Walking the Environmental Walk

Social Psychologists Ask If It's Possible to Be Green and Still Have Fun

A question that has long been posed by environmentalists, and is especially relevant to California right now, is whether the growing severity of climate-related issues is going to force changes in people’s lives. The hurdle to lifestyle and behavioral change is a difficult one to cross, and Cameron Brick, an environmental and social psychologist, believes that information alone is not going to do it. People also need options that give them the ability to change their behaviors, or “channel factors.” These can range from policy initiatives to public transportation systems. Green proponents may press for people to give up their cars, but unless a convenient, low-cost public transit option exists, they won’t be able to do anything else but drive, Brick points out.

Cameron Brick

As the long-standing lifestyles in developed countries become more unsustainable, the question might now be: “How do we translate people’s knowledge and beliefs about the environment into lifestyle changes to reduce their carbon footprint?” A paper Brick coauthored while a PhD candidate at UCSB, “Unearthing the ‘Green’ Personality,” published at Environment and Behavior, identifies the core traits that influence environmental behaviors and shows how personality is translated into action through attitudes.

Personality, Brick describes, acts as a new and unique predictor. Genes, life experiences, and culture are all variables of the building blocks of an individual’s personality and regular behaviors. “People who are open-minded and enjoy new experiences,” said Brick, who is now a visiting assistant professor at Hamilton College, “have the kind of flexible, long-distance, and long-term thinking to become concerned and start changing their behavior. These people are usually more concerned about the environment and more likely to choose pro-environmental actions in their daily lives.”

On the other hand, social identity — how you see yourself based on your social group — can push you toward or away from environmentalism. Some people actively avoid practicing environmentally friendly behaviors in public because they want to disconnect themselves from the label. “We all have groups we want to belong to and groups we don’t,” said Brick. “We usually have some negative opinions about those groups that we don’t want to belong to. Environmentalists, specifically, do have some negative associations.”

Brick has also been looking into preconceived notions such as the link between education and environmental friendliness. “We think of educated, high-income people as being more environmental. And they are sometimes more concerned,” he said, “but since they have high incomes they actually do more damage than someone who is lower income, consuming less, and traveling less.”

But it is important, he added, to dispel the notion that environmentalism is associated with austerity or stripped-down lifestyles. There is a preconceived idea that “environmentalism is necessary, it’s moral, but it just means we get less of the fun stuff,” Brick said. “I think that is not true, and it’s a dangerous message to give out.”

Brick and other social psychologists seek to understand why people do things, for what reason, and how we can foster beneficial change. For the environmental movement, this research is pivotal.


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