In This Issue

Presidential address: Challenges to conservation psychology

Article challenges those interested in encouraging conservation behaviors to expand their research to cover necessary but understudied topics

By Janet K. Swim

My goal in this article is to challenge those interested in encouraging conservation behaviors to expand their research to cover necessary but understudied topics. I want to be clear, however, that this is not a criticism of what has been done. We have done some remarkable work and I see many great new ideas on the horizon.

I organize this article in terms of the components of Lewin's famous formula: B = f (E,P). Likely many of you are familiar with this formula, especially if you are a social or I.O. psychologist. Basically the formula says that, if we want to understand behavior, we need to understand both the person doing the behavior and the environment.

P = Person

Studying "the person" is our strength. Perhaps not surprisingly, because we are psychologists, we know a lot about the hearts and minds of people through our work on, for example, attitudes, values, identity, perceptions of environmental problems and solutions, and so on. So I am not going to spend much time talking about this area that is already quite strong. I will, however, make two suggestions based upon my particular interests and expertise from my 20 plus years of studying prejudice, stereotyping and discrimination.

First, we could expand our work on environmental identity by attending more to some of the issues that have been raised by those studying social identity. We could increase our precision and advance our research more by differentiating identification with nature and attitudes about nature, as Susan Clayton has already noted, and by differentiating between affective, cognitive and behavioral components of identity, as Wes Shultz has done. Stretching us a bit farther we could explore how environmental identity intersects with other identities, such as gender, race, and social economic status, similar to what Stephanie Shields has urged gender researchers to do. Environmental identity may modify and be modified by other group membership. We could also study shifts in environmental identity over time and across situations. These last two topics might require developing expertise in qualitative data analyses.

Second, I would like to see more attention to environmental justice. Julian Agyeman was a keynote speaker at one of the first environment-related conferences I went to about five years ago. He was reprimanding environmentalists for their lack of attention to environmental justice issues (attending to those who are most vulnerable to environmental problems due to their status in society.) I was struck by this criticism because one of the reasons I was attending this environmental studies conference was because I believed there was a paucity of attention paid to environmental issues, such as the rights to nature, at the social psychology conferences I typically attend. There is a wealth of interest on social justice issues that are relevant to addressing environmental justice (see, for instance the SPSSI policy statement on Global Climate Change that Susan Clayton and I wrote).

B = Behavior

Like research on "the person," we have expertise on behaviors as illustrated by our efforts to predict, explain and promote pro-environmental behaviors. However, I would argue that we have not advanced as far in our study of behaviors as our study of people.

One barrier to fully realizing our potential to understand environmentally relevant behaviors is that much or our research relies on asking people to report their willingness or intentions to do particular behaviors rather than studying actual behaviors. Christine Koros and Robert Gifford have demonstrated that there is a high correlation between actual and self-reported behaviors. However, it is notable that they found a great deal of heterogeneity in the relationship and they were unable to account for this heterogeneity by characteristics of the studies. While sufficient to obtain effect size of the relationship, the number of studies available to them restricted their ability to have sufficient power to explain this heterogeneity. This meta-analysis is beneficial to us because it is a call for us to pay closer attention to when self-reports and behaviors would and would not be related to each other.

I recognize that it is a challenge to measure actual behaviors. Consistent with the Heisenberg uncertainty, we may alter targeted behaviors by measuring it. Even if we attempted to measure actual behavior, we often do not have access to many proand anti-environmental behaviors because they are done in private settings or it is much more costly, in terms of both time and money, to assess actual behaviors than self-reports. Another challenge is disaggregation of behaviors from measures of energy use: We can measure household energy use but it is much more difficult to measure which behaviors and which members of the household distinctly contribute to this energy use. June Flora and her colleagues at Stanford are tackling this problem but it is complex. If we really want to change people's behaviors we need to take on the challenge of measuring actual behaviors. We will likely need to collaborate with people from other disciplines (such as engineers and computer scientists) to measure behaviors of interest.

When studying behaviors, one thing I learned well from Paul Stern while working on the APA task force report on climate change is that we need to focus on the most important behaviors, those behaviors that contribute the most to climate change. But what are the most important behaviors? If I listen to my students I might think that recycling and turning off lights are at the top of the list. Yet, these are only potent if a sufficient number of people change their behaviors. Many people need to recycle to persuade manufacturers to change their practices and need to turn off their lights to motivate energy companies to reduce their peak load production. Individual's automobile use might be more viable because individuals directly control emissions through their actions and personal transportation is a major contributor to greenhouse gases. However, even automobile use could be questioned. In another talk at APA, someone mentioned that having a dog is a greater contributor to climate change than owning a SUV. I don't know if this is true, but I would argue that our biggest contribution is having children—not because of the amount of CO2 they exhale but because they increase the number of people who are contributing to climate change.

Studying reproductive decisions, particularly aimed at reducing the number of people on the planet, is a very politically and ethically difficult topic. This is clearly seen in the responses that President Obama received to his efforts to include access to contraception in medical coverage. Yet, even though it is difficult, it is critical for achieving a sustainable world. There are members of SEPCP that are experts on population issues but they represent a small proportion of SEPCP. We need to build up this portion of our society.

When studying the impact that the increasing population has on climate, it is clear that the issue is not just how many people there are on the planet but what the people in industrialized countries are doing. A child in the United States will produce more greenhouse gas emission over the course of his/her life than a child in Mozambique. This brings us back to the question of, apart from parenting, what are the most important behaviors to study. Perhaps I would select automobile use as the most important personal behavior to address. However, Levitt and Dubner (2009), in their book Superfreakonomics, challenged the importance placed on reducing emissions from cars when they said, "But every time a Prius owner drives to the grocery store, she may be canceling out its emission-reducing benefit at least if she shops in the meat section." That is, the amount of methane produced by our meat centered diets in this country can be argued to be more damaging to the environment than the CO2 from driving our cars. Yet even the importance of meat eating can be challenged: Blaming cows seems trivial compared to the emissions produced by our coal factories. My point is that it is difficult to pinpoint a behavior that is the most important behavior. What we need to do instead is to study sets of behaviors and relationships between behaviors.

In order to study sets of behaviors we need to develop and empirically verify taxonomies of behaviors. Some are working on classification of behaviors. I mentioned June Flora's work already. She and her colleagues are also tackling the multi-dimensionality of behaviors. Also at Stanford, BJ Fogg classifies behaviors into those that need to be started, restarted, increased, decreased, and stopped. These are exciting efforts. Yet, relative to the amount of work that has been done to account for variability across people, we know relatively little about the structures of behaviors.

Once we understand taxonomies of behaviors, we may be able to develop interventions that effectively target sets of behaviors. Taxonomies could assist researchers to choose behaviors that would maximize the likelihood of behavior spillover effects (see work by Daria Galoch). As an example, engineers at Penn State have proposed that home energy auditors' recommendations would be more effective if they attended to a natural flow of behavioral change. The flow of behavior they proposed is as follows: First, homeowners will improve safety in their home, such as by stopping gas leaks in furnaces; second, they will engage in conservation behaviors that are easy and require no financial investment, such as taking shorter showers; third, they implement energy efficiency measures that require financial investment such as insulating windows and attics, and last, they invest in energy generation, such as installing solar panels. Knowing what behaviors individuals have already done could help auditors know where they are in the process of behavior change and therefore target particular recommendations to match their clients' environmental engagement. Work by Florian Kaiser and his colleagues that includes rank ordering behaviors in terms of difficulty suggests that this order may be accurate. However, the actual flow of behavior in home settings has not been assessed and the effectiveness of an intervention based upon this flow of behavior has not been tested.

A particularly impactful set of behaviors that we could attend to more are those related to civic engagement. Sadly, in my view, civic engagement in youth in the U.S. has dropped over about the last 25 years and it would benefit us to better understand this cultural trend (Wray-Lake, Flanagan, & Osgood, 2010). Attempts to encourage changes in individual behaviors without changing the context in which they live are likely to have minimal success. I will talk about context more when I discuss environmental effects on behaviors.

Finally, we need to expand how we think about and study behaviors. For what we need to study, see Table 1.

Table 1: What we need to study
Not just achieving a sustainable planetbut achieving a flourishing planet.We need to think beyond behaviors that will help us be sustainable but strive toward behaviors that will help us flourish. As William McDonough has said, “Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power — economically, equitable, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”
Not just predicting behaviorsbut changing behaviors.We need to study the process of behavior change, not just variables that are related to desirable and undesirable behaviors. It might be useful to distinguish, for example, between evolution of change (where a select set of behaviors are retained from an initial pool of possible behaviors) and dialectic change (where two behaviors are in conflict with each other and the two become synthesized into one; see Van de Ven & Poole, 1995).
Not just removing barriersbut providing facilitators.We know a lot about barriers to pro-environmental behaviors, as Robert Gifford has outlined. Removing these barriers is important and in some cases necessary, as McKenzie-Mohr has illustrated. However, facilitating behaviors can be distinct from removal of barriers. Analogously, as researchers in the positive psychology movement have noted, increasing happiness is not the same thing as decreasing depression.
Not manipulating changebut facilitating change.Manipulating change includes providing financial incentives, such as rebates, to encourage change or altering situations, such as posting reminders to turn off lights. Yet, manipulating change requires constantly altering situations across populations and over time to be able to encourage the change but not so strong as to create reactance. Further, research on cognitive dissonance tells us that external encouragements could result in temporary changes if these changes are attributed to external incentives and not to internal desires. An alternative way to change behaviors is illustrated by the Transition Town movement, where communities work together to decide what changes are best suited to their location and population.

E = Environment

I have frequently been asked to provide advice for changing behaviors. I often find this to be a humbling experience for a variety of reasons. As one example, I was talking with a person who worked in food services at Penn State and she was bemoaning the fact that students seem to have increased their waste of food. I was pleased with myself while I listened to her, thinking, I know what I can suggest. I just went to talk about this. I know that plate size makes a big difference on the amount of food people consume and plate sizes have gotten bigger. So I recommended attending to this as a subtle way to change behavior. She said that, yes she knew this research already and they determined that plate size did not matter. They had also tried other methods of behavioral change that could have come out of a psychologist tool box. What it came down to is there has been a cultural shift in food consumption where it is normal to take a lot of food and throw away a lot of food. This was humbling because the research I could rely upon was of no practical significance in the face of larger cultural forces.

It is obvious to us that an environmental context matters. This is one reason why many of us call ourselves environmental psychologists. Yet, I would argue, like with behaviors, we have not done enough to study the role of the context in which conservation behaviors occur. One type of context that we need to attend to is the physical context in which behaviors occur. To borrow from Sally Augustin's APA talk title, "Place Matters!" Consistent with my call for taxonomy and like some personality researchers, I am calling for taxonomies of situations that influence behaviors. Taxonomies could help us sample representative situations, just as we try to sample representative populations. This sampling could help us generalize our findings across a defined population of situations. Taxonomies could also help identify characteristics of situations that increase the likelihood of behavioral change or that attract different types of individuals.

In addition to the physical context, the social context in which behaviors occurs is vitally important. We know from research by Robert Cialdini, Wes Schultz, Jessica Nolan, Noah Goldstein, and others that social norms are powerful predictors of behaviors. However, social norms are only the tip of an iceberg in terms of the ways that a social context can affect our behaviors. The social context consists of, at the most immediate level, our interpersonal relationships. At a mid-level it consists of institutions, organizations and communities. And at a broad level, it consists of culture.

As many of you know, I have become enamored with social network analyses and its potential for us to better understand behavior. Social network analysis is a powerful way of studying relationships within a defined social context. It can identify whether a person is central to a network or a bridge between networks which suggest different ways that this person could influence others. Social network analyses also differentiate types of some networks, for example, by identifying variability across networks in the density of social contexts (i.e., variability in the number of connections within a context).

A third type of context that could use more attention is the temporal context. We have come to understand time differently across the last 200 years, as illustrated by work done by the Smithsonian Institute. For thousands of years, time and nature were closely connected. Attending to nature allowed us to know when we should plant and harvest crops. In the 1800's our behaviors became increasingly directed by clocks and less so by natural rhythms of nature or our bodies. Clocks regulated when we attended social- and work-related events and eventually coordinated commerce across the country and the world. In the first half of the 1900's, we became obsessed with using time efficiently as we worked to make our factories and even our personal lives more productive. In the latter half of the century and continuing today, we have "expanded time." We are able to do more by attending to not just hours and minutes of the day but seconds and even nanoseconds. We have expanded our days into our nights, so that we have stores that are open 24 hours a day, which then allow us to work and engage in consumer behavior any time of the day. Thus, our resource use has become closely linked to clock time since the beginning of the 1900's and less connected to natural time. Further, the pressure to fill up our time has meant that we have less of this resource needed to invest in change. If we hope to change our use of resources we are going to have to address societal and cultural use of time.

Systems thinking

In general, what I am encouraging us to do is embrace a systems approach to our work rather than a reductionist approach to our research. A systems perspective encourages us to think about:

  • the whole, not just the parts
  • patterns of actions and events, not just single actions
  • the context in which actions take place, not just the actions devoid of context
  • relationships, not people or objects in the relationships
  • process (development, change, renewal), not just current or desired states.

Challenging SEPCP

Changing directions, I also have challenges to SEPCP. Setting goals and plans to address these challenges could strengthen our society.

Working together within SEPCP

The very name of our organization highlights our ability to address many of the challenges noted above via collaborations within our organization. As noted above, those of us who have focused on addressing environmental problems and promoting conservation could learn from our colleagues who focus on population and the built environment. In order to successfully network with population psychologists, we will need to make specific efforts to increase their numbers in SEPCP.

Engaging more of our members

The 20/80 principle is a general rule of thumb for predicting activity within an organization. In many cases 20 percent of the people contribute to 80 percent of an outcome. For instance, Pareto and Page in the 1970's noted that in Italy, 20 percent of people in Italy owned 80 percent of the land. Other examples are that 20 percent of customers tend to account for 80 percent of business income. And 20 percent of patients use 80 percent of health care resources.

My question is, does this principle apply to our organization? Does 20 percent of the membership do 80 percent of the work? That would mean that, with 400 members, 80 of them would be doing most of the work of the organization. I'm not confident we currently have that many people doing 80 percent of the work. However, I am confident that we have more than 1 percent of our members doing 99 percent of the work. What I am saying is that with our current membership we have a larger pool of people we can engage in activities in SEPCP. We need to develop concrete tasks for these individuals.

Further, if we were able to double our membership to 800 members, and the principle applied, we would have 160 active members. From the work that our membership committee has done this year, I would bet that they have identified at least 400 additional people who would fit nicely within our organization.

Building bridges

As I said many times this year, there are many bridges we can build to other organizations within and outside of psychology. However, as the children's song goes, bridges do fall down. Several of us have worked to build bridges with other organizations. These bridges need to be monitored and maintained in order to be strong enough to support interdisciplinary work.

Supporting our students

I am proud of the extent to which we have students actively engaged in our organization and the efforts we have made to be inclusive. Increasing numbers of students in our organization is the source of much of our recent growth and they are the future of our organization. They are vital to the intellectual growth in our field. Their creative ideas and statistical and computer skills are far beyond at least my skills and I suspect many others as well. As I think about the work that our students do, I have high hopes for the future of our organization. Yet, as their mentors we need to be aware of and attend to the immediate demands they face in graduate school and attend to their efforts to establish careers post graduate school.


What I have outlined above will not be easily achieved. Yet, we can be the place where psychologists interested in environmental problems and conservation can grow. We have accomplished much in the last 40+ years of our organization and we can do more.

Author notes

The text for this talk is based upon, but not identical to, my SEPCP presidential address at APA. I changed some parts to convert a verbal presentation to a written presentation and add clarification.