Making Every Day Earth Day, the Behavioral Science Way

This is a photo of kids picking up trash in a field.One day every year, April 22, is dedicated to the care and stewardship of the Earth. Events are organized around the world in honor of what is officially known as “International Mother Earth Day,” convening people to plant trees and clean up rivers, urging them to reduce their energy usage and minimize their overall environmental footprint.

But how can we convert the enthusiasm and effort contained in one day into long-lasting changes in motivation and behavior that flow throughout the other 364 days of the year?

Recent research from psychological science reveals some important strategies:

Focus on the Earth’s long future

Looking back on a nation’s past can prompt action that leads to a greener future, according to research conducted by NYU Stern researcher Hal Hershfield and colleagues H. Min Bang and Elke U. Weber of Columbia University.

The findings suggest that one strong way to encourage environmentally-friendly behavior is to emphasize the long life expectancy of a nation,  rather than its imminent downfall.

Put a face on environmental causes

Focusing on social causes like energy conservation, recycling, and the environment, researchers Hee-Kyung Ahn of Hanyang University (South Korea), Hae Joo Kim of Wilfrid Laurier University (Canada), and Pankaj Aggarwal of the University of Toronto Scarborough and the Rotman School of Management (Canada), found that anthropomorphizing the causes — by including an emotive human-like face on campaign posters for the causes — effectively increased support for each cause.

The researchers found that the campaigns were effective because they appealed to people’s sense of guilt.

Emphasize the benefits of green space

People who live in urban areas with more green space tend to report greater well-being than city dwellers who don’t have parks, gardens, or other green space nearby, according to research from Mathew White and colleagues at the European Centre for Environment & Human Health at the University of Exeter Medical School.

Analyses of data from a national longitudinal survey of households in the United Kingdom showed that individuals reported less mental distress and higher life satisfaction when they were living in greener areas. And this association held even after the researchers accounted for changes in participants’ income, employment, marital status, physical health, and housing type.


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