Environmental Problems & Human Behavior

Gerald T. Gardner and Paul C. Stern, 1996
Read November 2010

I find myself continually drawn to Paul C. Stern’s work, and this book, written with Gerald T. Gardner, is no exception. Although it contains themes that I read elsewhere, it is a seminal work in the field of environmental psychology that I felt I should become familiar with. The authors look at how people’s behavior relates to and can solve environmental issues. They take a systemic approach, examining how human behavior fits into the larger system that affects environmental issues, and human behavior’s abilities and constraints. They outline in detail four approaches often used to attempt to change behavior: religious and moral approaches, educational interventions, incentives, and community management. The chapter on educational interventions, which focuses on providing people with information, was most relevant to my thesis. In addition, I found Chapter 9, on risk perception, quite interesting, as well as Chapter 7, in which the authors summarize key lessons from successful environmental programs.

In Chapter 4, on educational interventions, the authors clearly lay out what education 
can and cannot accomplish. Education can help solve social problems, they write, but it 
is rarely sufficient on its own. Why is this?

Although information can help change 
people’s attitudes and beliefs,“many barriers, both within individuals and in their social and economic environments, can keep proenvironmental attitudes from being expressed in action” (73).

Barriers, in other words, can be internal or external. A lack of information can be a serious barrier to action

“because it is not always obvious to an individual how to act effectively on his or her attitudes” (80).

But if external barriers keep a person from taking action, then it is useless to try to address the situation by providing individuals 
with information.

In their conclusion to Chapter 4, Gardner and Stern outline what education can accomplish (92–93). An information-based approach works best with simple, low-cost behaviors, when behaviors are compatible with the audience’s deeper values, when the educational materials are designed according to psychological principles of communication, and when the approach is combined with other intervention strategies. For my thesis case study, I have chosen a behavior that largely fits within these guidelines, so it makes sense to continue to use an educational approach in my prototype.

Gardner and Stern also give tips for successful informational programs, most of which are familiar to me from various other readings.

  1. First, make sure to give feedback; that is, tie information directly to people’s behavior. This principle is often cited in design research.
  2. Have people with whom the audience identifies model the desired behavior.
  3. Pay attention to framing, which can influence people’s behavior. Here, the authors reference the theory of loss aversion, which states that losses are felt more keenly than gains.
  4. Use timely, specific reminders and prompts—another insight which many designers utilize.
  5. Make use of attitudes and norms; that is, “call people’s attention to attitudes and beliefs that they already have, but that they may not connect to the situation they are in” (87).

What is most interesting to me about these tips is that many of the same ideas have been adopted by designers interested in behavior change; however, we have not “discovered” these methods, nor are they unique to our field.

Chapter 7, “Lessons of Successful Environmental Programs,” was exciting to read because many of its themes echo tenets of human-centered design. For example, some of the lessons include

  • designing interventions from the audience’s perspective;
  • presenting information in an attention-grabbing, concise way;
  • creating programs in an iterative manner; and
  • utilizing participatory methods of decision making when possible.

In addition, the authors suggest using multiple intervention types, setting realistic expecta-tions about the outcome of the intervention, and addressing situational factors which are beyond the individual’s control. The latter is a reminder that situational barriers such as policies, costs, etc., can be extremely important. Unfortunately, this is the area in which the designer’s abilities are often most limited.

I found this book quite useful, not only because it cites many studies measuring actual behavior change and results, but also due to its holistic approach. The authors take both 
a macro- and a micro-view, looking at the entire system affecting environmental behavior, as well as at detailed case studies.


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