As a social and environmental psychologist, Josefine Geiger looks into what motivates people to act in environmentally friendly ways. According to her, if we manage to overcome the barriers we sometimes perceive, an individual could have a lot of impact. However, we need a little push. From others, so we can mirror them, and from those making the rules. But most of all: it needs to be positive so we stay motivated.
Text: Marrit Wouda / Photos: Henk Veenstra
When it comes to societal challenges there is enough for Geiger to study. A lot of her work focuses on sustainable behaviour. ‘Of course, I can tell you that recycling or reducing your waste is important. But if you are not really engaged with that topic, the information alone won’t motivate you to change your behaviour. People are always looking for information that corresponds with their own values, the things that are close to their own identity,’ she explains. ‘Those that have strong so-called environmental values, value sustainability and are more likely to do a little extra to act sustainably. However, there is a big middle group that feels a bit more neutral towards it. They need a little extra push to act.’
The push came in the form of a paper coffee cup and, later, an art installation. Geiger collaborated with a designer to create a cup that people would associate with sustainability. The basis was that this association would make people focus on their environmental values, and that this would motivate them to take the literal extra steps to recycle the cup. Her experiment concluded that participants with the ‘sustainable’ cup were indeed more likely to recycle it. Later, Geiger used an artwork to demonstrate a similar process. ‘We wanted to see if we could stimulate people’s environmental self-identity, or in other words, the extent to which they see themselves as a pro-environmental person. We first had people take their picture in a photo booth to sensitize them to their identity. They then moved on to the second room containing an art installation with a video. The video showed a child talking about the importance of acting environmentally friendly and saying participants did a lot for the environment in the past, that small things matter, and that that was a good thing.’ The participants then filled in a questionnaire, and Geiger observed whether they recycled the envelope the questionnaire came in. ‘We concluded that, when you strengthen people’s environmental self-identity and environmental values through art or design, they are more likely to act on these values. The art installation really strengthened people’s identities and gave them a good feeling about themselves.’
‘One thing I really love about studying humans is that we are so complex. There is always something new to look into,’ Geiger says. But her work is even better when she has the chance to work with other disciplines. ‘I’m aware of the strength of my own discipline, but I also know what its limits are,’ Geiger says. ‘I strongly believe in the interdisciplinary approach. Working together is the only way to find solutions for societal challenges.’ The power of working together is also key in Geiger’s next project. Together with colleagues from the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Science and Engineering, she’ll work on a project that aims to raise awareness of microplastics and to promote preventive behaviours; behaviours that reduce one’s microplastics emission and exposure. ‘We don’t know a lot about microplastics yet, but we do know they are everywhere: in deep-sea fish, in our lungs, in placentas,’ Geiger explains. Their goal is to create something, an intervention, that focuses on the things people have control over, like ventilating their homes and vacuuming to limit the amount of inhaled particles. ‘It should also be interactive, so we’ll be looking at gamification so people can actively engage with the information,’ she continues. ‘The goal is to leave them with a positive feeling about the impact they can have’.
There is a reason Geiger mentions interactivity and positivity: they can be critical factors in motivating people. Solely providing information not only does little to motivate people, it might even make people defensive of their own values and actions. Or even worse, it might make them apathetic or pessimistic if people are presented with yet another crisis they need to help solve. It is therefore essential to emphasize the things we can do. ‘If we read a lot of pessimistic things in the media, you could lose that optimism,’ Geiger says. ‘But we greatly underestimate how much others care about this topic, how much they are already doing, and what the effects of those actions are.’ Because it’s not just the actual effects of individual actions, we also inspire each other, and because we want to mirror the behaviour of others, we slowly change the social norm. ‘If everyone is baking vegan cakes for the bake sale, you don’t want to be the odd one out!’ Geiger says, laughing. ‘Besides, it’s very motivating to know you are not doing it alone.’
Of course, it is naive to think that the responsibility for taking action only lies with the individual. Policymakers can–and should–do a lot more to limit environmental impact, like limiting the use of plastic in a way that works for us. Taxing plastic take-away containers is not going to lead to less plastic use, when restaurants don’t allow customers to use their own containers. ‘Because that’s just making things more difficult, creating a whole new barrier to act sustainably,’ Geiger explains. ‘The perceived feasibility is extremely important. So, if you make sure the barriers people experience are very low, people feel like they are facilitated and the behaviour becomes easy, and then it can become a habit.’ According to Geiger, removing those barriers is, in many cases, beyond the responsibility of the individual. ‘But I think we do have influence, as a mass. And in order to mobilize the masses, it’s important to be a role model and to try to change those social norms.’ In the end, we do have impact–individually but especially as a group. Geiger is positive of that.
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