In this episode
Colleen and Susan discuss:
- how a behavioral science approach can help move the dial on fighting climate change
- how many small groups and communities are making big changes
- how many options there are for getting involved
Timing and cues
Interview part 1 (2:08-13:34)
Interview part 2 (14:17-28:21)
Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald
- Tools of Change: Proven Methods for Promoting Health, Safety and Environmental Citizenship
- Cooler Smarter: Practical Tips for Low-Carbon Living
- The Parents' Guide to Climate Revolution: 100 Ways to Build a Fossil-Free Future, Raise Empowered Kids, and Still Get a Good Night's Sleep
- The Guide to Greening Cities
- The Science of Consequences
Colleen: It is somehow simultaneously true that in our lives, change is constant… and making changes is hard. It’s also simultaneously true that while individual choices don’t affect our changing climate on a large scale… we should still try our best to make climate-friendly choices, because smaller actions do add up.
So holding those two contradicting thoughts, how can we make changes in our lives that will allow us to do our part to avoid climate catastrophe? And then, how can we move beyond personal changes… to influencing our friends and neighbors to also make these changes? What about our towns and cities? Or our states? Or even the entire country? Can my reusable grocery bags inspire a movement?
Joining me today to discuss what we need to do, individually and collectively, to change our lives and make them more sustainable… is climate activist, behavioral psychologist, and award-winning author Susan Schneider. Susan applies her training in behavioral science to help people understand what motivates others to make climate-friendly choices, so that we can all make these choices, and change our lives, more easily. Before moving to Michigan, where she teaches psychology at Western Michigan University, Dr. Schneider co-founded her local Climate Action Coalition in California.
Susan and I discussed why habits are so hard to change, how we manage to change them anyway, and why I might have become so strangely competitive over riding my bicycle.
Colleen: Susan, welcome to the podcast.
Susan: Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity.
Colleen: You've had a very interesting career trajectory. You started off as an engineer, then switched to psychology, focusing on learning processes and behavior analysis. And your work now focuses on how we can apply behavioral science to the climate crisis. Susan, I have so many questions for you, but let's start with the science. What are the basic learning principles of behavioral psychology?
Susan: Indeed. It is based on fundamental learning principles like positive reinforcement, and a great deal more. Positive reinforcement itself sounds fairly simple. But like so many things in life, there's obviously a great deal more to it than that. For example, positive reinforcers come in many dimensions, big versus small, natural versus artificial, intrinsic versus extrinsic, immediate versus delayed. And all of that has important applications when we develop sustainability interventions.
Colleen: And what are some of the other principles you looked at?
Susan: We sometimes refer to the ABCs, Colleen, in terms of antecedents in the environment, and then the behavior, and its consequences. And there's more than that, too. There's a larger context, for example. There's history. And, all of these many factors interact in complex ways, but the basic idea of learning from consequences is pretty simple, really. And you can see how useful that is, and why that capability evolved very early in the history of multicellular life.
Colleen: As you're talking about this, I can't help but think about when I was first training my puppy and I often felt like I was reinforcing the bad habits orthe bad behavior! Tell me how this works, with people, and particularly, when we're trying to change someone’s behavior toward more green, sustainable habits.
Susan: I think I'd like to mention behavioral economics in answering that question, because it's one of the popular interdisciplinary approaches to sustainability, that includes all kinds of fields, economics, obviously, but also many parts of psychology, including my area of behavior analysis.
And the consequences that are important in learning principles are just so ubiquitous that you find them everywhere. And the principles interact with all these other fields in the behavioral sciences. It's really valuable now that we're all working together on the climate crisis, because we need all the different elements if we're going to address it sufficiently.
Colleen: Well, it's so true. And I have to ask you this question. Why isn't the science and data enough to get people to change their behavior?
Susan: There's quite a number of reasons for that. Obviously, it depends on the individual and the situation. So, often, information alone is not enough to get people to change their behavior. We see that with diet and exercise. People know they should exercise more. It can be hard to do unless you have extra help of some kind. Two of the barriers to getting people to change their behavior to be greener were investigated by an American Psychological Association Task Force that found that we have old habits built in the developed world on our fossil fuel infrastructure. And we're used to that, it's easier, it often pays off more.
So, transitioning to a new habit is not easy. So that's a reason. This feeling of futility that a lot of us have too, because the climate crisis is such a huge problem, with so many different aspects that need to be addressed, we feel like what we can do in our own lives or neighborhoods is just a drop in the bucket, so that's a motivation challenge. There's also lack of knowledge in some cases. That makes it hard for people to be willing to make the changes that we need for sustainability. Role models help. Some people have them, some don't. Social support. The fact that these greenhouse gases are invisible too is a real problem, because with smog, everyone can see, yep, we got serious air pollution here.
With greenhouse gas emissions, you can't see it. I think we could be doing more with feedback, to make clear that, yep, we're chucking them out there like crazy. And, likewise, when we make progress with reducing our greenhouse gas emissions, we don't see that like we did with reducing smog.
Colleen: What are some strategies we can use to actually begin to change our habits?
Susan: Well, there's quite a few. Doing what we need to do to establish new habits, including things like extra social support. Just recognition, for example. If you start to bike to work, or carpool, or move to a more plant-based diet, etc. New social norms. It took a while for people in the U.S. to begin recycling on a regular basis. Now, for most of us, that is quite an automatic habit. We need to move along with that kind of effect for other green social norms that help us fight the climate crisis.
Making pledges and commitments is a very good motivation method, especially if at least one other person knows and can hold you to it. And it's just reinforcing when you see that you are meeting a challenge that you've set for yourself,. Recording progress, again, like I referred to before, I think we could be doing a lot more to establish new habits, by showing people that it's not futile, that we are making a difference, we are reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. And we need to show people that, because it's very reinforcing. All the money that you save. In many cases, that's delayed, unfortunately. And so, rewards that are delayed are not as effective as immediate rewards, usually, but you can have rebates that are available very quickly to help bridge those delays.
Colleen: I'd love it if you could share some examples. I know we've talked previously about the website Tools of Change, that has just amazing resources. But I wonder if you could give us a few examples of projects that groups have taken on and had success with.
Susan: Yes, absolutely. And I want to reinforce what you said about Tools of Change. It's a wonderful resource. It's got everything you need to know, with these inspiring successes that can be applied at the community level. And you can really have an impact. It's not quite like, you know, a national policy level. But when our neighborhood school districts, local businesses, local government, and health care networks, that's quite substantial, if you get sustainable practices incorporating at that level. It really does add up. It's not just like one individual changing their light bulbs. So, one example I like to use that is in the Tools of Change database, and that's a freely-available database is a whole Minnesota school district that qualified as an Energy Star, believe it or not.
And the Cambridge-Isanti districts, let's give them a shout out, in Minnesota, was the first in the state.They developed a multi-year program based on green teams, involving faculty, staff, and students brainstorming about how to cut back their fossil fuel use, their electricity use, in any way they could. And you have then the team dynamics, with the social reinforcers. And they provided immediate reinforcement when they found people who were cutting back on greenhouse gas emissions, saving electricity. They took advantage also of school rivalries within the district. If there was a sports rivalry, well, let's have an energy-cutting rivalry now too.
And they used inexpensive incentives, like public recognition, which are very effective, but don't cost a lot of money for cash-strapped school districts. And over a period of multiple years, they saved millions of dollars for the school districts that went into school programs instead of carbon pollution.
Colleen: So, it's so interesting, I think the school rivalry is an amazing example. I'll tell you a quick story about UCS. Pre-COVID, every May, we would have Bike to Work Month, and, we'd have a rivalry going between our offices. And, even getting something as small as this daily sticker that shows that you rode your bike to work, it's really amazing how small the reward can be, to give you the incentive, , to do something.
Susan: That is really true. And some projects have really taken advantage of that in very clever ways, I think. I could give you an example of that, if you like. The Vermont utility, perhaps.
Colleen: Yes, please.
Susan: Okay. the automatic incentive that many people think of to get sustainable practices going is financial And, of course, , that can be very effective. However, it's not always the best choice. It doesn't even always work. And a good example is from a utility in Vermont, one of the major utilities in Vermont, which had a problem, because, like everywhere else, Vermont is getting more heat waves. And that was a problem for their system. They were having to go outside of their normal network, and having to charge more. No one was happy.
So they wanted to limit peak demand during the summer, with the air conditioning use. They used a method called Time-of-Use pricing, which is quite common, and normally works. It means that they charged more per kilowatt hour during the afternoon and early evening, when the demand for air conditioning was the highest. This pricing approach, again, normally works, but in this case, let's face it, it wasn't that much of an extra cost, and Vermonters turned out to be willing to pay more to be comfortable, so it failed. The utility then tried something really innovative. Talk about thinking outside the box. They told everyone... And remember, this is Vermont, so it's a small state. They told all of their utility customers that if as a group, the peak level of demand during the next heat wave would stay below a certain level, then the utility would donate $1,000 to a local animal shelter.
Obviously, the charity needs to be non-controversial. People thought this was so neat. They talked about it, the utility provided feedback, and it worked. And the next heat wave, they used a domestic violence shelter, and that worked too. And this kind of gives you hope for human nature.
Colleen: One of the fascinating aspects to the work that you do is figuring out what will work and what won’t. Can you share the example of trying to implement an idle-free zone at, I believe it was a middle school?
Susan: Yes. That was one I was involved with directly, with the Climate Action Coalition I co-founded. In the Central Valley of California, there's a big air pollution problem, just, you know, geography, even before climate change took hold. Asthma is common. And it turns out that you don't need to idle an internal combustion engine vehicle more than 10 seconds. That's from the manufacturers, as well as from independent scientific assessments. And so this is a win-win-win situation, where, if you cut back on unnecessarily idling at school pickup and drop-off spots, then there's less air pollution, it's better for the children's health, you save money on fuel, and, of course, you help address the climate crisis a bit. You don't even really have to mention that, though, do you?
And so, all schools in our county got these signs, and yet many schools did not post them. So, it sort of illustrates how it could be helpful to look at the barriers to the community-level changes that you want, you know, for your local business, your local school district, in this case. Why were so many of the schools not posting the signs? And it could have been that there wasn't a good place to put them, or it might have been an extra expense. Maybe it just wasn't a priority for busy school administrators. It's hard to know. And so, we ended up lobbying school district leaders, and trying to work on the challenge that way, and to get more signs posted, and just as we were getting some traction, COVID hit, and no one was going to school.
So, we tried anyway. And there's certainly been a number of other projects out there to try and get people to idle less. And we saw before, information alone often is not sufficient. So, there's a number of projects designed to go beyond just information, to get parents to not idle when they're picking up and dropping off their kids. And the one that we decided to try and incorporate in our county was Idle-Free California, based on an EPA resource.. In this case, middle school students, I think this is what you were referring to, actually, middle school students, typically, they take data on idling at the pickup and drop-off spots before they do the project.
Then, once they've got the data, the students themselves contact the drivers. They give them an information flyer about why you don't need to idle, and they try and get them to sign pledges that they will stop. And then they give them a reminder decal that they can put on their vehicle, because there's the signal in the environment that'll help you remember. Then, after that, they wait a few weeks and they take data again, and data from Vermont and California, idling dropped by as much as 40% to 50%.
Colleen: That's amazing.
Susan: Yeah. And then, hopefully, once the parents learn, they have a new habit established, they idle less at other locations too. At least that's the hope.
Colleen: I just love that example, because it really illustrates the importance of how we communicate. Printing the data on a sign didn’t work, but getting students involved in a science project and then communicating the results directly to the parents—that’s what worked. I just find that so interesting.
Susan: Yes. Anything we can do to motivate ourselves, and then get support as we transition. Again, social support is critical. Making a pledge can be very helpful, recording progress, making it fun, having something to bridge that delay until the new habit is established.
Colleen: So, how important is the timing of the reward?
Susan: That's a whole area in itself, frankly, of, if I might comment on delay discounting, this is a major element in behavioral economics, that interdisciplinary approach to sustainability that I mentioned. The idea is that when a reward is delayed, it usually lowers its value. A hundred dollars in a year is worth a lot less than $100 now, for most of us, for example.
And this is a big factor behind the climate crisis itself, since the worst consequences are delayed. Many people are suffering now for poor decisions made in the 1990s, where the immediate reinforcers outweighed the larger, later rewards of getting greenhouse gas emissions under control, unfortunately. This drop-off in value is steep at first, and then it levels off, and it's described by a hyperbolic model. And that was discovered by people in my field of behavior analysis. But people in many fields have found ways to bridge those delays, so that we're more likely to make the wiser choice. And that includes establishing new habits, certainly. So, anything you can get that will be an immediate reinforcement, such as those badges and extra recognition at work that a lot of companies and nonprofits are using, I think, and that really can make a difference.
Colleen: How important is feedback when we're trying to change our habits?
Susan: Yes. I'm so glad you asked that. It's a ubiquitous feature of many sustainability interventions, and it has multiple behavioral functions. When we get feedback, we can learn about how we're doing, and that information then can also be rewarding in itself. We can see if we're making progress or not. When the Prius came out, for example, drivers could suddenly see their fuel economy in real time, as they're driving.
Colleen: Right. On the dashboard.
Susan: That's right.
Colleen: I loved that feature. I loved that feature.
Susan: And people started driving more efficiently. And in fact, a group called hypermilers began competing against each other to see what fuel economy levels they could achieve. And in the last pre-COVID Hybrid Fest, the winner of a fuel economy race achieved an astonishing 180 miles per gallon.
Susan: Yeah. It speaks to the power of immediate feedback. It can be very reinforcing.
Colleen: So, let's talk a little bit about shaping and reinforcing progress. Tell me about that.
Susan: Yes. This also is a fairly common phenomenon, where you want to meet people where they're at when you're trying to get them to transition to a new habit. You don't expect people to change overnight, basically. So, someone who has always driven just themselves to work is not going to suddenly start biking every day without a lot of help. I mean, maybe even not at all. But to get employees just to try biking to work, an organization would make it easy by providing bike racks and showers, information about bike routes and bike-friendly public transit. In many cases, you can stick your bike on a bus. I have done this, or on the subway train. And so, that amplifies your potential for being able to commute fairly long distances, not just in your neighborhood.
So, in other words, you don't have to be the world's best, Tour de France bicyclist to do this Beyond that, once you provide all the supportive information, it's really helpful to show a lot of appreciation for the very first time that someone tries biking to work.And then companies can provide badges or some kind of perk for employees who bike in at least once a week, say, and the badges then also serve the function of signaling to others that, yes, this is doable, and people start talking about it.
Colleen: Right. I know that one works because during our Bike to Work month, I wanted that sticker and I also discovered that I have quite a competitive streak. So, the idea is that you start out small and as you get positive cues, you refine and hopefully your’e building up the new habit and you’ll sustain that habit.
Susan: right? Something like that... I should also mention the technical definition, since this is a science podcast, of shaping, it's rewarding successive approximations to a green goal. So, again, you could start out very simple, and then you work up from there. It's kind of like that old childhood game, "Cold, Warm, Hot."
Colleen: Right. "I'm thinking of something in the room." And then you go and try to find it. And I tell you if you're close or far away by saying, "Cold...
Susan: Exactly. Yes.
Colleen: ...warm, hot." Yeah. Right. So, there's one other aspect of these basic learning principles, and that's consequences, signals, and schedules.
Susan: Yes. there's so much going on. There's environmental signals, and behaviors, and consequences interacting in very complex ways. Schedules of reinforcement help describe those relationships. And they're everywhere in everyday life. If you look out a window at a nice view, every time you look out, you see the view. It's a one-to-one relationship. But most schedules of reinforcement are far more complicated. You don't get the consequence every time you do the behavior. In a variable schedule of reinforcement, you might have to wait a while, or you might have to do the behavior multiple times. Frequently, though, a variable schedule will mean that the very next time you try, there's that possibility of succeeding, like in gambling.
And this feature makes variable schedules highly motivating, which is a big problem for gambling, but it's marvelous for people who are trying to leverage limited resources for a sustainability project. Like. Lotteries also are frequently used, taking advantage of this power of variable schedules.
Colleen: So how would you use this in a real-world example?
Susan: In one study in the 1970s, a trucking company with 200 drivers wanted to save on fuel by getting their drivers to drive more efficiently, thus, of course, as a side benefit, also saving on air pollution and carbon pollution. The baseline fuel economy in those semis back then was only 4.8 miles per gallon. And it's not that much better now, from what I could find out, actually. It's only 6 to 7. It's a good thing that we do have electric trucks now starting to hit the road.
Anyway, after a training session, increasing their fuel economy got these truck drivers a nice letter in their files from their supervisor. And that worked for a while to get them to increase their efficient driving, but it didn't last. And the company added extra social attention. And that helped for a while too, but that also stopped. What really worked was adding a weekly lottery. And that was successful enough that was eventually reduced to bi-weekly, and then monthly. And eventually, I'm sure, eliminated altogether after the study ended. The goal was to develop new green habits. And it worked. And it wasn't expensive to do. What gets me about this study is that the incentives were not substantial things like dinners at a fancy restaurant, say. They were smaller items like pen sets with the company logo. I kid you not, pen sets with the company logo. Yeah. It shows the power of variable schedules.
Colleen: it's interesting too, because it seems like you needed to build on that. The simple letter, yeah, that was nice, but to sustain that habit, and, you needed to kind of up the ante a little bit. But you didn't have to go overboard.
Susan: Exactly. And then once you did have enough of an incentive so that the truckers got into this new habit, once you have the new habit, then, you know, you're set. It will continue... usually then it becomes automatic.
Colleen: So, Susan, you’ve provided us with some really great, practical information on how we can develop these new habits. How do we get started?
Susan: Yes. There's so many things you can do. One thing is just to work within your own network, or to join a group, because there's so many out there working on the various aspects of climate change. Another is to not reinvent the wheel, and find projects that are already successful elsewhere, and try and get those incorporated in a local business, or local government, or school district, etc.
Again, the Tools of Change website has a very useful planning guide that helps people or groups decide on a project to begin with, because it's so hard to prioritize. And then, once you do have a project, the website will take you through each step of the process, from finding partners, to choosing appropriate methods to use, the right incentives, for example, methods of dissemination. And then, very important, I think, getting some kind of metric. to see if the project really made a difference, just like the kids took the before-and-after data for that school idling project, few things are as motivating as seeing that, yes, you did make a difference, the project did cause greenhouse gas emissions to decline, and we're making progress.
Colleen: Susan, thank you so much for joining me. You’ve inspired me to kick off my own project. I’ve started buying bulk, eco-friendly cleaning products and I’m going to get a group of friends to join me. Listeners, please go to the show notes page at gotsciencepodcast.org for tons of resources on how to start up a project of your own.
Susan: Well, I think that's a great idea you had about buying things in bulk, Colleen. Good luck with that, and getting people in your network doing that. And thank you so much for having me. We can make a difference.