Environmental polls show that while an overwhelming majority of individuals are very keen to be green, only a small minority actually purchase environmentally friendly products or curb their household consumption (Home Depot, 2010). Clearly, changing people’s environmentally significant behavioural patterns is a huge challenge. Evolutionary psychologists look deep into humans’ evolutionary roots for possible answers and solutions.
Natural selection has endowed humans with a psychology best suited for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (Dunbar and Barrett, 2007). This means that a large portion of human-inflicted ecological damage may well be caused, or exacerbated, by innate psychological tendencies to prioritise self-interest, discount the future, prefer relative over absolute status, imitate others, and ignore novel evolutionary threats such as global climate change (Penn, 2003). Yet research suggests that these evolved preferences can be harnessed to help develop sustainability policies and behaviour change campaigns that can foster environmentally sustainable action Griskevicius, Cantu and van Vugt, 2012).
Take the all-too-human concern with self-interest. Evolutionary theory sees selfinterest not as being equal simply to the interest of an individual person, but as extending to kin who share our genes. Research shows that a message urging people to conserve is more effective if it emphasises that there may not be enough left for our children or grandchildren (Neufeld et al., 2011). Kin appeals will always win over non-kin appeals. Even fake labels or slogans such as “Mother Nature” or “We are family” may produce proenvironmental change.
Then there is the human tendency to discount the future. Research shows that people prefer immediate smaller rewards over future larger rewards (Penn, 2003). But evolutionary life history theory suggests that people vary in how much they discount the future. Their behaviour here depends on how certain they believe that future to be. People discount the future less if they see their environments as safe and predictable (Griskevicius et al., 2012b). This implies, for example, that interventions to encourage individuals to develop a more sustainable lifestyle should focus on making neighbourhoods safer and crime-free, and keeping families and communities together (Van Vugt, 2009). Findings also suggest that local gender ratios influence the discount rates (Griskevicius et al., 2012). When women are perceived to be scarce, and men are less certain they can find a mate, our research has shown that men become more impulsive and engage more in conspicuous consumption. Conveying to men that women prefer mates with a sustainable lifestyle could help encourage them to take the future more seriously.
A third evolved tendency is the desire for status, which fuels the excessive purchase of luxury goods with significant costs to the environment (Frank, 1985). Psychological and econometric studies show that an increase in status does not necessarily make people happier. The average United States income has increased by 140% since 1946, but the average happiness has not changed (Diener and Suh, 2000). A more effective strategy would take relative status into account in one or more ways. For example, a desire for relative status can promote environmentalism through the use of competition. “Competitive environmentalism” has been shown to work when lists of the greenest companies are published (Griskevicius et al., 2012). After all, no company wants to be the last on the list. Our research also shows that naming and shaming campaigns are great ways to get companies, cities and private individuals to act in more sustainable ways (Hardy and Van Vugt, 2006).
A fourth contributor to environmental problems is the human tendency to imitate what others around us do. Research shows that even when people say that the behaviour of their neighbours has little effect on their own environmental behaviours, it is actually one of the strongest predictors of their energy and water use (Van Vugt, 2001). Because of this copying tendency, asking households to consume less energy or water will fail if they are not convinced many others will do the same (Van Vugt, 2009). This also mean that depicting bad environmental practices as occurring frequently is counterproductive. Research in hotels shows that when guests are told that most guests re-use their towels at least once during their stay, re-usage increases (Goldstein, Cialdini and Griskevicius, 2008). OPOWER, a United States utility company, already uses this social imitation strategy by providing householders with information on how their electricity usage compares with that of their neighbours (Cuddy and Doherty, 2010). A “smiley” emoticon appears on their bill if usage is lower than average and a “frowney” if it is higher. Governments and councils could oblige utility companies to provide this kind of feedback.
The fifth evolved psychological trait undermining effective behaviour change is the tendency to ignore evolutionary novel threats. Humans are poor at taking on board the severity of environmental risks unless we can detect them with our senses (Slovic, 1987). We tend to respond more readily to environmental threats that we can see, hear, feel or smell (Griskevicius, Cantu and Van Vugt, 2012). If there is no tangible link between our
behaviours and environmental outcomes, few of us change our habits. At the same time, we should recognise that humans evolved in natural environments, and this may have instilled an innate love of nature, of life and living systems (what is known as biophilia) (Penn, 2003; Van Vugt, 2009). Our research shows that when city-dwellers are exposed to nature, they discount the future less (Steentjes and Van Vugt, 2011).
Evolutionary psychology has important insights for the way we approach environmental behaviour change campaigns. Working against evolved human nature guarantees low effectiveness, while working with it increases the likelihood of intervention success.
This article was originally published in the World Social Science Report 2013, see full text including full references.
A longer version of this article was published in 2012 as V. Griskevicius, S. M. Cantu and M. van Vugt, “The evolutionary bases for sustainable behaviors: Implications for marketing, policy and social entrepreneurship”, Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, Vol. 31, pp. 115-128.