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Sustainable behaviour is the key to a better climate

Last month, Professor Linda Steg was awarded the Stevin Prize for her pioneering work in environmental psychology. In her research, she investigates how to influence sustainable behaviour. The coronavirus pandemic is offering new starting points.

Text: Bert Platzer; Photo: Reyer Boxem; Source: Broerstraat 5, October 2020

When car tyres are inflated to the right pressure, you drive more economically and therefore more environmentally friendly. But how can you encourage car owners to actually check their tyre pressure every two months? Should you point out the financial, or the environmental benefits? ‘The vast majority of people think that the financial message works best, but it’s actually the least effective,’ says Linda Steg. ‘People think: I can’t be bothered to go to all that trouble for a few euros. But they will do it for the environment, because it makes them feel good. And if you anticipate those positive emotions with your message, that will motivate people to act.’

Linda Steg

We have known for a long time now how technological solutions can help us to tackle the climate crisis. And yet we have only made moderate progress in that area. But why? Steg, Professor of Environmental Psychology, has spent the best part of the last 25 years trying to find an answer to that question. Or, to be more precise: Steg investigates how we can understand, predict and influence sustainable behaviour, for example with the physical environment. She was also one of the founders of a new, interdisciplinary field of research: environmental psychology.

Sustainable behaviour is determined by four types of values, Steg explains: hedonistic, selfish, altruistic and environmental values. ‘We want to have fun, to conserve or increase resources such as money and status. We want other people to have a good life, and we want high-quality nature and environment. Everybody thinks these goals are important to some extent, but their relative importance varies and that influences the choices you make. But if you have strong environmental values, for example, you might not insulate your house because you have no idea how to actually do that or you have no appetite to start a major renovation project. Because that’s a threat to your hedonistic values.’

This type of human behaviour fascinates Steg. ‘I’m just really interested in what motivates people to contribute towards a collective good, in this case the environment, even though they might not have a vested interest in it in the short term and their own contribution is actually very small. We are not only driven by extrinsic incentives, such as subsidies or punishment, to do something. We also do things because we think they’re important.’

Anyone wondering whether Steg regularly checks the pressure of her own car tyres will be left disappointed. ‘I never share my own opinions or talk about my behaviour because I’m afraid that might affect how people react to my research, that they’ll say what they think I want to hear. So I keep that to myself.’

When Steg completed her PhD thesis, entitled Reducing car use through behavioural change (Gedragsverandering ter vermindering van het autogebruik), in 1996, sustainable behaviour wasn’t really on the agenda. It was only in the last ten years that Steg’s research field experienced a breakthrough, driven by the climate crisis. Whereas research into climate change was initially very much based on the natural sciences and focused primarily on technical solutions, over the past ten years there has been a growing realization that research also needs to look at the behaviour of those people who are required to embrace these solutions.

For example, in 2014 Steg collaborated on an advisory report for the Council for the Environment and Infrastructure on the use of behavioural knowledge in policy. ‘For the advisory report we came up with a game that challenged policymakers to think about the behavioural aspects of their policy. That was very well received and used a lot. The ministries have since hired behavioural scientists to ensure that behavioural knowledge is more systematically included in policy development.’ And for a report published by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018, Steg also compiled an overview of what motivates people to contribute to the fight against climate change and what influences support for climate policy and system changes in, for example, agriculture and the generation of energy.

Steg believes that the coronavirus pandemic offers a number of starting points for achieving such systemic changes. ‘The IPCC reports always question how long such a change will take and whether it is at all realistic. Now we have seen that, if you have a very clear policy, you can achieve large-scale changes in a short space of time. During the coronavirus pandemic, we all suddenly started to work from home en masse. We knew from research that, initially, there is often resistance to certain changes, such as working from home. But if it’s actually implemented and people can see the benefits themselves, they’re often positive about it.’

Part of the €2.5 million awarded for the Stevin Prize has already been earmarked. Steg wants to investigate whether companies behave like people or operate much more rationally when it comes to sustainability. ‘My hypothesis is that companies behave just like people. The interesting thing is that sustainable companies also induce sustainable behaviour among their employees, especially among those who aren’t particularly interested in the environment.’

She also wants to look at how individuals, governments and companies interact with each other. ‘Regardless of how we deal with climate change, it will have major implications for the way we live. Most modelling studies have shown that the only way to keep global warming below one and a half degrees is through behavioural changes. But if we say that we’re not going to do anything to combat climate change and that we will just adapt, that will also have huge implications and we will have to completely change the way we live, because we will have to do a lot more to protect the Netherlands against rising sea levels, heat and drought. I want to find out which solutions people want and why, and under what conditions. So to approach the issue from more of a system perspective.’

Besides the money for her research, Steg is especially delighted that the work of her group and the whole research field has been recognized. ‘This prize isn’t just for me. A large group of people contributed towards it – people in my research group, but also those people who supervised me and with whom I have collaborated. And science is never an isolated project. I’ve received a lot of messages from colleagues around the world saying that this award is fantastic for our field. I think it’s great that they feel that way, because they also contributed towards it. They give feedback on our papers, I work with them, so I have also been inspired by them. You always need other people to hone and develop your ideas.’

CV

Linda Steg (1965) studied Andragogy at the University of Groningen, where she also obtained her PhD. She worked as a researcher at the University of Groningen’s Centre for Environmental and Traffic Psychology and at the Netherlands Institute for Social Research. Steg has been a Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Groningen since 2009 and is considered one of the most innovative and influential pioneers of environmental psychology.

Last modified:21 October 2020 12.59 p.m.
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