Social Sciences Role in Climate Change

To foster sustainable behavior, research in cognitive and environmental psychology suggest there are three explanations for why people do not engage in activities you want them to:


  • They don’t know about the activity or the benefits
  • They may perceive difficulties or barriers to getting involved


Does this sound familiar? In order to change peoples’ behavior, behavior change must take into account:


  1. People will gravitate toward that which delivers high benefits (to them) with few barriers
  2. Perceived benefits and barriers vary widely
  3. Behavior competes with behavior (people make choices between behaviors)


Thus, planning for behavior change starts with understanding people’s behavior and working backward to select a particular tactic suited to that behavior. Research shows we are most likely to change behavior in response to direct appeal or social support from others. That’s why programs that encourage friendly competition between communities and neighborhoods work well.

In 2008, at our annual Summer Institute on Climate Change Education, Dr. Elise Amel, Associate Professor in Organizational Psychology from the University of St. Thomas talked about research-based psychological and social barriers/solutions to change. Based on how people behave, she had the following recommendations:

1. Offer green tips (specific things that one can do at work or home. The green tips that have the biggest impact include, energy efficiency, transportation, food and waste.

2. Help one understand what it takes to implement those tips by modeling the behavior, providing feedback, appealing to one’s sense of self-efficacy (the belief that they can make a difference and affect social change), or through policies and incentives.

The Yale Project on Climate Change has also been producing excellent reports on the role of public opinion and ways that social science research can be used to help us foster sustainable behavior. Yale’s Environmental Attitudes & Behavior Project is presently working with collaborators to develop a research program that will apply social science theories and methods more effectively to the problem of climate change. So why do more social science? Perhaps the most compelling rationale is that it helps us understand how we can tailor our communication strategies so that we are meeting people where they are.


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