Launching the Weekly Read

Feb 28, 2020 | General

Visitors to the website may have spotted that were quite keen on social science here at Human Nature. Social science is the exploration of people, their behaviours and interactions with each other and their surroundings, which is conducted through a diverse range of disciplines. It’s our core business and passion to get more people connecting with social science research, and the potential that can bring. Each week we’ll pick a paper that has crossed our path, which has most excited us or raised our curiosity. It may be a stand-alone study, a review paper or an opinion piece. We’ll describe the methods used in the paper, it’s key messages and explain a bit about why it might be of interest to our readers. They will span disciplines, subjects and years. We’ll only include open access papers or those easily available. If you want to suggest a paper (yours or someone else’s) please get in touch –

This week a lot of our work has been on behaviour change so here’s an environmental psychology paper reviewing the psychological barriers to climate related behaviour change.

The dragons of inaction: Psychological barriers that limit climate change mitigation and adaptation by Prof. Robert Gifford

American Psychologist, 2011, Vol 66(4): 290-302

A lot of us know that human activities are causing damage to the natural world and believe that we should be changing our behaviour to reduce that damage. But have you ever found yourself doing the food shopping and wondering whether you’re buying the “right” food to reduce your impacts: steak or chicken? Imported organic mango or local non-organic strawberries? You resort to your usual purchases, perhaps feeling a bit frustrated at not knowing how to change things. This paper describes the “Dragons of Inaction” – the psychological processes which make those behaviour changes difficult. Gifford defines seven categories of dragons, including:

  • limited cognition – our abilities to think about issues which are distant in time and space;
  • comparison with others – if no one else is changing their behaviour then why should I?;
  • the risks associated with doing something different – what will people think? How much will it cost me?

One particular barrier Gifford describes is perceived behavioural control. This describes the extent to which individuals feel that their actions can make a difference. Gifford describes how believing that your actions do count can be a very strong predictor of conducing pro-environmental behaviours.

Gifford talks about the need for better understanding of how these barriers interact and overlap, the extent to which barriers are most faced by different audiences, and the ways in which individuals overcome the barriers. He calls on scientists from psychology and other disciplines, technical experts and policymakers to work urgently to understand how to enable citizens to overcome these dragons.

So why is this paper worth a read?

If you’re a researcher… this paper cites lots of case studies that explore each barrier in more detail. Gifford also cites other barrier model papers which are certainly worth exploring (page 297).

If you’re new to environmental psychology… this is a paper which really showcases what is possible in this discipline, and its value to conservation. Too often (way too often) I hear discussions of the need to “raise public awareness in order to change their behaviour”, assuming the missing link in large scale societal behaviour change is just to give people knowledge. Gifford shows the complex reality of behaviour change, and that it is far beyond filling a knowledge deficit.

If you work as a practitioner trying to catalyse behaviour change…consider how these barriers might relate to the specific behaviours you are focused on. When you’re exploring the behaviour with your target audience, listen to see if any of these barriers seem to be present. If feasible, collaborate with an environmental psychologist to explore which of these barriers are most pertinent to your work. Then tailor your engagement activities accordingly.

If you want to reduce your own ecological footprint…this might feel like a bit of an overwhelming set of barriers to read about; you may see barriers you have wrestled with yourself. If that’s the case, then perhaps the biggest opportunity this paper highlights is the need to believe your actions do make a difference and have an impact (see p293 on perceived behavioural control). Recognise the changes you’ve already made, and set a positive mindset as you continue to make changes which you are confident will reduce your footprint.

The main take home message is that catalysing behaviour change is complex, and barriers to behaviour change are likely to differ between behaviours, audiences and locations. The application of environmental psychology approaches can help understand this complexity and more clearly identify where the opportunities for greatest impact exist.


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