The purpose of this paper is to explore how human behavior can affect the environment negatively and positively. The natural environment is imperative for human life. In the past, individuals have interacted with nature, but with some disruptive consequences such as pollution, crowding in urban built environments, and noise, among others. At the same time, they have also enriched the quality of the environment by introducing elements of the artificial landscape, plantations, and soil improvement, among others.
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Today, however, people have continued to exert greater pressure on the natural environment. As a result, there is massive disruption and fragmentation of nature settings and total destruction of fauna and flora.
How environmental cues shape behavior
Environmental cues shape human behaviors because they make people perceive a certain environment in a given way and behavior in a manner that fits that environment. For instance, an experiment with littering highlighted how individuals reacted.
A study with paper fliers placed on cars in a littered hospital car parking space revealed that drivers who found fliers on their cars removed them, but almost half of them dropped the fliers on the car parking lot (Cialdini, Reno, & Kallgren, 1990). On the other hand, when the car parking space was kept clean, few drivers dropped the fliers on the parking lot.
This experiment showed that the littered environment shaped how people reacted to it. In this regard, the car owners adopted behaviors that seemed most suitable, given their environmental conditions.
This study reveals that individuals may have specific personalities, but environmental contextual cues may change these personalities and make people behave in a way that matches a given situation. In addition, environmental cues may force people to change their behaviors from time to time, depending on that specific environment. That is, litterbugs may change their habits in clean environments.
Overall, environmental cues can change and reshape people’s behaviors based on specific situations.
How behavior can be modified to support sustainability
It is possible to modify human behaviors to promote environmental sustainability. While many people recognize the need to conserve environments, their behaviors and actions do not support sustainability. As a result, there are negative impacts on the environment.
Several factors influence individuals’ behaviors, including psychological factors and external environmental cues. Therefore, motivation to support environmental sustainability behaviors may not be adequate.
The above experiment shows that sustainability behaviors could be situational. In other words, a person may decide to behave in a way that supports sustainability, but the situational circumstances may hinder such behaviors. Therefore, it is imperative to reinforce an individual’s behaviors that support sustainability in any given environment.
Specific actions may modify individuals’ behaviors to support sustainability. For instance, Cialdini noted that communications could be used to promote social norms and result in effective societal, beneficial conduct such as reducing littering (Cialdini, 2003). However, it is imperative to recognize specific situations that can make normative information to fail and result in unintended outcomes. According to Cialdini (2003), attempts to communicate messages that reinforce sustainability behaviors should not only have “descriptive norms (what people generally do) but also include injunctive norms (what people typically approve or disapprove) to optimize the power of normative appeals” (p. 105). The author points out that it is imperative to highlight descriptive norms (littering) to promote environmentally beneficial behaviors when communicating sustainability efforts. Communication, therefore, is a single way of modifying people’s behaviors to support sustainability, but communicators must understand how norms could affect the efforts to modify behaviors.
How social norms can influence environmental behaviors and beliefs
A study shows that descriptive norms (what people typically do) could be risky when environmentally harmful behavior is common (Cialdini, 2003). In other words, social practices (beliefs and behaviors) that reinforce environmental degradation may have negative impacts on the environment when communicated directly.
At the same time, behaviors, and beliefs that support environmentally friendly practices reinforce behaviors that support sustainability. People behave in specific ways because of their value and belief systems, as well as because of other factors that influence their behaviors, such as incentives. For example, people may support energy conservation and reduce littering because majorities of people believe that these efforts are the social norms and therefore approve them. In addition, if there were financial incentives to promote energy conservation and recycling, then many people would support such behaviors. This suggests that policies that influence beliefs and behaviors toward the environment could create social norms that promote environmental conservation. Hence, such activities become social norms when individuals interact with their environments.
Ann Kinzig argues that any approach to combat climate change should focus on public values and behavior because “pro-environmental behaviors (e.g., recycling and water conservation) can influence pro-environmental values, and that the interaction works in reverse” (Kinzig, 2013, para. 3).
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Solutions that could change behavior and lessen negative environmental impact
According to Kinzig, policymakers should use laws and regulations to change individuals’ behaviors to promote environmental conservation efforts such as recycling and energy efficiency by focusing on social values and the associated behaviors (Kinzig, 2013). The researcher notes that pro-environmental behaviors, such as conservation and recycling, could result in pro-environmental values (Kinzig, 2013). In other words, public policies, laws and regulations, incentives, and information should aim to promote behaviors that reinforce environmental conservation and lessen negative environmental consequences (Vugt, 2009).
Individuals behave in certain manners because of their values and belief systems. Values, however, may change based on an individual’s behaviors. While people may engage in environmental conservation behaviors because of incentives, for instance, but over time, the repeated behaviors may indicate the actual outcomes of conservation and create value for it. Therefore, if policymakers formulate policies that promote pro-environmental behaviors, then the behavior may become the norm through repeated actions and an established value system.
Behavioral change supported by laws and incentives could be the starting point for reducing detrimental behaviors on the environment and lessening the impacts of such behaviors. This approach could lessen the negative impacts on the environment and ensure a sustainable future.
Communication strategies on social norms on the environment could also change behaviors and reduce negative environmental impacts (Cialdini, 2003). Campaign developers should include both descriptive norms and injunctive norms to ensure the most suitable norm-based persuasive model that can influence individuals’ behaviors toward environmental conservation. A communication strategy should provide information to reinforce a behavior if it is environmentally beneficial and approved by majorities (Vugt, 2009).
This essay has explored how human behavior can affect the environment negatively and positively. It shows that people have engaged in behaviors that are both detrimental and supportive of the environment. Nevertheless, detrimental individual behaviors have created far-reaching impacts on the natural environment. As a result, there is a need to promote behaviors that support environmental conservation.
Human behavior is situational and may be reinforced to provide the desired outcomes. Positive social norms can promote behaviors that facilitate environmental conservation. At the same time, communication strategies, policies, laws, and regulations alongside incentives may change behaviors and reduce negative impacts on the environment.
Cialdini, R. B. (2003). Crafting Normative Messages to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(4), 105-109. doi: 10.1111/1467-8721.01242.
Cialdini, R.B, Reno, R.R., & Kallgren, C. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 1015-1026.
Kinzig, A. (2013, March). Social Norms, Behavior Influence Environmental Policy. BioScience Magazine. Web.
Vugt, M. V. (2009). Averting the Tragedy of the Commons: Using Social Psychological Science to Protect the Environment. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 18(3), 169-173. Web.