As California experienced rolling blackouts during a dire electricity crisis in the summers of 2000 and 2001, a group of behavioural psychologists embarked on an experiment.
What would motivate people to ratchet down their air conditioners during a heat wave and become more energy conscious at a time of scarcity?
The answer was surprising.
People’s actions were not informed by the knowledge that they could save money on their electricity bills or do something meaningful to help the environment or society.
But if they knew their neighbours were conserving electricity they were keenly motivated to keep up with the Joneses.
“It was all about what the neighbours were doing,” explained behavioural psychologist Supriya Syal.
That finding and other observations from the field of behavioural psychology could have game-changing implications for work on urgent environmental issues such as saving endangered species and curbing global warming, according to Syal, the former chief behavioural scientist for the federal government’s privy council office.
“If our only strategy is that we need to convince everybody to hold the same beliefs as ourselves, and then use those beliefs to propel environmental action, that is going to take forever,” Syal said.
“We don’t necessarily have the time to do that. If people do the right things for the wrong reasons that still counts. We’re at a precipice. We probably do not have time to convince the whole world about the importance of biodiversity.”
Using social norms to alter behaviour
Syal, who spoke at a recent World Wildlife Fund conference in Toronto focused on reversing the precipitous decline of endangered species populations in Canada, said leveraging social norms has the potential to alter behaviour rapidly.
“Social norms is essentially just the idea that we are very sensitive to what other people like us do,” said Syal, the founder of Dulcimer Labs, a company that uses evidence-based decision making and behavioural science to create social impact.
“If you tell people that normative behaviour is to use less energy you are going to tell them that their neighbours are using less. Neighbours are people like you. So the norm around you is to use less.”
As an example of leveraging social norms, Syal pointed to Twitter posts from the Canada Revenue Agency towards the end of tax season, which proclaim that 90 per cent of Canadians have already filed their returns.
“And then people say ‘oh no, I’m in the 10 percent. There is a social contract that I’m supposed to be part of but I’m not.’”
Following the California blackouts and behavioural psychology study, one energy company began to provide information about neighbourhood electricity consumption on every household’s electricity bills.
If people were doing well by comparison, they received a smiley face on their bill. “If you were doing really well you got two smiley faces,” said Syal.
“This has led to 11 terawatt hours of energy savings — US$1.1 billion in energy savings for consumers.”
However, she cautioned that social norms should not be used indiscriminately, pointing out that the tactic can backfire if people realize they are ahead of their compatriots and consequently adjust their behaviour to fit in with the crowd.
One way to counteract backfiring is to use a symbol to condone a sought after behaviour, Syal said.
“You can tell them what the prevalent behaviour is — like 80 per cent of people are conserving energy and you are conserving even more — and then add a smiley face. I’m also signalling to you that this is a desirable behaviour.”
What do the monkeys tell us?
During her conference presentation, Syal showed a video clip from an inequality experiment with two Capuchin monkeys, each in its own cage with a full view of the other.
The first monkey, given a slice of cucumber in exchange for handing over a small rock, is perfectly content with its food.
But when the second monkey is given a red grape and the first monkey is handed cucumber again it immediately becomes indignant.
Instead of eating the cucumber, this time the monkey throws the slice at its handler, jumps up and down, bangs its hand on the counter, and furiously rattles the bars of its cage, much like a two-year-old having a temper tantrum.
The insight for behavioural scientists?
“People are influenced by the context in which they make decisions and the emotions they evoke,” said Syal. “Making decisions that maximize their gains or gains for the planet that they live on are not necessarily factors that are going to influence them.”
Brain overload in decision-making
When you ask people how many conscious decisions they make during any given day, most will say about 70, according to Syal. In fact, people make an average of 226 decisions every day about food alone, she said.
People are only able to hold four units of information in their minds at any given time.
“We simply do not have the metabolic capacity to process all the information that we are provided with in order to make judicious decisions all the time.”
“Unfortunately, decisions that are as complicated and sometimes as heart-wrenching and as intense as environmental decisions get procrastinated. They are just difficult decisions to make, difficult behaviours to execute.”
So emotions, rather than logic, drive many of our decisions.
It’s not that emotions are constantly leading us astray, said Syal, but we simply don’t have the time or mental ability to process all the information given to us.
That’s why financial appeals from non-profit organizations that focus on individuals, as opposed to causes, tend to elicit a higher response.
“Even though logically it makes sense that I would want to help many people, human beings just don’t operate that way.”
For instance, Syal said conservation organizations talk about beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River suffering the consequences of human actions in the form of habitat destruction.
“We don’t really talk about Pierre the beluga whale pictured with his mum and tell the story of what is happening to his family. There is something really powerful in the empathy that can lead to the response of wanting to take action to help this individual.”
How to become a person who cares about the environment
Behavioural science also shows that sometimes actions can drive preferences or values, rather than the other way around.
If you don’t particularly value fresh food but eat a salad, you will send a signal to yourself that “‘I am the kind of person who eats salads’ and you’re going to build that value for yourself over iterations of that behaviour,” Syal said.
Correspondingly, if the hook for habitat restoration activities like pulling out invasive plants is to come and have fun with your family and community, and later participants discover that they helped protect an area for wildlife, they may start to think of themselves as the sort of person who helps wildlife and cultivate that value.
Behavioural psychology research has also found that when people have to opt-in to something important to society, such as signing up to become an organ donor, they are far less likely to subscribe compared to people in countries where the default is to opt out.
“Very few people opt out,” said Syal. “Basically people don’t like making complicated decisions.”
Take the state of Maryland which, through a Living Shoreline Protection Act, made natural infrastructure — such as planting native marsh grasses — the default to deal with erosion caused by rising sea levels. Anyone who wants to build non-natural infrastructure in Maryland, such as seawalls, must justify their actions.
Consequently, Maryland now has 250 natural infrastructure projects compared to just 10 in North Carolina, said Syal.
Her final piece of advice is to involve people at all levels in conservation programs and services.
If you go on Craigslist or Kijiji and check the asking price for Ikea furniture you’ll understand the reasoning. People try to sell second hand Ikea furniture for almost as much as they bought it for, Syal observed.
“Because they built it. If you build something you ascribe more value to it [and] work harder than ever not to let it get lost.”