Behavioral Expert Elke Weber, PhD, Discusses Psychology and Environmental Protection

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Introduction: Environmental threats – from climate change to species extinctions – are more widely recognized since the first Earth Day in 1970. Yet even though environmental protection has gained ground, as the global population continues to increase and economies expand, the toll on the Earth’s natural ecosystems remains a serious challenge. Based on scientific research, psychologists can offer insight and help create strategies to promote behaviors that will improve and protect the environment.

To explain the important role psychologists play in environmental protection, APA spoke with Elke Weber, PhD, a member of the academic committee with Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Drawing upon psychology and economics, Weber is an expert on behavioral models of judgment and decision making under risk and uncertainty. Weber is the Jerome A. Chazen professor of international business in the Management Division of Columbia University’s Business School and a professor of psychology. She founded and co-directs Columbia’s Center for the Decision Sciences and Center for Research on Environmental Decisions. She is president of the Society for Neuroeconomics and a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society.

APA: Why do people make lifestyle decisions that they know will result in environmental harm?

Weber: Very few people make decisions with the intent to harm the environment. Instead, such harm is the result of environmental goals not being very high in people’s personal priorities, along with their limited supply of attention. Environmental harm can be the unintended consequence of the choices that favor those more immediate goals.

Also worth noting is that a person’s lifestyle typically is not the result of deliberate decisions, but something that evolves much more gradually and organically, as the result of a million little choices every day that are habits without thought or reflection.

Attention is probably our most precious resource. People must attend to a lot of essentials, such as food, safety and health for ourselves and our loved ones; our jobs; personal relationships; and the list goes on and on. Worrying about such things as climate change, species depletion or sustainable water use is considered an affordable luxury by those whose more basic needs are met.

Environmental harm typically is not something that immediately or urgently threatens our health, safety or well-being. When it does, as in the case of contaminated drinking water or air pollution, we do pay attention and try to find solutions. But it is easy and tempting to put harm that is distant in space or in time out of our mind for the time being. APA: What can psychology tell us about the most effective ways to influence human behavior to protect or improve the environment? What are some of the techniques that have been tried but don’t work? And what about those that do work?

Weber: The tendency to ignore or at least heavily discount future consequences as well as those that do not directly concern us is because people generally have limited capacity for attention and concern. I call these limitations a finite pool of worry. These scarce resources need to be allocated wisely, and it makes sense to worry first and foremost about problems that are immediate or close to home. But clearly, we cannot ignore others and the future indefinitely, because sooner or later, they catch up with us and we find ourselves with a planet that can no longer sustain its human population.

Psychological research tells us that we need to do two things to get people to act in ways that protect or improve the environment: Make it simple and make it personal. Making environmentally responsible choices the default option is one way of making things simple. These kinds of options can apply to things such as proper building insulation or efficient lighting, heating or cooling infrastructures. Finding co-benefits of environmentally responsible choices that resonate with different decision makers (from the creation of green jobs to energy security) is a way of presenting personal options. A focus on local solutions that help households or communities deal with environmental risks is more likely to get people’s attention and has a greater chance of success than a focus on long-term efforts to reduce such risks.

Attempting to scare or shame people into environmentally responsible behavior may be tempting, but is not very effective when sustained action is required. People do not like to feel afraid or ashamed and will tune out such negative messaging, especially when there are no quick fixes to the problems at hand. APA: What have been the psychological impacts on human beings as we have degraded the environment with air and water pollution, litter, deforestation and the many other ecologically harmful consequences of development and industrialization?

Weber: Such psychological impacts have not been researched very much. However, in those instances where psychologists have examined that question, they have found evidence for increased violence (e.g., caused by temperature increases related to climate change), greater conflicts over resources, anxiety, despair and other threats to mental health.

In addition, environmental degradation – such as the global impacts from climate change that can affect food supplies and population shifts - will disproportionately affect the most economically disadvantaged people and thus has social justice implications.

A 2009 APA report I co-authored cites research that found a multitude of psychology impacts related to severe weather events believed to be linked to climate change. These can include acute and posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol abuse, elevated risks of child abuse and higher rates of suicide.

APA: How are psychologists helping to make adaptations to the environment designed to improve people’s mental and physical health? Weber: Environmental degradation can reduce feeling in control of our environment, which is a very basic and deep-seated human need. Environmental challenges, such as extreme droughts and storm surges or more frequent dust storms or depleted aquifers, have obvious negative effects on public health and safety. They also make us feel that we are not in control, which has strong psychological and physical health effects, reducing the effectiveness of our immune system. Showing people how they can protect against and adapt to environmental risks helps them regain a sense of control. This is not always easy, as many responses to environmental challenges require collective or political action at the national or state level. It helps to start with local issues and local responses, as this increases people’s attention and motivation.

Another very important way in which psychology can contribute is by helping redefine progress and human happiness within a context of sustainability. Society currently thinks progress requires continuous growth, which unsustainably stresses global resources of water, minerals, energy and other resources. An increasing number of developing countries try to emulate Western lifestyles, because they see them as a way toward increased happiness and human welfare. This makes it all the more important for Western countries to understand human happiness and welfare from a psychological perspective, because the economic view is completely unsustainable. Recent research shows that when we get beyond moderate levels of material support and stability, increases in wealth and consumption do not contribute to happiness. Instead, happiness derives from meaningful human interaction at home, work and elsewhere and a personally fulfilling occupation.

APA: How do culture and income affect environmental behavior?

Weber: Greater income and wealth free up the attentional resources to be concerned about environmental impacts, as well as the material resources to act on such concern. At the same time, greater wealth also comes with greater consumption, which typically means a larger negative environmental impact.

Cultures vary in how they keep environmental awareness on their radar screens. This is typically related to how closely members of a certain culture are in contact with nature and depend on its state for their economic survival. Many early environmentalists in the United States were recreational hunters and fishermen who wanted to preserve their hunting and fishing grounds. Many religions also remind us that utilization of planetary resources comes with responsibilities, namely to serve as stewards of the earth, maintaining or improving its resources for future generations.

________________________________________The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States and is the world's largest association of psychologists. APA's membership includes more than 134,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.


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