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Whether your friends are hounding you to get a new cell phone (yours is so old) or see a movie you’re not into (you’ll have the best time), it’s human nature to give in to peer pressure. Psychologists are trying to understand this follow-the-crowd mentality and how it affects people’s willingness to change their behavior to benefit the environment. “It’s all about empowering yourself and people around you to behave sustainably,” says Christie Manning, a psychologist at Minnesota’s Macalester College.
Polls show that while most Americans believe global warming is real, driving less or cutting energy use is extremely difficult for many. Experts say this may be because issues like climate change are so overwhelming that people are overcome by feelings of guilt or apathy and don’t take action. Others go into denial. To encourage folks to adjust their habits, Manning and her colleague Elise Amel say, the best approach is to offer encouragement when you see someone doing something sustainable and to make green behaviors normal. While the practice isn’t widespread yet, businesses looking to spur green behavior in their customers are consulting with psychologists.
Green psychology might be applicable everywhere from the car lot to the bathroom. One study looked at what reasoning most effectively encouraged hotel guests to reuse their towels. Notices requesting they “join fellow citizens in helping to save the environment” best persuaded guests to do their part. “You imagine those people are similar to yourself, so it’s pretty powerful that way,” says Amel. By contrast, signs asking visitors to help save energy by not asking for clean towels were half as effective.
Riding your bike to work, complimenting shoppers who bring reusable bags, or putting up solar panels and explaining how you did it to your friends are all influential behaviors.
“At the time you’re providing people with scary or depressing information,” says Amel, “[psychologists suggest providing] some tools to make them feel like they can do something about it.”—Susan Cosier
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