By: Dr. Richard Osbaldiston
Global warming, melting polar ice caps, the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, super-storms like Sandy and Katrina—could psychology possibly have any ways to solve problems like these?
You might think that global environmental problems are beyond the scope of psychology. But actually, psychology offers a lot of insight into how to address these issues. In fact, psychology is rich with understanding about how to address these problems.
There is a whole field of psychology called “environmental psychology.” Environmental psychologists use the fundamental principles of psychology to get people to do good things for the environment. Let’s look at a couple of examples with a simple environmental behavior that everyone can do: recycling.
One of the most basic principles of psychology is that people do things which bring them pleasure, and they avoid things that bring them pain. How can we use the pleasure-pain principle to get people to recycle? We could pay them to recycle, or we could at least make it less painful to recycle by making it easier to do.
A more sophisticated theory is cognitive dissonance: when people realize there are contradictions between their beliefs and their behaviors, they will change their behaviors. Many people don’t recycle because they don’t realize how important it is. When they learn how badly our landfills are filling up and how important recycling is to reducing that problem, then they are left with a contradiction. On the one hand, they now know recycling is important, but on the other hand, they don’t recycle. People don’t like to feel these contradictions, it’s called dissonance. So they are motivated to reduce the dissonance by changing their behavior—and they start recycling more.
Environmental psychology is a powerful perspective on some of humanity’s greatest problems. If you want to make a difference that will be felt for generations to come, you can become an environmental psychologist.