Human behavior underlies almost all problems related to sustainability, such as air and water pollution, population growth, climate change, deforestation, consumerism, social equity, and loss of biodiversity. Research in psychology offers clues as to why people engage in unsustainable behaviors despite their concern about the broader consequences. At the same time, the research also explains why people go out of their way to behave sustainably, and how it is possible to motivate and empower sustainable actions. The goal of beginning to examine the psychology of sustainable behavior is to learn how to create the conditions that make sustainable action the most appealing or natural choice to all people. At present many of us find ourselves engaging in unsustainable daily behaviors that have negative environmental and socio-economic impacts.
Have you ever found it challenging to persuade your best friend to shut down their computer at night? Or failed to convince your neighbors to turn off their sprinklers? Have you ever felt exasperated by your colleague’s unwillingness to recycle? You are not alone. We are intelligent, thinking creatures. Why is it so difficult for us to change our behavior and act upon our sustainability concerns? One reason is that though our rational minds may know that change is needed, it is not always our rational minds that drive our behavior. Promoting sustainable behavior is not easy.
An important observation from psychological research is that many decisions are made by automatic, unconscious processes on the basis of information that our conscious, rational brains are hardly aware of. There is accumulating psychological and neuroscience evidence that thinking is the product of two separate systems of reasoning: (1) a rule-based system, which is conscious, rational and deliberate, and (2) an associative system, which is unconscious, sensory-driven and impulsive. This second system can also be described by the idea of possessing a certain mindset or second-nature.
These two systems of reasoning, the rule-based and the associative, work in parallel. However, they do not always agree. The rule-based system is slow and makes decisions based on careful consideration of facts and evidence. The associative system, on the other hand, arrives at a decision much more quickly, giving us our gut-feelings. The associative system is outside of conscious control and responds to subtle sensory cues such as familiarity, emotional (affective) reaction, fleeting real or mental images. Our conscious experience hides the influence that the associative system has on our daily choices; most of us feel like our decisions are based on thinking through the facts. However, the associative system plays an unconscious but powerful role in every move that we make and influences or overrides the conclusions of careful, deliberate thinking. Occasionally, the associative system completely takes over certain decisions. But what is it about mindset or second-nature that characterizes this associative system of reasoning?
A person’s usual attitude or mental state is his or her mindset;” the “cultural touchstones” that shape the minds of people in acting upon their philosophical understandings and history of experiences. Mindset is “the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter – an attitude, disposition, mood, or inclination.” A mindset is a set of assumptions, methods or notations usually established by one or more people or groups of people which is so imbedded that it creates a powerful incentive within these people or groups to continue to adopt or accept prior behaviors, choices, or tools (affects a person’s “philosophy of life”). When this way of reasoning occurs, it is often difficult to counteract its effects upon analysis and decision making processes.
So mindset is an established set of attitudes held by someone. If you have an environmentalist mindset, you probably bring your own bags to the grocery store. Other examples of mindsets include an optimist’s sunny perspective on life, a business owner’s entrepreneurial way of thinking, or an Army general’s military focus.
Likewise, if something is second-nature to you, you are so familiar with it that you can do it easily without needing to think very much about it: I used to hate computers, but using them is second nature to me now. A person experiences the associative system of reasoning through the aspect of second-nature that habits, characteristics, etc. are acquired and fixed so deeply as to seem part of a person’s nature – an acquired behavior or trait that is so long practiced as to seem innate. I could not drive my father’s manual shift car. Now that I have learned the shift pattern I don’t even have to think about shifting anymore; it just comes naturally.
Sustainable behaviors often have less appeal to the associative system reactions by people which are usually fueled by our historical perspectives and experience rather than newer facts and information we are learning from science about sustainable development. Consider a behavior like biking to work: a person’s rule-based system thinks it’s a great idea because of all the benefits (health, money savings, fitness), but his associative system responds with a definitive “No way!” perhaps because it just can’t handle the idea of walking into the office with “helmet hair.”
One way to empower sustainability is to make sustainable actions more appealing to the associative system (our mindset or second-nature). A second strategy is to get the attention of the rule-based system so that it can assert itself against the associative system’s rejection of a sustainable action (“Helmet hair is really no big deal. We’re biking!”). An even better strategy does both: makes a sustainable action appealing and attention-getting for both rational reasons as well as gut-feeling, associative-system reasons that fight-off first impulses of one’s mindset.
Therefore, ideas of sustainability are not as much about being able to put forth an adequate and acceptable definition as they are about cultivating a mindset and philosophical point of view that can help dissolve irrational resistance and encourage people to more easily embrace the concept through new knowledge and science, for example. But, the existence of mindsets, the nature of their development, and the headway gained through the expansion of human consciousness, are often overlooked in the larger sustainability discussion.
A significant change in mindset is necessary so that the actual operation and practice of sustainable development will become part of the subconscious, always present when thinking and acting in the context of for example, community development. Human capacity built upon the will of people to engage in work toward common aspirations and fueled by a mindset in tune with methods of sustainable development is the way of shifting society to a more productive and long-lasting state.
We discussed nine ideas that might frame a person’s mindset in thinking and acting more sustainably in a March 9th Post on this Blog. The reason for that discussion was to set a framework for people to reset their mindset with regards to sustainability by experiencing a new set of defining characteristics that would eventually become second-nature in the way people think. But besides the expression of intent of a person, community or corporation to become more sustainable, there needs to also be a shift in their “mindset” (and internal desire and commitment) that will really enact the systemic approach that successful outcomes in sustainability plans and actions demand. A mindset inclined toward sustainable development provides an open door for the person or institution to think about and act upon sustainable issues as a form of habit. This being the case, a formal definition of the phase is not as important as the second nature or philosophical awareness the person has for the subject.
Such devices as symbolism can help create a certain mindset appropriate for sustainable development problem-solving. For example, the three legs of the sustainability stool (ecology, economics, sociology) imply interaction with each other so seamlessly that we cannot make decisions, make policy, manufacture, consume, or act in any way without considering the effects and costs upon all three simultaneously. Advances in our scientific knowledge have led us to understand that environmental, economic, and social issues are more interdependent than we realized. The concurrent mindset promoted by these images helps to overcome a bias toward economic concerns, with ecological or social benefits an afterthought. If we are acting sustainably from a broader, system-wide perspective the environment can be preserved while considering economic health and societal well-being. But it takes a different mind-set than many of us possess.
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