Learning Header Photo of Highway and TrafficLearning

Click one of the links below or scroll down the page to see:

Lecture/Discussion Topics

B.F. Skinner On Promoting Green Behaviors

As students learn about behaviorism, instructors can include information about B. F. Skinner’s take on the environmental crisis. In a 1982 address to the American Psychological Association (published in 1987), Skinner criticized efforts of environmental (and other) social activist groups as not consistent with operant learning principles. Rather than focusing on inspiring guilt, fear, and shame, which are ineffective in motivating “greener” behaviors, Skinner argued that such groups should instead help individuals see the potentially reinforcing consequences of pro-environmental lifestyles. Environmental advocates and educators commonly find that one of the barriers to people changing their behavior in a sustainable direction is the perception that being green requires sacrifice and discomfort. Simplicity is perceived as lack, less resource intensive is seen as primitive. Ask students to consider what reinforcers (both positive and negative) are potentially present in greener lifestyles. For example, the boost in self-esteem that comes from feeling like one is doing the right thing could be positively reinforcing while the reduction of stress that comes with adopting a simpler lifestyle could be negatively reinforcing.

Behaviorally Based Strategies For Sustainability

Since the early days of the ” green decade” of the 1970s, researchers have tested whether altering the contingencies associated with environmentally impactful behaviors is a successful strategy for changing those behaviors. For example, rewards have been shown to increase (at least temporarily) earth friendly behaviors such as riding public transportation (Everett, 1981) and cleaning up litter (e. g., Casey & Lloyd, 1977). Other successful behaviorally-based techniques include providing positive reinforcement in the form of recognition for individuals who effectively alter their behavior or who promise to make changes, altering antecedent stimuli by providing personalized information to guide conservation efforts, and providing reinforcing feedback on the results of an individual’ s efforts (for reviews of the application of behavioral principles, see Abrahamse & Steg, 2013; Abrahamse, et al., 2007; Lokhorst et al., 2013; Osbaldiston & Schott, 2012). Ask students to consider how incentives for environmentally-friendly behavior may ultimately undermine instrinsic motivation stemming from proenvironmental values (e. g., Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999).

Applied Behavioral Science/Behavioral Engineering

Applied behavioral science (also known as behavioral engineering) techniques involve altering either the a) antecedent stimuli that signal or prompt a particular behavior, or manipulating the b) consequences of behavior. Geller and colleagues (2016) and Scott et al. (2016) reviewed the most commonly used techniques for encouraging environmentally responsible behavior (ERB):

Antecendent Strategies: 

  • Information is most effective if it is a) tailored for the target group; b) focused on relatively easy behaviors with few barriers; and supported by social networks and norms.
  • Prompts should be specific, polite, and posted close to the point where the behavior occurs.
  • Modeling capitalizes on social learning, where someone demonstrates the desired behavior.
  • Commitments to engage in a particular behavior are effective, particularly when they are made voluntarily and in public.

Consequence Strategies: 

  • Rewards via rebates and other financial incentives can be effective, particularly for one time actions like appliance or vehicle purchases; however they are (obviously) costly to implement.
  • Feedback about an individual’s accomplishment can enhance motivation to continue engaging in the behavior. The feedback can be informational (e.g., energy reduction or water use) and/or social. An interesting study by Schultz and colleagues (2007) combined these factors; it’s described below in Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

It is important to note (or have students discuss) the fact that most contingencies in most settings do not support environmentally responsible behavior. Instructors could also ask students to consider how incentives for environmentally-friendly behavior may ultimately undermine instrinsic motivation stemming from proenvironmental values (e. g., Deci, Koestner, & Ryan, 1999; see also Gatersleben, Murtagh & Abrahamse, 2014, for a discussion of the role of values and identity in predicting pro-environmental behavior).

Are We Predisposed To Learn (un)sustainable Behaviors?

Biologically we are predisposed to learn some behaviors more easily than others. Babies do not have generally have much trouble learning to eat, talk, and walk because these are behaviors that are fundamental to our survival. One could argue that living sustainably is also fundamental to the survival of our species, but many of our habitual behaviors are inconsistent with sustainable living. Is this because some behaviors that were adaptive for our stone-age ancestors are not well-matched to today’s context? Is it because the behaviors that we will need to adopt for a sustainable future would have been maladaptive for our stone age ancestors? Is it because the immediate gratification we receive for nonsustainable behaviors is more salient than the negative consequences that we (or future generations) will eventually face for that behavior? This topic is likely to generate a lively discussion among students.

Unsustainable Addictions

Instructors could make the case that many of us in Western Industrialized cultures are essentially addicted to unsustainable ways of life. Ask students to identify antecedents (i.e., discriminative stimuli including certain feeling states (boredom, anxiety), models, and prompts) that trigger compulsive buying of material goods, over-eating including junk food, uses of technology, and the reinforcers for doing so (immediate gratification, social status/recognition, etc). How might contingencies be restructured to foster more sustainable practices? Further analysis could include the relative importance of intrinsic vs. extrinsic reinforcement.  

Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Have students discuss Skinner’s philosophy that there is no such thing as free will; all behavior results from the structure of environmental (situational) contingencies. Note that he wasn’t implying that people don’t have choices. Rather, that choices aren’t really ‘free,’ but are based on the individual’s history and current contingencies of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is generally effective because it inspires the feeling of freedom; actual or threatened punishers feel coercive and can build resentment.

Instructors can relate this concept to a classic field experiment by Schultz and colleagues (2007).  Homeowners received comparison information on their energy bills, comprised of descriptive normative information about average energy use in their neighborhood. This was presented alongside information about the individual household’s use. Of course, some residences used more energy than average, while others used less. Because people tend to conform to social norms, higher users reduced their usage to be more consistent with the neighborhood average. However, normative influence led many lower users to increase their usage!  Schultz et al. found the key to alleviating this “boomerang effect” was to include additional feedback in the form of social approval (i.e., injunctive normative feedback). People whose household energy consumption was below the neighborhood average received a smiley face emoji with their feedback; this simple emoji kept the below-average users at their low usage rate. Interestingly, when the above-average group received a frowny face emoji, they did reduce their energy use somewhat but it provoked some resentment, as Skinner would have predicted.

From Tragedy to Triumph of the Commons

Instructors could present on, or have students generate, behaviorally based solutions to social dilemmas, where short-term self-interest outweighs the long-term, well-being of the larger group – including the selfish individual. For instance:

  1. Reducing the interval between any short-term rewards and the associated long-term punishers (i.e., enhance temporal contiguity);
  2. Add incentives or reinforcers for pro-environmental behavior (ask students for examples);
  3. Add punishers for environmentally damaging behavior (e.g., laws and regulations that punish self-serving behavior); and 
  4. Appeal to moral, religious, or altruistic values (i.e., intrinsic reinforcers).

Have students discuss specific examples, along with pros and cons, of each of these solution approaches. (See further material in Social Psychology including a lecture/discussion topic on the tragedy/triumph of the commons and the social dilemma exercises.) 


Learning To Recycle

This activity applies learning theories and research methods to conservation issues. Specifically, after talking about Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning, and Social Learning theories, have students break into small groups to brainstorm about how to apply each of these theories to acquiring a new proenvironmental behavior (e.g., biking instead of driving; conserving energy or water; bringing one’s own bag to the grocery store, a re-usable mug to a bistro, or tupperware container to a restaurant, etc). Students should use relevant psychological terms (e. g., US, CS, CR; positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment; models of behavior, etc.) to describe their proposed interventions. This is a useful tool for catching gaps in student understanding of these learning theories.

Students could also develop a research project to assess whether their intervention has been effective. Discussion could include why and how certain popular culture interventions work (e. g., the cartoon Captain Planet and the Planeteers). (Contributed by Elise Amel.)

Visiting Walden Two Communities

B. F. Skinner’s titled his 1948 utopian novel about a world based on behaviorist principles Walden Two. The name was derived from transcendentalist, nature writer, Henry David Thoreau’s (1854) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, an autobiographical account of Thoreau’s two-year experiment in “simple living.” Have students visit the website of the intentional “Walden Two community,” Los Horcones in Sonora, Mexico and discuss how it exemplifies “environmental sustainability.”

Reflections On Learning Nature Aversion

Ask students to write a short paper reflecting on their experiences in and with nonhuman nature during very early childhood. Most will report nature fascination and will remember spending hours outside, oblivious to weather conditions, light levels, or “threats” in the environment. Ask how many recall messages like the following:

  • Put your coat on or you will catch a cold.
  • Don’t wade in the creek barefoot, or you might catch a disease.
  • Don’t eat dirt.
  • Don’t touch that [insect, animal, mud puddle]– it’s icky.
  • Don’t climb that tree– you might hurt yourself.
  • Don’t get all wet.
  • You can’t go outside because the weather is too bad.
  • (Ask students to generate their own set of anti-nature messages)

How many students were threatened with punishing consequences if they did not keep their distance from nature? How many recall modeling of nature-aversion from their parents (e. g., fear or disgust at the sight of a rodent or spider, killing of a nonvenomous snake simply because it was in human territory, liberal use of bug spray and other pesticides)? Ask students to consider these experiences in terms of operant learning as well as social learning/modeling. Ask them whether they believe it is possible, and what they think it would take, to relearn how to relate to nonhuman nature as they did prior to such anti-nature experiences.

Think Globally, Act Locally: Self-Change Project

Assign students a personal, behavior modification project to examine one or more environmentally relevant behavior patterns, and attempts to become more aware, to document, and to change the behavior. Examples include becoming zero waste, reducing meat/dairy intake, increasing biking, walking, or public transit, etc. The project should pose a challenge, but also be do-able. What kinds of antecedents and consequences maintain the environmentally harmful behavior(s)?  What kinds of contingency changes would help support the more environmentally responsible choice?  Instructors could first have students submit a topic statement, and then complete progress reports throughout the term (e.g., a small notebook (separate from course notes) with daily entries regarding the project that students could turn in periodically). 

Students write a final paper and/or prepare a presentation that includes outside research (and associated references) on the issue (e.g., why is the behavior environmentally problematic?), and why individual behavioral change is important. Students could also address their overall progress (or lack thereof) in the form of a graph, and their general conclusions, including how they see this change continuing – or not – and the relevant, contributing, psychological factors. (Note that a detailed Self-Change Project adapted from Martin and Pear (2009) is available in the Appendix of Scott, et al., 2016). 

Think Globally, Act Locally: Be a Behavioral Engineer

A community service project involves working in small groups (2-3 students per group) to create campus-wide or community campaigns to influence other individuals’ environmentally related behaviors. Students could utilize techniques from Community Based Social Marketing in order to create their campaign. Consider posing the following questions to help students develop or refine their materials:

  • What do you know about the audience you’re trying to influence?
  • What specific behavior(s) are you focusing on?  
  • What benefits can people attain by changing the targeted behavior?
  • What are the barriers to changing this behavior?
  • How will the program be advertised/promoted? Is there a “sustainable” way of doing so? 
  • How will success be measured?
  • Are there any potential unintended consequences you can foresee? How might you avoid them?  

Students could give a final presentation about their project and its success, including a discussion of the psychological factors on which they based their intervention, and the factors that affected their audience’s compliance (or lack thereof).

Multimedia Resources

Websites: “Walden Two” Communities

Website: Center for Research on Environmental Decisions

A group of researchers developed this guide on how to communicate about climate change, including some behaviorally-based principles.

Websites: Resources For Green Living

Once students begin to understand the importance of individual behavioral change, they are typically hungry for guidance on how to begin moving in a sustainable direction. The websites listed below offer some good resources:

Suggested Readings For Students

Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (2009). The Psychology of Climate Change Communication: A guide for scientists, journalists, educators, political aides, and the interested public. New York.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. A., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Psychology for Sustainability (4th ed), Appendix: Self-Change Project.  New York: Routledge.

References Cited In This Section

Abrahamse, W. & Steg, L. (2013). Social influence approaches to encourage resource conservation: A meta-analysis. Global Environmental Change, 23, 1773 – 1785.

Abrahamse, W., Steg, L., Vlek, C., & Rothengatter, T. (2007). The effect of tailored infor­mation, goal setting, and tailored feedback on household energy use, energy‐related behaviors and behavioral antecedents. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 27, 265–276.

Casey, L., & Lloyd, M. (1977). Cost and effectiveness of litter removal procedures in an amusement park. Environment and Behavior, 535-546.

Deci, E. L., Koestner, R., & Ryan, R. M. (1999). A meta-analytic review of experiments examining the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 125, 627-668.

Everett, P. B. (1981). Reinforcement theory strategies for modifying transit ridership. Human Behavior & Environment: Advances in Theory & Research, 5, 63-84.

Gatersleben, B., Murtagh, N., & Abrahamse, W. (2014). Values, identity and pro-environmental behaviour. Contemporary Social Science, 9, 374-392. 

Geller, E. S., Abrahamse, W., Guan, B., & Sussman, R. (2016). Applying behavioral science for environmental sustainability. In R. Gifford (Ed.), Research Methods for Environmental Psychology, (pp. 307 – 322).  West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Lokhorst, A. M., Werner, C., Staats, H., van Dijk, E., & Gale, J. L. (2013). Commitment and behavior change: A meta‐analysis and critical review of commitment‐making strategies in environmental research. Environment and Behavior, 45, 3–34.

Martin, G., & Pear, J. (2009). Behavior modification: What it is and how to do it (8th ed.). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Osbaldiston, R., & Schott, J. P. (2012). Environmental sustainability and behavioral science: Meta-analysis of proenvironmental behavior experiments. Environmental Behavior, 44, 257-299.

Schultz, P.W., Nolan, J.M., Cialdini, R.B., Goldstein, N.J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological Science, 18, 429-434.

Scott, B. A., Amel, E. A., Koger, S. M., & Manning, C. M. (2016). Psychology for sustainability (4th ed). New York: Routledge.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1987). Upon further reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Thoreau, H. D. (1854). Walden; or, Life in the woods. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.