Addressing complex environmental issues involving human behaviors is no simple task. Take climate change, for example. Human actions, such as the types of vehicles we drive or how much energy we consume at home, are important drivers of carbon emissions across the world. If we hope to address something as complex as climate change, we need individuals to not only change an occasional behavior, but we need them to make a wide range of positive environmental choices.
Now, many of the behavior change interventions used in the social sciences target a single environmental behavior. For example, we may give people feedback on their home energy use to convince them to use less energy, or our community may switch to home commingled recycling to raise recycling rates, instead of sorted recycling. But social scientists rarely consider trying to understand or change different types of proenvironmental behaviors at the same time.
Researchers in the health and medical sciences wrestle with similar issues. Numerous human behaviors contribute to an individual’s health, including smoking/drinking habits, dietary choices, and regular exercise. One behavior change approach they’ve taken is to try to design interventions that target numerous health behaviors at once, such as trying to help students eat healthier snacks AND exercise more frequently through educational activities and resources. In the environmental behavior change area the focus has been slightly different, instead pursuing “behavior spillover.” Behavior spillover is the idea that engaging in one proenvironmental behavior, perhaps saving energy at home, can lead to subsequent proenvironmental behaviors, such as saving water at home, or even increasing how much one recycles at home.
A fair amount of my research these days at the Vanderbilt Institute for Energy and Environment and the Vanderbilt Climate Change Research Network focuses on questions surrounding behavior spillover (e.g., When does it happen? When can it backfire, such that people actually engage in less of a second environmental behavior?), so I’ll definitely return to this specific idea in subsequent blogs. However, both the health sciences approach of changing numerous health behaviors at once and the environmental sciences approach of changing one behavior to initiate behavior spillover are both predicated on the idea that human behaviors are often related. Environmental behavior spillover can’t happen if conserving energy and conserving water at home are not related at some level.
Well, we still don’t know a lot about the more basic question of how consistently people perform various proenvironmental behaviors across contexts (e.g., do they recycle both at home and at work?). Improving our basic understanding of environmental behavior consistency would help us develop expectations about when environmental behavior spillover should occur. My colleague Alexander Rothman and I recently published an article exploring just this question of environmental behavior consistency (published version here and accepted version here).
A few interesting effects emerged from our research. First, as Figure 1 below shows, people were not entirely consistent in their self-reported environmental behaviors across physical settings. So, for example, student were most likely to report recycling paper at school, then at home, and far less frequently when they had the chance to recycle in their friends’ homes. Second, people were relatively consistent in conservation efforts (both conserving water and electricity) across settings.
Other follow-up analyses revealed that people were more consistent in their engagement in types of recycling and their engagement in types of conservation, but were less likely to jump from recycling to conservation behaviors, or from conservation behaviors to recycling. Why do these things matter? Well, they provide some evidence, albeit correlational and self-reported, that behavior spillover may be more likely between types of recycling behaviors or types of conservation behaviors than from a recycling behavior to a conservation behavior. And, it is more likely that people will engage a single behavior across physical settings--such as recycling paper at home and recycling paper at school--than it will be for people to both recycle and conserve in the same setting.
However, like all social science research, our work suggests additional unanswered questions. We relied on self-reports of environmental behavior in our survey. Are people actually this inconsistent when their rates of various behaviors are objectively measured? Can we induce greater consistency in people’s environmental behaviors across types of behaviors or settings? Are certain types of people more consistent in their behaviors across settings? These questions, and others, are questions worthy of future exploration.
What do you think?