Host Kristin Hayes talks with Susan Clayton, the Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and Chair of Environmental Studies at the College of Wooster. They discuss questions such as: why do some people care about environmental conservation more than others? How can policymakers and other decisionmakers encourage pro-environmental behavior? And how do we wrestle with our own human limitations in processing and trying to address climate change?
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Kristin Hayes: Hello and welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. Why do some people care about environmental conservation more than others? How can policymakers and other decision makers encourage pro-environmental behavior? And how do we wrestle with our own human limitations in processing and trying to address climate change? These are some of the questions raised in today's conversation with Susan Clayton, the Whitmore-Williams Professor of Psychology and Chair of Environmental sStudies at the College of Wooster.
Dr. Clayton received her PhD in social psychology, and currently studies the relationships between humans and nature,the degree to which the natural environment plays an important parts in individual identity, and the psychology of justice. Today we'll be discussing the ways that people think about and make personal connections to the natural environment. Stay with us.
Susan, thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio.
Susan Clayton: Well, it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks.
Kristin Hayes: So Susan, you're the first environmental psychologist we've had on the podcast. And I'd love to start this episode by asking you to define the field for us just a little bit. So can you tell our listeners about what it is that environmental psychologists generally study and perhaps how the field has been developing?
Susan Clayton: Sure. So actually, environmental psychology has been around for a long time, since about the sixties. But it's not a really prominent branch within psychology, so a lot of people are not familiar with it.
It really focuses generally on how people are affected by their physical environment. So that could be anything from lighting levels, to color, to noise, to crowding, to architectural design. Of course it was affected by the environmental movement in the '60s and it's been affected more recently by growing environmental concerns. So there's been a lot of research on how people affect the environment, or what motivates people to act in more or less pro-environmental ways. And most recently, there's just been an exciting burst of research on how people are affected by the environment, by the natural environment in particular.
Kristin Hayes: Great. So I think you've also referred to your particular branch of environmental psychology as conservation psychology. So as a subfield of the overall discipline. Is there anything else to mention about that subfield? And also, I always want to introduce our listeners to you as an individual as well. So if there's anything you wanted to add about what drew you to these research questions, this particular area, that'd be great.
Susan Clayton: Yes. So conservation psychology is defined as using psychology to understand and promote a healthy relationship between people and the natural environment. So it's obviously quite broad, but it's thought of as a way to draw on psychological research and theory to think about ways to get people to take care of the environment, but also to get ways for people to have interactions with the natural environment that are beneficial for them.
And I'm actually trained as a social psychologist, which overlaps with environmental psychology, but it's not identical. So I'm very interested in people's attitudes and social interactions. And as a social psychologist and somebody who cared about environmental issues, I started to notice some of the ways in which people talked about environmental issues. So ways in which they described interactions, outdoors, the way their family would take shared vacations or the messages they heard from their parents in outdoor settings about the importance of nature. And I just started to realize that the natural environment had this psychological significance that I hadn't been focused on before. So I really wanted to delve into that.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. And you note on your website that your research examines the ways that people think about and the phrase that struck me was, "And make personal connections to the natural environment." So again, it's a baseline question. What do we know about why some people connect more than others?
Susan Clayton: Yeah. And I'm going to back up for a minute and talk about what connection is. It's a very vague sounding term, and yet I've been impressed by how for many people, they immediately get that. They get what it means to be connected to their environment. A lot of people understand that the worry that our connection to the natural environment is decreasing. So that's a concern for people.
What I was saying earlier about the social interactions in the natural environment, I think what we know is that early experiences matter a lot in helping people feel a connection to natural environment. And it's interesting that many parents I think are mindful of this and it's important to parents to take their children to spend time in nature. For some parents it might be going out hiking in a natural park. For other parents, it might just be picnicking in a local park. Or a lot of parents talk about taking their children to zoos so that their children can learn to enjoy and to value animals.
So these early experiences teach children that nature is important. Then they also teach them something about how to appreciate nature. And parents might even say things like, "Let's just be quiet and listen." Or they might talk to their children about just how wonderful animals are, or in many cases they might say, "What do you think that chimp is feeling about, his brother just took his food." So they encourage this perspective taking among their children.
So these really emotionally significant experiences can be promoted by parents as well as others. But I also want to say that it doesn't have to be something that happens when you're a child. Even as an adult, you can have these emotionally significant experiences. I think a lot of environmentalists are familiar with Aldo Leopold and how he had this moment, this epiphany when he saw a wolf dying and he refers to the fierce green fire that he saw in the world's eyes. And clearly that was a very emotionally powerful experience for him that led him to think differently about his relationship with the natural world.
Kristin Hayes: So Susan, are all of those experiences equal in their value? I guess that's what your comments are making me think about is there is a difference between true wilderness and a nature preserve versus an urban park versus a zoo. And here in Washington at least, the zoo is still very much right in the middle of the city. So I just wanted to probe a little bit on that and ask if there is any differential between just how wild an environment you're actually living in. Or is it really just about being outside and in nature?
Susan Clayton: That's a great question, and we don't really know the answer to that yet. I would say that's one of the questions that people are examining. How much nature is enough and what kind of nature does that hat have to be?
There are positive effects even of things as simple as looking at nature out your window or having a poster on your wall, or a green plant on your desk. I think that there's research on how people are affected by interactions with domestic pets, for example. You can learn some of those same kinds of perspective taking and empathy for others that I think are important.
But research also suggests that still, real nature is probably a little bit better at least than virtual nature. And wild nature may be a little bit better than just going out in your backyard. But it's partly in the perception. And if people think they're out in nature they don't necessarily realize when they're in a space that looks natural, how much human management is going on behind the scenes.
Kristin Hayes: Right. That's very interesting. Okay. So our lovely zoo here in Washington probably serves us very well then because it does feel like a little oasis in the middle of the city.
Susan Clayton: I think it does. And you may know that I've done a lot of work in zoos. And some of my research has found that people do describe these moments of connection in the zoo. And that people who go to zoos tend to be more environmentally conscious than people who don't. Which is not to say, many people don't go to zoos and they can also be environmentally conscious. But those experiences people have in the zoo can help to encourage that connection and that appreciation for nature.
Particularly because of the social interactions that take place in zoos. So as I mentioned earlier, a lot of parents might go there with their children or people go there with school groups. So they can talk to each other about these animals and that might make the experience more significant and more memorable.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well I'd love to come back if we have a minute. I'd love to come back at some point to talk about trends in the types of time that we are collectively spending outside because I'm sure there's an interesting body of research about that. But for the moment, so we've talked about connection and connection to nature. And connection is one thing of course, but action is another. So I guess I want to ask next what drives individuals to act in what I would refer to and at what you referred to as pro-environmental ways. Are there a set of common characteristics that help translate that connection into action?
Susan Clayton: There are certainly things that encourage action. And you're absolutely right that you can have the most pro environmental attitudes and love nature, but that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to in fact do anything to protect it. Some things about it, you need to know how your behavior affects the environment. So many children love nature, have no idea about the impact of one kind of behavior versus another. So they're not going to be making a pro-environmental choice in that case.
Kristin Hayes: Sure. They don't even know what that means. Yeah.
Susan Clayton: Exactly. And even if I do, I do want to behave pro-environmentally, you might not know how to do it. I want to drive my car in a way that's more efficient, but maybe I don't know how to do that. So knowledge definitely matters.
One of the other things that matters a lot is just how is your immediate context set up? Is it easy to do the pro environmental thing, or is it difficult? And I don't want to imply that people are lazy, but absolutely if we have limited amount of energy, and time, and other resource. So if something is easy, more people are going to do it than if it's difficult. So a context can be set up to make it easy for people to save energy, or it can make it difficult.
And then the third thing I really want to highlight is just the context. What are other people doing? Because a lot of times, we're not really thinking that hard about our behaviors and we're just following the cues of other people. So if everybody else throws their recycling material and the recycling can, we'll probably do it too without thinking. If everybody else turns out the light when they leave a room, we'll do it too. But if nobody else is doing it, we probably won't do it either.
Kristin Hayes: That's very interesting. And I think intuitively, that probably resonates with all of us. And yet, how do you think then about how individuals can begin to change that dynamic? Maybe I should get more specific here. But let's say that someone operates in a world in which people don't turn off the lights as an easy example. And they want to be the instigator, the person who starts to change that social dynamic. How do you think about, or what does the research tell us about interactions between individual change-makers and those social contexts, if that makes any sense?
Susan Clayton: So what allows an individual to maybe be the ground-breaker and engage in the behavior that other people aren't engaging in? And that's a fascinating question and obviously a very psychological one. And a lot of research has looked at what allows some people to define norms and do the right thing, do the altruistic thing or the brave thing.
There's no single answer to that question. I think people's upbringing makes a difference, and their fundamental personality. You probably have to be a little bit of a risk taker to be a leader like that. You can also have an upbringing that highlights the importance of ethical behavior and provides you with role models for people who are doing the brave or the innovative thing.
So if your parents maybe, and I use parents, it could be other significant adults in your life. If your parents were active in fighting for social justice in other ways even if it wasn't environmental, you've learned that idea of acting on the basis of your beliefs.
Kristin Hayes: So it sounds like it's both nature and nurture then, that they're both temperaments but also patterns of learning over time that might incline people towards pro-environmental behavior either within a group context or just as individuals.
Susan Clayton: Absolutely. Most behaviors come down to a mix of nature and nurture. I'll say that for any single behavior, the immediate context is likely to be the most important thing. But if you're looking at patterns of behavior, does someone tend to do a lot of pro-environmental things, particularly things that maybe distinguish them from the norm. There's going to be more of emphasis on the role of that individual's personality.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. All right. So let's talk about behavior change for just a minute then. And I think of a number of ways in which companies, governments have attempted to nudge pro-environmental behaviors. And more maybe more specifically, let's say a city government wanted to get citizens to recycle more, or a building manager wanted to encourage tenants to be more energy efficient. What are some of the psychological tools they might rely on, and what have you learned about behavioral nudges related to the environment?
Susan Clayton: So the idea of a behavioral nudge is sometimes referred to as choice architecture. In other words, you think about designing the way you present choices to people. So one of the most effective ways of doing that is just to make the pro-environmental option the default. So you're not forcing people to behave in that way, but you're making it again, easier. You're making it more likely. So that's really important.
Second is the idea of the social context. This has been used really effectively in a number of public domains. So tell people what other people are doing, and then give them feedback about how they're doing themselves and how that relates to social context. Wes Schultz who is another social and conservation psychologist has done a lot of research with his colleagues on ways of providing people with that normative information about what their neighbors are doing. For example, he pioneered this approach where you give people, energy customers, feedback about how much energy they're using. And I want to highlight that, the feedback. Because a lot of times we don't even know how much energy we're using, so how can we adjust our behavior if we don't even really understand what our behavior is? But then he said that in the feedback, they would also provide people with information about how much energy their neighbors were using. And if people were using more energy than their neighbors, that had a really big impact on encouraging them to reduce their energy use.
Kristin Hayes: I must admit, I experienced this myself with my energy utility. It has very much changed by behavior because both as you say, the importance of awareness and just knowing how much I'm spending, but also there's a little bit of a competitive edge there and a desire to not be a "bad actor" when it comes to energy efficiency. So I have definitely changed my behavior after starting to get access to some of that information.
Susan Clayton: Exactly. And I want to point out so that it doesn't sound like people are just mindlessly following the crowd. That it's information about what are other people are doing also gives us information about what's possible. So I might think that I'm being pretty efficient, but then I learn that my neighbor is using you a third less energy than I am. I think, they must have found ways to be even more efficient. Maybe there are things I could be doing that I'm not doing, so I might try harder.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Very interesting.
Susan Clayton: And I want to mention one other aspect of behavior change, which I think is a really interesting one. Personally interesting to me and relevant to my research is to remind people that their behavior can link to a particular identity.
So people have a number of social identities, and they usually are somewhat invested in them, and they want to maintain them, and they want to feel good about those identities. So you can encourage sustainable behavior that's linked to that identity, like a place-based identity. There was an anti-litter campaign some while back, I don't remember when, in Texas called “Don't Mess with Texas.” And it was the idea that you don't want to let other people trash your beautiful home state. And it was apparently fairly effective.
Some other researchers have found that messages that highlight national pride and the beauty of national natural scenery can motivate people to be, for example, more in favor of renewable energy sources.
Kristin Hayes: Interesting. So it sounds like there may actually be connections between different types of pro-environmental behavior too. It's not just about clean places and therefore don't litter. It's about clean places and therefore a suite of activities that might lead to a cleaner environment. Am I interpreting that correctly?
Susan Clayton: Well, potentially. People don't always make those connections. And that's one of the things that both researchers and practitioners are really interested in is when do people make the connection between one kind of behavior and as you say, a whole suite of other behaviors? So there can be that what's called positive spillover. You think, "I'm recycling. I should also reduce my energy use." People can make that connection, but they don't always. Sometimes there's even negative spillover where people think, "I'm doing my part. I've installed a more energy efficient refrigerator so now I can," I don't know how you would respond to that. "Now I can turn on my thermostat a little bit," or something like that.
Kristin Hayes: Right. And here at RFF, the economists here often look at the rebound effect where people will purchase more efficient appliances and then just run them more. And not usually enough to offset the savings that they've gotten. But certainly that rebound effect is real as well. So I do think that comes into play as people consider their behavior.
Susan Clayton: Yeah. And people also talk about the idea of moral licensing, which is that by doing a good thing, you have bought yourself credit to do a bad thing. It may translate into the environmental domain or it might be in a totally different domain. So I think one study found that when people brought their reusable bags to the grocery store, they were more likely to buy themselves ice cream.
Kristin Hayes: Well, I have no such excuse, I just buy myself ice cream anyway. But now I'll have to watch whether that is augmented when I bring my own bags. Actually, on that topic of pricing and behavior change since we're talking about plastic bags, I feel like there are a number of jurisdictions in the country where even small prices on things like plastic bags, and straws, and things like that, have changed behavior. And of course, economists in general gravitate towards pricing instruments as ways of changing behavior. Do you have any thoughts about that as an instrument?
Susan Clayton: Well, I'm completely in favor of plastic bag charges and straw charges. They've certainly been shown to change behavior. One reason I like them is that people don't like to be told what to do, not surprisingly. So when you try to force them to behave in particular ways, there may be a backlash effect, what we call reactance. But the idea of charging people for something they get, I think is one that people can intuitively comprehend and not necessarily feel resentful about.
So you say I will sell you your food for this much. If you want a plastic bag, there's going to be an additional charge. If you bring your reusable mug to the coffee shop, this is the price. If you also want to buy a cup, there's an additional price.
So I think that if it's explained correctly, these sorts of models ... and it doesn't have to be very much money at all. It's just a reminder that you are getting something extra so there's going to be an extra fee. It's enough to make people think about it, and then decide that maybe they don't need that thing after all.
Kristin Hayes: Right. Right. Well, I want to turn to perhaps the biggest looming environmental question of the moment, which is about the psychology of climate change. We did have one previous podcast that touched on why climate change is a particularly challenging problem for humans to wrap our heads around and take action on. But I definitely think that's worth revisiting. And I'd love to ask someone with your psychology background. So how do you think about the human capability from a psychological perspective to act on climate change? Are we poorly equipped? Do we have some tools at our disposal?
Susan Clayton: Yes is the answer to both of those questions. I think it is difficult for us to understand. It's a confusing topic, and it really requires either just faith in scientists, or an understanding of the way systems work. It's hard for people to think, how does my behavior as an individual possibly affect this entire global system? Especially when we're talking about warming temperatures, the link is very complex. And also the outcomes are a little uncertain. We've got increasingly complex climate models, and we have pretty good guesses. But nobody can say, "All right, in the year 2069, this is exactly what it's going to look like."
Not only that of course, it's also very emotionally difficult because it's scary. And it threatens things that are important to us, like our way of life. It might even make people feel guilty that they are contributing to climate change. So people are very good at not thinking about things that are unpleasant to think about.
I want to mention a last thing, which is I think very important in this country particularly today, is a social framework in which there's certainly increasing awareness and acceptance of the reality of climate change. But there's still very strong support for denial. So if you want to deny it, you can find people to agree with you. So if everybody else was saying, "No, we know climate change is happening," it would be hard to be the one person who was saying no, I don't believe it. But there are clearly significant figures out there who are encouraging you in your denial. So that is also another reason why it's hard for people to confront reality.
We are a problem solving species, and we've dealt with pretty significant problems in the past, and I'm sure we'll have more problems in the future. So people are learning capabilities of humans are just astonishing. Behavior can change on a dime. And for any of us who are over 20 years old, right? We remember what the world was like before iPhones. That technology has just transformed the way we do almost everything. And I shouldn't just say iPhone, but smartphones. So I think that is a human strength that's going to be very important here is our ability to learn, to be flexible, and to change.
And we do respond to climate change. We are affected by stories we hear about it. So it may be hard to understand the science, but if we read these very evocative stories of a particular individual or a particular community, that helps people to come to grips with it, I think.
Kristin Hayes: And I want to just hone in on one thing that you mentioned too, this question around guilt. I just want to ask, what does the research tell us about guilt as a motivator for action? I have no idea the answer to this question, but I'd be really curious to know whether there are some trends that you've seen, particularly for these things where I do think in many ways, people feel like they're just living their lives. Traveling to work, flying to see their families. And that has translated into a sense of guilt around climate change. But I think that's a hard thing to stomach when you feel like you're again, just living your life. So any thoughts on guilt as a motivator for behavioral change?
Susan Clayton: Yeah, that's a really good question. I would say the research does suggest the guilt can be an effective motivator. But it's far from guaranteed that it will have that impact. I think because guilt is such an unpleasant emotion. And I suspect that there are individual differences here. Some people are more responsive than others to a guilt appeal, where the other people just want to immediately, their response is going to be, "No, it's not my fault." Whatever the question is. "It wasn't my fault. So guilt can I think in some cases make some people more resistant to the message."
I think the larger comment here on your question is that different people do respond to different messages, so there's no one size fits all in terms of getting people to take action on climate change.
Kristin Hayes: Right. So much like we talk about with the policy levers where there's no silver bullet, there's probably no silver bullet for the behavior change either.
Susan Clayton: Definitely not.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it's important I guess that we keep experimenting then and that researchers like you keep learning about what works at different settings. Part of me wants to ask one question about if you had a piece of advice for policymakers what would you, as a psychologist, advise them to take into consideration as they're thinking about policy instruments? What do you think about that?
Susan Clayton: Well to be honest, my advice would be consult some psychologists. Again, it depends on what kind of behavior they're trying to change and what the context is. But it would be good to get some input from people who study human behavior.
Let me back up a little bit and give a broader response. Human behavior is complicated. You can't necessarily assume people will react in the way you think they're going to. So it's good to talk to somebody who might have some research that will help predict how people might respond in a particular setting.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, I think again, RFF is an economics institution. Is coming to realize just how important that human behavior is when understanding the efficacy of any of these policy instruments. Certainly you can model things, but deeply understanding how people respond to incentives, how they respond to things like guilt and peer reactions, is increasingly important for how economists think about these questions too. So I agree with you. Psychologists are a necessary component of this building the big picture here.
Well Susan, I've really enjoyed this conversation and I wanted to close our podcast with our usual ending feature, top of the stack. So Susan, what would you recommend to our listeners? Something that's on the top of your reading list, or your listening list, or your watching list that you think are our listening public would find interesting?
Susan Clayton: Well that's a tough question, because there's such a broad universe of things. But the thing that occurred to me to respond to this question is a book I read actually earlier this spring by Elizabeth Rush called Rising.
Kristin Hayes: Okay.
Susan Clayton: And the author is a writer, that's her job. She teaches writing. In this book, she traveled around the United States essentially looking at specific individuals' stories as a way to examine how we'll be affected by a changing climate, and also how we can respond. So she really personalized the experience of climate change. And she calls it Rising obviously in reference to rising sea levels, but talks about other aspects as well.
One reason I like this book was that it was so at such a personal level, but also it demystified climate change a little bit. It's like okay, let's face it. It's happening. Here's what it looks like. Here's what people are doing in response. So I would recommend it.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Well Great. That's great. And I will note that my top of the stack is very relevant for our conversation today. I've actually really enjoyed learning about the psychology of climate change, and have been doing a little extra reading. So on the top of my stack is a guide that was produced by the Columbia Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. It was put out about a decade ago, but I came across it recently and I found it very intriguing once again. It's called “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” And the sub header is “A Guide for Scientists, Journalists, Educators, Political Aides, and the Interested Public.” So pretty much everyone should find this guide useful, and I certainly have. And so with that, I'll close the podcast by thanking you again, Susan, for joining us on Resources Radio. It was a pleasure to talk with you.
Susan Clayton: Thanks. It's a pleasure to be here.
Kristin Hayes: Thank you so much for joining us on Resources Radio. We'd love to hear what you think. So please rate us on iTunes or leave us a review. It helps us spread the word. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF Is an independent, nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org.
Kristin Hayes: The views expressed on this podcast are solely of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Kate Petersen, with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.