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Change environmental awareness, is that possible?

Environmental psychologists have been wondering for decades why people change their behavior. Because it is recognized that this has little to do with environmental awareness. The answer: it is complex.

environmental awareness

Research has shown that environmental awareness is crucial for only ten percent of the change to climate-friendly behavior.

This summer, everyone has been moaning about the heat and some have really suffered. By now, most people realize that rising temperatures are related to climate change. Nevertheless, they drive to work every day and fly into the plane by plane Vacation, Is it due to a lack of knowledge, lack of incentives or legal regulations? Can one change the environmental consciousness?

The field of environmental psychology has had different ideas about what it takes for people to change their behavior and to activate society for environmentally friendly behavior over the past 45 years, says Sebastian Bamberg, Psychologist at the Fachhochschule Bielefeld in Germany. He has been researching and teaching on the subject since the 1990 years and has already experienced two phases of environmental psychology.
The first phase, he analyzes, starts already in the 1970 years. At that time, the consequences of environmental pollution with the occurrence of forest damage, the discussion of the acid rain, the coral bleaching and the anti-nuclear power movement in the public awareness.

Change environmental awareness: Insights into behavior

At that time, it was believed that the environmental crisis was a result of a lack of knowledge and lack of environmental awareness. Sebastian Bamberg: "The idea was that if people know what the problem is, then they behave differently." Education campaigns are still very popular interventions in German ministries, observes the psychologist. Numerous research in the 1980 and 1990 years has shown, however, that environmental awareness is critical to 10% of behavioral change.

"For us psychologists, this is not really surprising," says Sebastian Bamberg, because behavior is primarily determined by the direct consequences it has. The difficulty with climate damaging behavior is that you do not notice the effects of your own actions immediately and not directly. If it thundered and flashed next to me, as soon as I stared at my car, that would be something else.
Sebastian Bamberg has stated in his own research, however, that existing high environmental awareness can be a "positive glasses", through which one sees the world: For a person with high environmental awareness five kilometers ride by bike to work is not long, for one with low environmental awareness already.

Changing environmental awareness - costs & benefits

But if knowledge is not enough for a behavioral change, then what? In the 1990 years, it was concluded that people needed better incentives to change their behavior. The consumption style moved into the center of the environmental policy discourse and thus the question whether environmentally friendly consumption is based more on an individual cost-benefit analysis or on moral motives. Sebastian Bamberg has studied this together with colleagues to introduce a free (ie priced in the tuition) semester ticket for public transport in Giessen.

As a result, the proportion of students using public transport increased from 15 to 36 percent, while passenger car usage fell from 46 to 31 percent. In a survey, the students stated that they had switched to public transport because it was cheaper. That would speak for the cost-benefit decision. In fact, the social norm also worked, which means that my fellow students expect me to travel by bus instead of by car.

Factor group behavior

It is interesting, says psychologist Bamberg, that students were asked before the introduction of the semester ticket by the AStA, the student committee, whether the ticket should be introduced. There had been heated debates about it for weeks, and in the end almost two-thirds of the students voted for it. "My impression is that this debate has led to the support or rejection of the ticket becoming a symbol of student identity," concludes the environmental psychologist. Leftist, environmentally conscious groups were in favor, conservative, market liberalists against it. This means that for us as social beings it is not only important what we benefit from behavior, but also very much what others say and do.

The moral component

Changing another theory about environmental awareness states that environmental behavior is a moral choice. Well, I have a bad conscience when I drive a car, and I feel fine when I cycle, walk or use public transport.

What is more important, self-interest or morality? Various studies show that both have a different function: morality motivates to change, self-interest prevents that from happening. The real motive for environmentally friendly behavior is neither the one nor the other, but the personal norm, so what kind of person I want to be, explains Bamberg.

In recent years, environmental psychology has come to the conclusion, based on all these studies, that a mix of motives is crucial for environmentally friendly behavior:

People want a high personal benefit with the lowest cost, but we also do not want to be a pig.

However, the previous models would ignore another important aspect: it is extremely difficult for us to change habitual, habitualized behavior. When I get into the car every day in the morning and go to work, I do not even think about it. If there is no problem, eg if I do not stand in a traffic jam every day or the fuel costs rise immensely, then I see no reason to change my behavior. That is, first, to change my behavior, I need a reason for that, secondly, I need a strategy on how to change my behavior, third, I have to take first steps, and fourth, make the new behavior a habit.

Dialogue before information

We all probably know that, if we want to stop smoking, lose weight or do more exercise. Counselors usually recommend to bring others on board, so to date with a friend or friend for sports. Information material, such as on climate change or the avoidance of plastic, therefore have zero effect on environmental behavior, so Bamberg. The dialogue is more effective.

Another recurrent topic is what the individual can do and how far structures need to be changed. Environmental psychology is therefore currently concerned with how collective action can create a social framework for sustainable production and consumption patterns. This means:

We have to change the structures ourselves instead of waiting for politics - but not alone.

A good example of this are so-called transition towns, in which residents jointly change their personal and social behavior on many levels and thus act on local politics.

Changing back to environmental awareness and the role of transport in doing so. So how can you motivate people to switch from car to bike for the daily journey to work? Alec Hager and his "radvokaten" show it. Since the year 2011 he leads the campaign "Austria is cycling to work", where currently 3.241 companies with 6.258 teams and 18.237 people participate. More than 4,6 million kilometers have already been covered this year, saving 734.143 kilograms of CO2.

Alec Hager came up with the idea for the campaign Denmark, Germany and Switzerland and adapted for Austria. For example, the Radel Lotto was introduced, where you can win something every working day in May, when you're on the road. What is the recipe for success of "Radelt zum Arbeit"? Alec Hager: "There are three elements: the raffle, then the playfulness, who brings together the most kilometers and days, and the multipliers in the companies who persuade their colleagues to join in."

Photo / Video: Shutterstock.

Written by Sonja Bettel

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