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date: 19 August 2017

An Applied Approach to Psychology of Sustainability

Summary and Keywords

Based on current earth science findings, survival of our species will rely on better management of our relationships with the environmental system in which we reside. Accomplishing this requires the enlistment of a scientific understanding and management of our internal natural systems. Specifically, human urges that are oriented toward individual and small group well-being must be successfully managed to ensure species-level adaptation and survival. An essential first step for accomplishing this is to define a set of psychological criteria presumed to mediate the relationship between these individual urges and behavior at broader levels of analysis, and particularly organizational and community behaviors. Once criteria have been elaborated by key stakeholders, assessment and feedback processes common to major areas of applied psychology provide many options for intervention. This approach is at the heart of the applied psychology of sustainability that will be elaborated in this article. After defining the core problem and laying some foundational assumptions, an overview of this approach will be presented as a means to addressing the problem of using our psychological systems to manage our psychological systems’ effects on the environment.

Keywords: psychology of sustainability, applied psychology, evolutionary psychology, scientist-practitioner ethics, environmental psychology, conservation psychology, industrial-organizational psychology

Contrary to Darwin’s assumption that most adaptations are very context specific (Ermer, Cosmides, & Tooby, 2007; Price & Van Vugt, 2015), it appears that the evolution of the human neocortex has provided us with very broad adaptive capacities (Gottfredson, 1997). We have used our new brains—and the social structures we commonly form—to create artificial adaptations in the most extreme of physical environments, to rapidly manage exceptionally complex challenges, and to develop highly flexible systems that have revolutionized the relationship between living species and the broader natural environment. In terms of most criteria for adaptation, we have excelled wildly, enhancing individual survival and well-being to the point where we are at risk of outstripping the carrying capacity of our planet (never mind some specific ecological niche). We are a species run amok.

This ultimate “mismatch” between species adaptation and carrying capacity has led to massive extinctions of similarly successful organisms (e.g., parasitic organisms that overwhelm their hosts). But our adaptation has not been based on the sorts of fixed, highly predictable action patterns generally responsible for the success and demise of other species (Cialdini, 1988). Instead, this new form of adaptive system—flexible, broadly applicable, and rapid—poses a problem within a problem. Can we use our brains to solve the problems our brains have caused? Can we deliberately employ the same flexible adaptive systems (e.g., science) that have won us such evolutionary success to enhance our future survival beyond current planetary carrying capacity? Can we hope that our new adaptive abilities will help us to adjust for our massive organism-environment mismatch?

This article will follow a straightforward approach to answer this question. First, adaptation will be defined in terms of mental adaptations. It may seem obvious that human mental adaptations involve change. However, our ability to alter the direction and possibly the means of such change is central to solving this problem within a problem. So, rather than attending to outcomes in the physical environment that signal frightening changes (e.g., global warming, species extinction, toxic waste accumulation), there are several psychological outcomes that mediate between psychological processes and the daunting effects of our activities at broader (especially environmental) levels of analysis. These will be framed as five broad psychological criteria for adaptation that mediate between individual processes and environmental outcomes.

Second, this article will propose an applied approach, breaking somewhat from the traditional approaches taken by environmental and conservation psychology.

The Need for an Applied Psychology of Sustainability

There are several reasons for taking an applied approach. One is that there is a very substantial scientific literature evaluating the efficacy of large, mainstream methods. Sadly, little of this work has addressed sustainability (Boiral, Paillé, & Raineri, 2015; Huffman & Klein, 2013; Ones & Dilchert, 2013), and few of these methods have found their way into traditional environmental and conservation psychology (Jones, 2015). Still, the most widely used methods in this literature have succeeded at effecting widespread psychological change of the sort that positively influences both individual and broader organizational and community well-being.

Another reason for focusing on applied research is that most of the large applied subfields of psychology have established ethical codes of practice. Much of the current psychological research on sustainability has been accomplished by university researchers, where methods for addressing psychological outcomes need only conform to ethical codes of research conduct—not ethical codes of practice. The scientist-practitioner model (see Hakel, 2013) is a widely accepted code of practice in the large applied sub-disciplines (i.e., clinical, counseling, industrial-organizational, and educational psychology). Among other ethical requirements, the scientist-practitioner model requires that psychologists base their practices on the best available science, that they maintain confidentiality, and that they consider the interests of multiple stakeholders as they assist clients with decision processes.

Third, and related to this, applied areas have existing client relationships that can serve as ready avenues for change. There are many promising approaches that are not found in the applied literature (e.g., Devine-Wright, 2011), but, for most of these, the social groups that are consistently involved are within a small academic community of interest. The larger applied areas are deeply imbedded in social systems that can be highly influential for ethically crossing the levels of analysis needed to address the problem of sustainability (Jones, 2015). In particular, and in addition to the ethical codes that this embedding has spawned, scientist-practitioner research has done much to help understand the dynamics of stakeholder relationships essential to change. This relationship component of change is central to the methods described here.

Fourth, with a few exceptions, environmental and conservation psychology have contrived research from a fairly narrow academic perspective, with regard to both independent and dependent variables of interest (Giuliani & Scopelliti, 2009; Lévy-Leboyer, 1976; Schultz, 2014). Independent variables have been almost exclusively derived from basic research in the behaviorist perspective. This has followed appropriately from some of the earlier questions of traditional environmental psychology (Gifford, 2007a). But it is also an error of omission, missing questions that do not address individual behaviors in carefully defined stimulus environments. To emphasize this omission, mainstream environmental psychology has done almost no research to evaluate the many methods currently being used by practitioners to try to effect change (see Hattie, Marsh, Neill, & Richards, 1997 and Zelezny, 1999 for notable exceptions).

In terms of dependent variables, environmental psychology appears to have relied almost entirely on researchers themselves to define outcomes of interest (Matthies & Krömker, 2000; Steg & Vlek, 2009)—a decision that applied psychologists make on the basis of formal processes with clients (DuBois, Astakhova, & DuBois, 2013; Jones, 2015; Lévy-Leboyer, 1988; Ryan & Wilson, 2013). Not surprisingly, given the narrow focus on behaviorism, the dependent variable in the vast majority of published environmental psychology research is some collection of behaviors, with only secondary attention to the underlying patterns of such behaviors (see Karlin et al., 2014; Karlin, Zinger, & Ford, 2015; Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). Attitude outcomes have also been explored at some length, but again defined by academic researchers, rather than by reference to potential clients in the field (see Schwartz, Bruine de Bruin, Fischhoff, & Lave, 2015; Gifford et al., 2009; Devine-Wright, 2011 for recent exceptions). The only outcome requested by clients in paradigmatic environmental psychology appears to be postoccupancy evaluation of the livability of a built environment (Bechtel, 1996).

It should not come as a surprise to environmental psychologists (Gifford, 2007b; Oskamp, 2007; Weber & Stern, 2011) that policy makers and the public have paid little attention to a body of research that pays little attention to the questions as they are framed by these same interested parties (Uiterkamp & Vlek, 2007). Environmental and conservation psychologists are on the lookout for opportunities to use behavior analysis and attitude measurement to influence outcomes that small academic research teams and architect clients have deemed important. Integrating an applied perspective would help to refocus our broad and formidable science on understanding the psychology of the large number of people and organizations who are directly involved in decisions affecting sustainability. Ultimately, this could lead to a much greater impact (Uiterkamp & Vlek, 2007; Weber & Stern, 2011).

Thus, rather than critiquing 40 years of attempts in basic research to change our impact on the environment (Schultz, 2014), this article uses the term “psychology of sustainability” to distinguish an applied field of science-based practice (Jones, 2015) from traditional environmental and conservation psychology. Given the urgency of the problems of sustainability, psychologists would do well to follow the lead of successful applied areas. If we start by framing problems using interested parties’ definitions of them, then use prior research from many sub-disciplines to arrive at approaches to these, our science is more likely to be accepted and used.

Fundamental Assumptions

There are several problems which, once addressed, may bring greater coherence to the psychology of sustainability. Conveniently, these problems can be addressed by some fundamental assumptions underlying the methods used in applied psychology.

First, we have yet to empirically establish links between many environmental behaviors, on one hand, and environmental outcomes, on the other (Boiral et al., 2015; Whitmarsh, 2009). Some of these links may seem obvious, as in the case where turning lights off when leaving a room reduces energy consumption. Other behaviors are linked more ambiguously with environmental outcomes, as in the case where recycling glass requires the expenditure of considerable additional fossil fuel for transport to recycling facilities. In the absence of such links between behaviors and outcomes, it is hard to decide which psychological variables (e.g., “pro-environmental behaviors”) should be targeted to accomplish which environmental ends (Whitmarsh, 2009). Even more importantly, targeting scarce resources relies on a basis in the facts of a situation: Until we know some of the situational contingencies between behaviors and outcomes, it will be difficult to be efficient.

A fundamental assumption here is that linking human decisions with broader outcomes requires a situationally specific understanding of the decisions of people who are taking these decisions. The idea that there are general solutions that apply to all circumstances (Muchinsky & Raines, 2013) is still in the vocabulary of many practitioners and their clients—but not environmental psychologists. So, whenever possible, scientist-practitioners need empirical assessments of the situational system in which they are seeking to change human thinking and behavior. Gathering information about actors’ situational perceptions and motives helps to narrow the field of likely means to effect change.

A second problem contributing to the apparent incoherence of current psychological research on sustainability is the same narrow behavioral definition of the outcomes of interest that was discussed in the previous section (Giuliani & Scopelliti, 2009; Steg & Vlek, 2009). Integrating behavioral definitions with other, more ambiguous and complex psychological constructs (including heuristic decision making, individual differences, and cognitive learning) is an important challenge, since much of the applied research deals with these, rather than behaviors.

Applied researchers often deal with these other psychological variables by categorizing them logically and empirically. For example, the “Green Five” taxonomy (Ones & Dilchert, 2013) categorizes psychological variables using non-psychologist language (behavioral, cognitive, and social “actions”). Gattig and Hendrickx (2007) have developed a typology of risk perceptions that are relevant to policy decisions regarding sustainability. These may provide useful heuristics for practitioners who are talking with non-psychologists, as a means for categorizing, and to some extent directing, pro-environmental activities (Boiral et al., 2015).

However, there is, as yet, no scientific guide for interventions aimed at the problem within a problem posed here. Specifically, heuristic groupings have not yet accounted for other levels of analysis. Thus, a second assumption of the approach offered here is that effective action must link individual variables with criteria at broader levels of analysis (Gifford, 2007b). The broader levels of greatest importance appear to be organizational, community, and political levels, all of which will be addressed in this article.

Third, an important “next step” in applied psychology of sustainability is to organize effective processes through which psychological change can occur (Jones, 2015). Sustainable behaviors have been addressed using some of the variables found in major subfields, including clinical, industrial-organizational (I-O), and educational psychology. However, there have been few or no studies in other applied subfields, and the only organizing framework for the variables used has been these broad subfields themselves, and presumed “sustainability” outcomes. So, an article title may look something like “An I-O psychology perspective on sustainability,” rather than “Developing relationships for sustainable organizational change.”

One way to organize the variables linking individual with broader-level outcomes is through commonalities in the processes these subfields use for intervention. A third fundamental assumption here is based on such commonalities. Clinical, educational, and I-O psychologists rely heavily on the following common process:

  1. (1) arriving at a shared definition of desired outcomes among the primary parties to the professional relationship;

  2. (2) systematic assessment methods (i.e., individual difference inventories, situation analyses) to gain an empirical understanding of the current status of stakeholders before change is initiated;

  3. (3) inclusion of the interests of other key stakeholders in the decision process;

  4. (4) feedback to decision makers (Jones, 2015).

This process also encompasses the codes of ethical conduct in the largest applied subfields of psychology. Stated broadly, this ethical process is essential to effective, lasting change. It may appear cumbersome, but is actually efficient in the long term.

Five Psychological Criteria for Sustainability

Step one in this common process presents an enduring problem in applied psychology. For most, the issues around sustainability—both “pro” and “con”—are value-laden, however practically driven they may appear. This may be part of the reason that there is no scientific definition of the term “sustainability” itself; but it is certainly a major challenge to integrate multiple stakeholder criteria in practice. Called the “criterion problem” (Austin & Villanova, 1992), it has spawned a host of innovative and well-considered approaches to managing human behavior (e.g., Bartram, 2005).

The five criteria here provide a starting framework for this step in the intervention process. Specifically, they organize the long list of psychological criteria for sustainability according to an empirically driven decision process that is consistent with common science and practice. They also serve to clarify the intervention process for non-psychologist stakeholders, and make an essential first step toward understanding situational contingencies. Their primary purpose is to help scientist-practitioners to incorporate different stakeholder interests across levels of analysis in a particular situation.

In this vein, it bears repeating that an applied psychology of sustainability is not about changing external variables (e.g., carbon emissions, accumulation of toxic trash, etc.) directly, but rather about changing anthropocentric causes of these through managed, empirically driven, and ethically rational processes. In addition, an important lesson from successful applied psychological practice is that the relationship between client(s) and psychologist(s) is an essential focus of the change process. Stated more broadly, effective change relies on collective rather than individual action. This is implied in other pro-environmental taxonomies (e.g., Boiral et al., 2015; Ones & Dilchert, 2013), as is the ethical imperative of considering the interests of future human stakeholders in current collective decision processes.

Stated broadly, the five criteria are (1) discrepancy testing, (2) deliberative processing, (3) psychological change, (4) taking action, and (5) practicality. These will be elaborated in turn, using a “question and answer” format.

Criterion 1

When do people decide they have a problem and acknowledge it? Although many are convinced that humans are in serious danger of extinction as a result of our collective activity, there are also those who are unaware of the significance of anthropocentric environmental degradation, who deny it, or who discount its seriousness for various reasons. Perhaps because many researchers involved in the psychology of sustainability start with the assumption that there are important anthropocentric environmental problems (Swim et al., 2011), research regarding this criterion question has been scarce.

A simplistic answer to this question is just to try to increase awareness of environmental problems. In fact, sciences other than psychology have been widely quoted in the popular press about sustainability issues for many years, yet we seem to have made very modest progress toward positive change.

Fortunately, the concept of discrepancy testing provides some direction for answering this criterion question. It is derived from decision making (Beach, 2009; Carver & Scheier, 2012) and emotion research (Lang, 1995), which show that we rely on appraisals of situational cues to decide whether we need to take action or not, and the direction of that action (i.e., approach or avoid). In simplified form, we compare observed events to our expectations for how these events should unfold (see Russell & Friedrich, 2015 for a recent discussion of this in the context of sustainability). If our situation is appraised as consistent with expectations, then we tend to continue in our current thinking and action. If, however, we appraise things as discrepant from expectations, there is a greater likelihood of emotive responding and behavioral change.

The discrepancy test concept has been applied in various guises, including as threat/opportunity framing. It has the advantage of being applicable at the decision, individual, and group levels of analysis (see Ashkanasy & Humphrey, 2014; Jones, 2015), and can be used in practice to categorize situational perceptions of stakeholders at various levels of analysis.

Criterion 2

When do people use thoughtful, informed decision processes? It is not uncommon to hear people asking, “Why don’t people stop and think before …,” then include a host of bad environmental behaviors. Unfortunately, if Kahneman’s Nobel Prize–winning body of work (Kahneman, 2011) is any indication, deliberative thought and decision making (versus emotive responding, fixed action patterns, heuristic responding) are by far the exception. In terms of science-based practice, however, bringing this question, and several well-founded answers, to the attention of clients may have considerable value for (1) enhancing their own mindful consideration of the problems they are trying to address, (2) understanding which emotions, fixed action patterns, and heuristics are affecting behaviors, and (3) arriving at approaches to these problems that “match” better with the realities of the situation. In fact, it could be argued that the intervention process unfolding here is itself a deliberative process. Discussing this criterion question early in the process probably has considerable value.

Criterion 3

When do people change how they think and act? This is perhaps the most sought-after psychological criterion for sustainability. The good news here is that psychological science and practice provide an incredibly wide and deep body of research, not only about the basic mechanisms of change (i.e., learning, development, and other forms of psychological change), but also about the efficacy of various applied methods for change.

But before considering applied approaches, there is one very important and enduring question underlying any attempts at change: How quickly do various psychological characteristics allow us to attempt to adapt? Aspects of the human system that are more or less changeable can be considered on an adaptation continuum (Table 1). On one end, there is generational, genetic change that occurs at the species level in response to environmental change. On the other end, we work as groups to change the world to adapt it to us (artifices to heat and cool, get water, protect from elements, make and gather food, etc.). Between these are adaptations like language that are passed along through social identity (slow changes) and behavioral learning (with concomitant risks of error) that can occur within seconds. Table 1 provides one way of considering the rapidity of adaptation of major psychological characteristics.

Table 1. Adaptive Changeability of Psychological Characteristics (From Slowly to Quickly Changed)

1. Emotive responses (fixed action patterns from the social mammalian brain)

2. Decision biases and heuristics (decision and action shortcuts common across people)

3. Mental abilities (mostly established in early childhood)

4. Social identity and personality (derived through enculturation during young adulthood)

5. Cognitive & moral reasoning (principled responding to unique situations developed through the lifespan)

6. Social learning (developed through the lifespan by copying others’ behaviors in unique contexts)

7. Behavioral learning (changes that occur as a result of stimulus-response contingencies)

8. Social systemic innovation (made in the environment by groups to adapt it to themselves)

Methods available for change in applied settings are limited by the ease or rapidity of change. If clients are in a hurry, many of the kinds of change described in Table 1 will not be available as options. To confound the matter further, people have reliable tendencies to see themselves and others as more or less changeable (Burnette, O’Boyle, VanEpps, Pollack, & Finkel, 2013). If clients see humans as unchangeable, then they are less likely to attempt to make change than if they see humans as highly changeable (Burnette et al., 2013).

Given this, it makes some sense that social system innovation (item 8 in Table 1) is a very rapid option. It also helps to explain the efficacy of applied areas that take a social-systems approach. Environmental psychologists have demonstrated the value of social-systems approach as a way to influence consumption within specific circumstances (McKenzie-Mohr, 2000), and with the support of key community partners.

Bamberg’s (2013) recent work on stages of change also provides a powerful tool for understanding individual sustainable action.

Criterion 4

When do people take action? It should be clear by now that criterion questions 1–3 provide cumulative answers to this criterion question. However, the reasoning derived from psychological answers to question 3 also strongly suggest (again) that it is not individual action but collective action that is desired. So answering this question is actually at the heart of the psychology of sustainability (Bamberg, Rees, & Seebauer, 2015).

Criterion 5

What is likely to “work”? The question of practicality is pervasive in applied psychology. The approach suggested so far is itself practical, if its success in many situations is any indication.

What is not so obvious is that many experienced applied psychologists understand that they are not the ones making the actual decisions here (Jones & Culbertson, 2011). One way to characterize the entire role of scientist-practitioners is as decision facilitators. We provide this facilitation through all of the many tools of criterion development, deliberative assessment and feedback, and change inducement. But our role is entirely limited by the choices clients make.

Suggestions for Intervention

However, there are many aspects of intervention integrated with the core steps illustrated by the five criteria.

Table 2. One Example of a Systems-Oriented Assessment-Feedback Process

Input measure(s)

Process measure(s)

Outcome measure(s)

Level of analysis

1. Individual

Mental abilities


Performance ratings

Big Five personality



Long-term thinking

Place attachment

Environmental behaviors

2. Group

Mean knowledge

Group work simulation

Team performance

Variance in knowledge

Group cohesion

Recognition of expertise

3. Organization

Mean commitment

Business unit policies

Triple bottom line

Top management volunteering

Climate for creativity

4. Community

Level of education


Parks volunteering


Problem awareness

Environmental citizenship

Table 2 provides a quick description of a few of the kinds of measures available for the assessment and feedback process—steps 2 and 4 in the “common process” of applied psychology described in the section “Fundamental Assumptions.” Notice that Table 2 links the individual with broader levels of analysis. For example, a measure of commitment is used as an outcome at the individual level, with the purpose of predicting who will feel the greatest attachment to the organization or community group. Individual scores are then aggregated, and the average and variance of commitment across subgroups can be used as an input for predicting organization-level outcomes. The broader levels of greatest importance in this example are organizational and community levels. It should also be noted that this is neither comprehensive nor a guide for specific situations. Rather, based on an initial criterion discussion, it is an example of what may be used to guide practical assessment choices within a specific situation. A deeper discussion of the assessment process is available in Jones (2015).

Feedback Processes and Decisions for Change

It should be clear by now that there are no specific prescriptions for change offered here. Rather, applied psychology at best provides an ethically driven process for effecting change, rather than any one-size-fits all “solutions” often seen in practitioner literature.

The exception to this is discussion about feedback, which, when facilitated well, is a powerful source for change (see London, 2015). It is beyond the scope of this article to elaborate on effective feedback discussions. Suffice to say that, when the discovery process described here is accomplished effectively, there is considerable value derived during facilitated feedback discussions. To the extent that all stakeholders’ interests have been addressed through criterion definition and choices of assessments, it is likely that feedback will lead to more practical and effective change. Put in more familiar terms, this process is a group process. It not only involves many stakeholders; it relies on them for adequate criterion definition, assessment, feedback acceptance, and implementation.


However recent the science-based practice of human psychology is relative to some of the earth sciences, this article provides both an argument for why we need to use what we know so far, and something about how to do so in applied settings. We do know that there are many forms of mismatch between our early evolutionary environment and the psychological precursors that have led to environments we have created for ourselves through artificial adaptation. We also know that any attempts to manage the problems associated with this mismatch will require a situationally specific process, which engages stakeholders on problems that span across levels of analysis.

This article has provided a four-step approach to accomplishing science-based interventions. Particular attention needs to be paid to stakeholder-change agent relationships and to the ethical conduct of science-based practice, following from common processes in applied psychology. Fortunately, there are substantial research literatures on which to base practices aimed at the five criteria, which are extensively elaborated elsewhere (Jones, 2015; London, 2015).

Further Reading

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