New Tools for Environmental Protection

New Tools for Environmental Protection: Education, Information, and Voluntary Measures
The National Research Council, edited by Thomas Dietz and Paul C. Stern, 2002.
Read October 2010

Because this book focuses on “education, information, and voluntary measures,” it relates quite well to my thesis. Education, the editors explain in their introduction, “includes the provision of information in a systematic and structured way, but usually goes further, encouraging deeper understanding and, perhaps, values and norms regarding behaviors” (5). I found part two, which contains articles on information and education for individuals and communities, most helpful for my thesis.

Some chapters gave concrete suggestions for messages or communication strategies. For example, Dennis S. Mileti and Lori A. Peek’s “Understanding Individual and Social Characteristics in the Promotion of Household Disaster Preparedness” taught me that when trying to convince people to take action, studies have found that “doom and gloom” media campaigns are counterproductive and can lead to stasis, while messages emphasizing the individual’s ability to create change are more effective. In Loren Lutzenhiser’s “Marketing Household Energy Conservation: The Message and the Reality,” the author writes that “to ‘conserve’ may be an action associated with poverty, and loss of comfort, convenience, cleanliness, or pleasure” (55). Thus, designers should pay attention to how behaviors are framed and perceived by the audience.

In addition, the following two chapters were especially helpful to me.

“Knowledge, Information, and Household Recycling: Examining the Knowledge-Deficit Model of Behavior Change,” by P. Wesley Schultz

Schultz examines the commonly-held belief that purely procedural information is all that is needed to change people’s behavior, specifically regarding household recycling. While information can indeed remove a barrier to recycling (for example, if someone does not know how or what to recycle), studies have found that purely procedural information about recycling leads to little or no change in behavior (as discussed in Gardner and Stern’s Environmental Problems and Human Behavior and McKenzie-Mohr’s “Promoting Sustainable Behavior”).

On the other hand, information about social norms and approval, which creates a type of positive “peer pressure,” can be effective in producing behavioral change. Schultz writes that “a number of studies focused on recycling have reported a strong, positive relationship between normative beliefs and recycling behavior” (74). In addition, “normative social influence works best with behaviors that are publicly observable—like curbside recycling” (78). Using reusable bottles is also a publicly observable behavior. While the results of my first prototype testing session showed that anonymous people modeling the behavior did not influence viewers, I believe a campaign that uses real-world social connections to influence others could be successful. At this point, this technique is outside the scope of my thesis project, but it is still an important potential tool for designers to use.

Schultz also introduces the idea of personal and situational behavioral predictors. A personal behavioral predictor “refers to a characteristic that exists within an individual” (69). This could include knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, personality, etc. Situational predictors, on the other hand, are “characteristics of the context that are related to the behavior” (69). Similar dual models have been described by other researchers—Gardner and Stern, for example, write about “internal” and “external” barriers. With my thesis project, I am focusing on personal predictors, especially knowledge, beliefs, and perceived
control. It is helpful to consider which factors I am and am not attempting to influence.

“Changing Behavior in Households and Communities: What Have We Learned?” by Paul C. Stern

In this chapter, Stern summarizes the contributions of the articles in part two. Similarly to Schultz, he points out that educational and informational campaigns, are limited in what they can accomplish. In summarizing the findings from the previous chapters, Stern provides seven key suggestions for designing campaigns that affect behavior.

  1. Design the intervention from the behaver’s perspective
  2. Build on interpersonal communication (use models and intermediaries, and make social norms more visible)
  3. Use multiple channels to communicate the message
  4. Apply psychological principles for message design
  5. Maintain a program’s momentum
  6. Set realistic expectations
  7. Continually evaluate and modify programs

In relation to his fourth suggestion, about psychological principles, Stern reiterates Mileti and Peek’s advice to empower individuals with possible solutions.

“Calls for action… can be made more effective by emphasizing the costs of dangers of inaction—but only when they also provide clear advice on what to do to avoid those hazards, thus giving audience members a sense that they can control their fates rather than creating fear and anxiety” (206).

From personal experience, I agree that emphasizing danger over action leads to undesirable responses. I witnessed this reaction from people who viewed the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” for example, which convinces audiences that global warming is a serious problem, but leaves people feeling depressed and overwhelmed. I have also come across this principle in other readings as well. Yet it seems that many designers are still either unaware of it or ignore it, as I discovered during my artifact review.


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