with new research into what makes some
people environmentally conscious and others less so, the 148,000-member
American Psychological Association is stepping up efforts to foster a
broader sense of eco-sensitivity that the group believes will translate
into more public action to protect the planet.

"We know how to change behavior and attitudes.
That is what we do," says Yale University psychologist Alan Kazdin,
association president. "We know what messages will work and what will
not."

During a four-day meeting that begins today in
Boston, an expected 16,000 attendees will hear presentations, including
studies that explore how people experience the environment, their
attitudes about climate change and what social barriers prevent
conservation of resources.

Among the yet-unpublished findings:

• Walking outside rather than inside — even for
just 15 minutes — makes you feel happier, more energetic and more
protective of the environment, found two studies involving 220 students
conducted by psychologists at Carleton University in Ottawa. Researcher
Elizabeth Nisbet suggests the findings have broader implications for
well-being and mental health.

 

"People know outside is going to feel much
better for them but underpredict how happy they’re going to feel after
being outside in nature even 15 minutes," she says. "The people inside
overestimate their happiness about being inside. It’s this error in
judgment people have about how happy they are in a different
environment that may explain why people don’t spend more time in
nature."

Behind the research

• Negative feedback can backfire. In two
studies, psychologist Amara Brook of California’s Santa Clara
University and colleague Jennifer Crocker of the University of Michigan
asked 212 undergraduates about their ecological footprint. For those
not heavily invested in the environment, negative feedback about their
ecological footprint actually undermines their environmental behavior,
they found.

"Rather than changing their ways to protect the
environment, the results of this study suggest that these (people) may
give up on their efforts to protect the environment," they report.

But negative feedback for those more invested in the environment promotes more sustainable behavior, they found.

• News stories that provided a balanced view of
climate change reduced people’s beliefs that humans are at fault and
also reduced the number of people who thought climate change would be
bad, according to research by Stanford social psychologist Jon
Krosnick.

His presentation will detail a decade of
American attitudes about climate change. His new experiment, conducted
in May, illustrates what he says is a public misperception about global
warming. He says there is scientific consensus among experts that
climate change is occurring, but the nationwide online poll of 2,600
adults asked whether they believe scientists agree or disagree about
it.

By editing CNN and PBS news stories so that some
saw a skeptic included in the report, others saw a story in which the
skeptic was edited out and another group saw no video, Krosnick found
that adding 45 seconds of a skeptic to one news story caused 11% of
Americans to shift their opinions about the scientific consensus.
Rather than 58% believing a perceived scientific agreement, inclusion
of the skeptic caused the perceived amount of agreement to drop to 47%.

American Psychological Association leaders say
they want to launch a national initiative specifically targeting
behavior changes, including developing media messages that will help
people reduce their carbon footprint and pay more attention to ways
they can conserve. They want to work with other organizations and
enlist congressional support to help fund the effort.

A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last year found that
people know they could do more. Of 1,007 adults surveyed, only about
half thought they personally did a good job of protecting the
environment; less than 10% said their efforts were "excellent."

Messages that tell people to "be green" or
encourage them to follow a more ecologically aware way of living aren’t
necessarily having the desired effect, psychologists say. Although
people know the buzzwords — "sustainability," "carbon footprint" and
"global warming" — they aren’t really sure what they mean or what they
personally can do.

Confusion abounds

"I think most people recognize we face a severe
environmental crisis, but it’s hard to deal with that head-on because
most people feel helpless to do anything about it," says Douglas
Vakoch, a clinical psychologist at the California Institute of Integral
Studies in San Francisco.

"If we look at the nature of the problem, it is
so big it’s hard to know what any individual can do in their own life
to make a difference," he says. "The tendency when people are
confronted with an overwhelming problem is to run away from it, so
psychologists are very experienced in dealing with that."

Paul Stern, a researcher at the National Academy
of Sciences in Washington, D.C., says people generally want to do the
right thing but don’t know what it is. And he says they have "mistaken
impressions" about what will actually affect energy use.

At the meeting, Stern will present a preview of
a report he co-authored that outlines the behaviors that matter most in
terms of energy consumption. The report, which will appear in the
September/October issue of Environment magazine, is the latest update of a list initially analyzed in 1981.

"One of the first things you think of is turning
off lights when you leave a room or changing the thermostat settings in
the house. They don’t think first of caulking windows or upgrading your
furnace," Stern says. "More insulation in the attic and tight windows
make more difference than changing the thermostat setting. Having a
more fuel-efficient car makes more difference than any amount you’re
likely to decrease driving."

Because Stern’s research was on energy use, he
didn’t look at recycling. Social psychologist Jessica Nolan studied the
issue at the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville.

Nolan, who this fall will be an assistant
professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania,
examined global warming, recycling and improper disposal of used motor
oil with three studies involving a total of 289 students.

She found that students are not particularly inclined to disapprove of the non-sustainable behavior of others.

"People showed strong approval for other
students who recycled. You would hope to see people disapprove of
people who don’t recycle, but they didn’t disapprove," she says.

But, she says, the response was stronger if the
activity was perceived as more harmful: More students said they would
scold someone if they saw that person improperly disposing of motor oil.

Vakoch says more research is needed to encourage greater sensitivity to the natural world.

"We are recognizing that environmental problems
have a tremendous impact on many aspects of our lives, but we need a
lot more work," he says. "We can’t afford to let this increased
environmental concern become just another fashionable trend."

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