The annual pilgrimage of social science scholars and environmental advocates to the Sustainability Psychology Preconference at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology led to Atlanta this year. If you couldn't make it, here were some of the themes and discussions from the day.
Dr. Greg Walton started us off with his keynote address, exploring strategies to ensure the “sustainability” of environment behaviors over time. Many environmental actions need to be engaged in consistently over time to have a meaningful effect, such as the need to maintain efforts to save energy at home or travel efficiently. Truth be told, social scientists have not done a great job of assessing ways to effectively change environmental behaviors over the long-term. Dr. Walton reflected on recent research on “recursive change,” or creating physical structures and social contexts that help people maintain their environmental actions over time. For example, Dr. Walton discussed some of his work with colleagues focusing on “dynamic social norms,” or helping people appreciate how members of their community are increasingly trying to make a positive difference. By leveraging perceptions of community improvement, people can develop a desire to contribute to that positive change, potentially leading to the sustained environmental actions of many community members.
Our first session focused on innovative theoretical and methodological approaches to environmental psychology. Dr. Erin Hanh explored how children think about the environment in moral terms (e.g., is it wrong to harm the environment, and is it more or less worse compared to harming other people?), and how children’s stories can help children appreciate the importance of nature. Next, Dr. Paul van Lange examined why climate change is such a difficult dilemma to address, with a focus on how climate change is abstract, uncertain, extends far into the future, and requires cooperation across nations and social groups. Strategies that can help people overcome these difficulties include emphasizing local impacts of climate change, helping people appreciate the long-term implications of climate change, and including impartial mediators to help groups reach agreement on courses of action. Finally, Dr. Katherine Lacasse presented interdisciplinary research with climate scientists on how best to model the effect of people’s beliefs and actions on climate change outcomes, such as future global temperature change. Dr. Lacasse’s work with her colleagues is at the forefront of trying to improve climate change modeling that has largely ignored the specific human dimensions of the drivers of climate change outcomes.
The final session of this year’s preconference pondered insights to be gained by greater cross-pollination from public engagement efforts and environmental research. Dr. Toby Bolsen considered how efforts to politicize climate change science undermines messages about the overwhelming scientific consensus regarding human-caused climate change. However, warning people about politicization efforts ahead of time can weaken the effect of these politicization efforts. Next, Dr. Reuven Sussman explored the balancing act in the energy efficiency world of using social-scientific theory and rigorous methodologies while also pursuing pragmatic and effective energy interventions and policies. Finally, Dr. Irina Feygina outlined how to use research insights to promote effective climate change communication strategies, including highlighting the health, economic, and social implications of climate change.
Per tradition, we also had brief data blitz talks and poster presentations covering a wide range of topics touching on social science and sustainability. If you would like to look over some of the invited speakers’ slides, data blitz talks, or posters, many of presenters have generously allowed us to share their presentation materials, which can be accessed here.
Next year we’ll be gathering in Portland, Oregon for the 8th annual Sustainability Psychology Preconference at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. We hope to see you there!