Opening minds to think green

Research and innovation
Faculty of Social Sciences

By Michelle Hibler

Writer, Freelance

Luc Pelletier
Photo: Peter Thornton
Psychologists cannot solve environmental problems directly. They can, however, offer insight into how to best inform and motivate people to adopt pro-environmental behaviour in their daily lives.

“Despite all the publicity, despite everything that’s been said about the environment, people show an increasing concern about the environment but their behaviours have changed little during the last 15 years or so.”

– Luc Pelletier

It’s not easy being green. And it’s not easy convincing people who aren’t ready to change their minds and their actions. “It’s a fact that, despite all the publicity, despite everything that’s been said about the environment, people show an increasing concern about the environment but their behaviours have changed little during the last 15 years or so,” says Luc Pelletier, professor of psychology and director of the Human Motivation Research Laboratory in the Faculty of Social Sciences.

Pelletier’s research aims to find out why. He and his team are focusing on understanding the impact of environmental messages and proposing more effective ways of motivating pro-environmental behaviour.

“People think that you’re either motivated or you’re not,” he says. “In reality, there are many ways to be.” At one end of the spectrum are people who can be persuaded to do something because they’re constrained to do it or rewarded for it—by taxes and fines, for instance, or rebates. Take those away and they stop doing it.

At the other extreme are people who are driven by internal factors: their values, interests and beliefs. These individuals choose to do things that are personally rewarding. That can lead to a strong pro-environmental lifestyle. They may recycle, compost, reduce energy use, walk or use public transportation, for instance, even though it’s not always easy.

The challenge is to guide people along that continuum. “We want people to do things on a voluntary basis and not do just one thing but many, regardless of the degree of difficulty,” explains Pelletier. “We also want that behaviour to be maintained over time. And we want them to stop doing negative things.”

So far, most Canadians are taking only easy actions, like recycling at home. Part of the problem, says the researcher, is that almost all the information disseminated on the environment shows causes and consequences of problems, not solutions. These images produce negative emotional responses, he says. In self-motivated individuals that discomfort can spur a desire to act. In unmotivated people, however, it can lead to frustration and disengagement: they change their attitude rather than their behaviour.

Creating awareness about a problem is only a first step, according to the model Pelletier proposes. You must also lead people to other stages, where they understand what they need to do and are encouraged to act on it.

Pelletier’s earlier research confirmed that people move through distinct phases of awareness and action about a problem: detection, decision, implementation and maintenance. “An effective message strategy needs to take this into consideration,” he says. Messages need to be tailored to different stages of behavioural change: first raise awareness of the problem, present concrete actions that people can take to tackle it, then show them how it can be done and maintained.

But because “information is not motivation,” says Pelletier, these messages also need to be framed, to provide a reason to act. His research has shown that people react more positively to messages that appeal to intrinsic goals—better health, a healthier environment, or the well-being of future generations, for example—than to extrinsic goals such as fear of global warming or rising costs.

Widely cited, Pelletier’s research has informed environmental messaging by different organizations, as far afield as water conservation initiatives in California and an eco-schools project in Flanders.

The bottom line is that “we just need to be more strategic when we educate people,” he says. “Then they will do it on their own.”

Moving pictures

We’re constantly exposed to images about climate change and other environmental problems. On their own, can they move us to take action to find a solution?

That is what Maxime Dorville, a PhD student in clinical psychology working with psychology professor Luc Pelletier, is trying to determine. “My research is looking at whether images shown in the media have an impact on people’s motivation toward the environment,” he says.

During the first phase of his project, two groups of 100 participants each viewed 45 different photos representing causes of climate change, consequences and solutions. Did they perceive the images to be negative or positive? Which of the three categories did they represent? Participants’ pro-environmental motivation was assessed before and after the viewing.

While the results have not yet been analyzed, Dorville hypothesizes that images of solutions are more likely to create hope rather than fear or despair, and to prompt people to improve their environmental behaviour. He will test this further in a second phase, using only the strongest images.

The research has already had a measure of success, as Dorville says he has himself adopted more pro-environmental behaviour.

Maxime Dorville
Photo: Andrea Campbell