Barriers to Sustainable Behavior

Barriers to Sustainable Behavior

Author: Diana Alexe

Climate change is a serious threat and it has much to do with our consumption patterns. What we buy, how much we buy and consume, and how we dispose of waste, have a direct impact on the environment. The economic system that we are currently employing in our society is based on exponential growth, therefore we are constantly being driven to buy more, consume more and keep repeating this.

We can opt for more environmentally friendly options in our daily consumption choices, however this is not always easy. Even those who feel strongly about protecting the environment sometimes have a hard time choosing the eco-friendly option.

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Due to the complexity of climate change, we have a hard time connecting the dots, even though we have started to feel the effects of climate change through extreme weather events and heat waves. We perceive climate change as something abstract that we know about, but which does not have a direct effect on our daily life. Furthermore, the change is slow and on a global scale, which makes it difficult to perceive it for the crisis that it is. The complexity and the scale of climate change therefore makes it hard for us to grasp the problem and tackle it accordingly.

Why is there a discrepancy between our beliefs and the way we act? Why are we aware of the detrimental consequences of climate change and yet are very slow in our response to it?

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Consumer psychology researchers have investigated why people engage in sustainable behaviors and why others engage in unsustainable behaviors despite having environmental concerns. Understanding the psychology behind environmental or sustainable behaviors is central to a sustainable future and widespread behavior change.

Affective vs. Rational System

People have two systems that guide their decision making processes. The first system is the affective one based on emotions, instincts and needs. The second system is the one where we base our decisions on rational arguments. With many decisions we tend to rely on the first system, because it requires less effort. But when it comes to choosing more environmentally friendly options on a daily basis, we require the assistance of system number two.

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Let’s look at an example to better understand how the two systems work. For instance, you have to go to work and it is pouring rain outside. Your initial reaction would lean towards avoiding the rain entirely and opting for the easiest mode of transport, which in this case would be driving. In order to choose the environmentally friendly option, such as walking or using a mode of public transport, you would need to convince yourself of the benefits, such as avoiding traffic, achieving your daily step count and appreciating the environmental benefits of public transportation.

This illustrates how system two has to override system one in order to make the more environmentally friendly decision, which requires more effort. Additionally, the benefits of choosing to be environmentally conscious in our consumption are not immediately visible, which makes it necessary to employ our rationale.

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance happens when we exhibit conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. The consequences are a state of unease and tension, which ultimately lead to either a change in our actions or our beliefs.

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Cognitive dissonance occurs i.e. when we are concerned for the environment, yet make unsustainable choices in our consumption. In order to not feel a mental discomfort, we either justify our actions by altering our beliefs or we change our actions. Because climate change is such a complex and large scale problem, it is easy to fall into cognitive dissonance. Recognizing when this happens and how we can avoid it, may help us improve our behavior towards sustainability.

This phenomenon can help us to change our behavior for the better, however it can also lead us to alter our beliefs and attitudes just to avoid the stress caused by the dissonance.

3 Common Ways to Reduce Cognitive Dissonance

1. Change our behavior

It may seem like the most logical option to change our actions when they are not in compliance with our beliefs, but it is not as easy as it sounds.

Until the change in our behavior becomes the default, it requires conscious action on behalf of system two. Shifting our behavior necessitates forming new habits, which takes dedication and effort.

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Some tips for changing our habits include:

  • Using physical ‘prompts’ or reminders in the area that the habit normally happens. For example, to remember to switch off your laptop once you are finished using it, leave a sticky note on your laptop screen.
  • Modify your environment: A lot of the time people wish that their ‘willpower’ was stronger. However, a lot of success is actually down to the environment we create. For example, if you want to be healthier, avoid unhealthy snacks in your house and prepare healthy food to be in your fridge. This will help you to eat healthier so much more than leaving it to willpower to avoid that chocolate bar in the cupboard.
  • Make a public commitment: Say your intention to your friends, have an accountability buddy, exercise in a class – whatever it takes. Making a public commitment encourages you to stand by it.
  • Don’t give up too fast: Always remember that habits take time to change. It’s normal to go through ups and downs on your journey.

2. Change our beliefs or add new beliefs

Altering your beliefs in order to reduce the discomfort caused by dissonance might not always be the best solution. For example, choosing to believe that climate change evidence is exaggerated and not as urgent as presented because you don’t feel its effects daily, may help you relieve some pressure from yourself for not always acting environmentally friendly. However, it is necessary to recognize when beliefs are being altered just to feel better about one's self.

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Nonetheless, in some cases it may be useful to add to your beliefs. If for instance you have to drive a great deal or fly for work, but this conflicts with your environmental concern, you may add to your beliefs that carbon offsetting can compensate for your actions. It is not as effective as avoiding driving or flying, but it can help reduce the dissonance.

3. Reduce the importance of certain beliefs

Thinking about the environmental problems we are facing can lead to stress. Reducing the importance of beliefs can help justify unsustainable behavior and reduce cognitive dissonance. For example, thinking that climate change won’t affect us in our lifetime, believing there is nothing we can do about it, or that it is simply a natural process reduces the necessity of sustainable behavior. This however is not the most desirable outcome.

Being aware that reducing the urgency of acting against climate change might only happen because of the need to reduce cognitive dissonance can help us shift our behavior towards sustainability.

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Acting sustainably in a society that is based on unsustainability is a difficult venture. It takes commitment and effort, especially when there are so many additional things going on in our lives. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t always manage to choose the environmentally friendly option, but try to understand why you chose that way. Understanding your behavior is the first step towards changing it for the better and remember to give yourself time to form healthier habits for both yourself and the environment.