Toward a Coherent Theory

“ Toward a Coherent Theory of Environmentally Significant Behavior”
Paul C. Stern, in Journal of Social Issues, 56:3, 2000
Read December 2010

In this paper, Stern attempts to develop a conceptual framework of environmentally-significant behavior—human actions that have an impact on the environment, or are

“undertaken with the intention to change (normally, to benefit) the environment” (408).

Stern’s paper covers a great deal of ground in a short space. First, he defines major types of environmentally-significant behavior. Next, he introduces his value-belief-norm (VBN) theory, a causal chain in which values influence beliefs, which influence perceived norms, which influence behavior.

Stern then moves on to outlining four types of causal variables that influence people’s behavior: attitudinal factors (the VBN theory fits in here), contextual forces, personal capabilities, and habits and routines. Finally, he summarizes types of attempts to change behavior. In conclusion, Stern emphasizes the need to build upon what has already been studied and the need for interdisciplinary research.

This article builds on Gardner and Stern’s Environmental Problems and Human Behavior, and is helpful as a brief overview of research in this area since their book was published. 
I believe that Stern is truly interested in real change and in how environmental psychology can help people who design programs address and remove barriers.

I was struck by Stern’s conclusion, in which he writes that it is

“…critical to underscore the need to draw on insights from across the behavioral and social sciences, because the important causal variables lie in the domains of various disciplines and because the variables interact. Thus, interdisciplinary research is necessary for full understanding” (422).

I would add the discipline of design to this list. I do not think that designers should work alone in this area of behavior change, but rather that we should be involved in interdisciplinary research, along with psychologists and social scientists, to address environmentally-responsible behavior.


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