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Fostering Sustainable Environmental Change: Insights from our evolved psychological biases

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It is widely agreed by scientists and policymakers that humans must reduce their impact on the natural environment and adopt a more sustainable lifestyle. On 31 January 2019, Prof Mark van Vugt, Professor of Evolutionary, Work and Organizational Psychology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Research Associate at University of Oxford, proposed that an improved understanding of human psychology can inform the design of better policies aimed at addressing environmental problems.

Prof van Vugt argues that sustainability policies have to be compatible with human nature. However, most policies and interventions are not based on a sound understanding of human nature. He therefore believes there should be more interactions between environmental scientists and behavioural scientists to address this issue and influence a change in behaviour. One example, environmental psychology, which began as a study of how the environment impacts human behaviour, eventually formed a branch of study focussing on how humans affect the environment.

Evolutionary environmental psychology examines ways of bringing about enduring changes in human behavioural patterns to foster a sustainable lifestyle based on a sound understanding of human nature. Evolutionary environmental psychology assumes that there is a human nature, a set of traits that are considered unique to humans and a product of evolution through natural selection and culture.

Contrary to popular belief, humans have a long history of causing ecological destruction; even before the formation of modern society. Therefore, strategies meant to modify human action will have to incorporate evolved psychological processes.

Prof van Vugt then highlighted five evolved psychological biases that mitigate sustainable practices and strategies that could work to counter them without encroaching on people’s freedom (though ethical issues may arise):

  1. Humans evolved to prioritise self-interest above the collective interest. Therefore, environmental policies fail when they try to persuade people to put societal interest above their own. Alternative strategies include harnessing genetic self-interest, such as using kin labels (e.g. “Mother Earth”) and activating kinship cues to foster trust and reciprocity.
  2. Humans value the present over the future. Policies fail when they persuade people to value long-term rewards rather than immediate rewards. Important factors to consider include the level of the environment’s safety and stability.
  3. Humans are motivated by relative status. Most people tend to value how well they do in comparison to others, rather than the absolute value they get. Policies then fail when they attempt to persuade people to be content with their current status or behave in ways to lower their status. Policies and strategies should therefore aim to enhance the status of sustainable behaviour. For example, hybrid cars tend to pricier and may thus be seen as status symbols, making the ownership of such a vehicle desirable.
  4. Humans copy what others are doing. Environmental policies fail when they persuade people to do something that they are convinced other people are not doing. Social components can thus be incorporated into strategies, such as comparing a person’s electricity usage to the neighbourhood’s average usage in their utility bill.
  5. Humans are adapted to ancestral, not modern environments. People are not easily persuaded by environmental threats that they cannot feel, hear, smell, touch or see. This becomes an issue because climate change is an abstract concept. Strategies can include getting people to sensorially experience environmental problems. Prof van Vugt also spoke briefly about his research that focused on how natural landscapes can influence people to practice more sustainable behaviours.

He then concluded the talk by answering questions from the audience, which included the advantages and disadvantages of structural and personal approaches, the effect of culture and how much impact nudges can have on a large-scale issue like climate change.

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